It’s likely that most teachers will have one or more students with autism in their classrooms, as more than one percent of the world population has been diagnosed with autism. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach — students with autism have a diverse range of abilities, needs, and challenges — here are just a few ways you can support them in your classroom or at home.
5 Tips for Supporting Students with Autism
With input from autism teaching experts, here’s a list of 5 things that you can do to support the varying needs of students with autism in your classroom.
Visuals are helpful, but they’re not the only strategy.
Something that many individuals with autism have in common is that they have difficulty processing language. Because of this, visual cues — such as daily visual schedules, contingency maps, and visual timers — can serve as helpful reminders for students about classroom rules or what they can expect throughout the day. However, sometimes visuals are used as a catch-all strategy. If visual supports help your students with autism, great! But if not, there are other strategies you can use (or pair with visuals) to support your students, including verbal cues and modeling.
“[While] visual supports offer an additional source of input that can be beneficial to students with autism,” says S.B. from Autism Classroom, a former autism education specialist, “other strategies can help too, such as, using words to provide reassurance, preparing students for transitions with verbal reminders, and utilizing objects for them to hold during transitions. With providing reassurance, some students only need to hear that it is going to be fine to believe for themselves that it is, in fact, going to be alright. In preparing for transitions, something like providing a verbal one-minute warning can be done by simply saying, ‘We have one more minute’ and showing a picture icon with an image and words that say ‘one minute.’ When utilizing objects during transitions, keep in mind that objects like schedule cards, picture icons, or the materials for the lesson may help the student with processing what they will be doing in the upcoming activity. If more is needed, consider teaching students the skills they need through worksheets, role playing and practice.”
Keep your spoken directions simple.
Following a long set of directions is difficult for most students. It’s especially challenging for students with autism who might struggle with oral language processing. Keep any oral directions short and to the point. In many cases, it can be helpful to give one or two directions at a time in order to allow students to concentrate on completing one or two tasks at a time before moving on to subsequent directions and tasks.
Provide safe spaces in your classroom.
Many things can be distracting or overwhelming to students with autism. Things like buzzing fluorescent lights or noises in the classroom can make it difficult for students with autism to concentrate. In these cases, students might need a quiet place to retreat (one that’s not a place for punishment). Stan from 3D-PT, an autistic educator who is a CTE / STEM teacher at TACT (Teaching the Autism Community Trades), recommends providing a way out, or a safety valve, for the students on the spectrum in the event they begin to feel overloaded. “If there is a card or signal they can discreetly use to say ‘I need a break’ [or] ‘I’m having a bad time,’ then practice using it together,” he says. “It can be difficult for the student to focus if they are overwhelmed or overstimulated. Work out a quiet spot outside the class that they can go to, along with the rules for it (e.g., you can work here for 10 min while you decompress).”
Reach out to students’ caregivers and families.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to students’ families (or ask the students themselves) if you’re not sure how you make the classroom a more accommodating and safe space for students with autism. Parents and caregivers are generally the experts on their children and are a valuable resource for finding out more about a student and their preferences (e.g., what makes the student feel comfortable, if there’s anything they’re sensitive to, or if there’s anything they don’t particularly like).
Foster a mindset of acceptance and empowerment.
Helping students understand and value differences is the foundation for building positive classroom communities where all students feel accepted, safe, and empowered. Part of that work is accepting and honoring students’ differences and needs. But the other part is done by holding up and valuing their strengths. One way to do this is by teaching about the contributions and accomplishments of individuals who are autistic. Another way to do this is by empowering students with autism to showcase their skills, and giving them the space to share their experiences and to make their voices heard.
One last thing to remember is that there is no single presentation of autism. People with autism are as different from one another as neurotypical people are, and part of supporting students — whether they’re autistic or not — is recognizing those differences and finding ways to adapt your support to meet every student’s needs.
If you’re looking for teaching resources and activities to support students with autism in the classroom or virtually, check out this curated list of resources.