As a parent of a child with autistic, I dreaded the after-dinner phone calls from my son’s general classroom teacher.
More often than not, the conversation would begin with them saying how much they appreciated Ryan and enjoyed having him as a student, and although I very much appreciated these sentiments, I would steel myself for the second half of the conversation and the real reason for the call on a school night… they were having difficulty with Ry and could I possibly offer any strategies or solutions that might provide help so that he be more successful in the classroom. (insert: manifest less behavior problems)
As a Mom, I felt like I couldn’t help because I did not know this Ryan. I was unfamiliar with the child that was dealing with 30 plus students and six class periods per day. The person I knew was an only child, living in a supportive, quiet, and accommodating home.
I could provide de-escalation or behavioral modification techniques that I used at home, but I didn’t believe the crossover would be effective in his middle or high school environment. However, as an educator, I could use my training, experiences and resources to create a foundational model of best practices to support ASD students in the classroom.
Realizing that I could illicit change, I got to work. Over the course of a year, I developed a simple training/communication tool to provide parents and teachers guidelines to create a safe learning community for ASD students.
To begin, educators need to have a basic understanding of Autistic students. Every day, these children enter a world that they struggle to understand, emotionally survive, and navigate. In a task/test oriented educational system, teachers sprint to complete their national and state mandated outcomes and that oftentimes does not give them time to meet the basic needs of all of their students.
The result is that our special children are square pegs being poorly placed into round holes and teachers feel overwhelmed because they do not have the training to help this ever-growing population of students.
A basic framework of understanding is needed
- ASD students can be easily overwhelmed and may need quiet pull out space and adequate time to process. It is up to the student to determine that timeline, not the teacher. Also, the student may need stand, fidget or pace to reduce stress and redirect their frustration.
- It can take longer for the autistic student to tease out what is being said to them. They may need to consider ever iteration of what certain words or phrases may mean before they can respond.
Routine is paramount to lowering or alleviating anxiety
- Consistency with assignment location on whiteboards
- Permission to sit in the same seat, maybe close to the door or with their back to the wall
- Repeated timing prompts and extra allowance of time for task completion.
- A necessity to prevent meltdown/shutdown
- Access to daily classroom activities beforehand…weekly class calendars
- With those fundamental ideas in mind, I use five indicators (sound, sight, smell, personal space and communication) to provide simple solutions for a more comfortable learning environment.
- Turn down the volume on videos, group work and instruction
- Understand that even though loud noises can be difficult, the student may struggle with their own volume
- Bright and flickering lights (fluorescent) are distracting and can be painful to the eyes, floor lamps/natural light are good alternatives
- Put away the classroom clutter and limit wall postings
- Wear more plain clothes. Your favorite scarf or tie may be too much
- Visual processing may be slow: provide more time and another mode for learning (auditory, kinesthetic)
- Limit excessive or rapid movement, visual tracking may be poor
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- Limit food, perfume, cologne, scented soaps, and lotions
- Lab chemicals may be intolerable
- Understand that personal hygiene may be challenging: it’s isolating and other children can be unkind
Personal Space and Identity:
- Personal proximities can be daunting. Make sure that the ASD student is given a lot of personal space even though they may not understand their own proximity to peers.
- Stimming: allow for self-stimulating behavior. It acts as a valve to decrease anxiety and reduce frustration
- Scripting: repeating the same information over and over can bring relief (see stimming) and may also be the way in which the student processes information
Communication: How can the teacher support
- Turn down the stoke, turn up the Zen: autistic children are hypersensitive to emotion
- Provide clear and consistent expectations/inference is a no-no
- Reduce multi-step directions and provide directions in print
- Accommodate slower processing speed and understand that their problem-solving skills are very different but equally effective
- Keep language clean (idioms and metaphors are confusing)
- Minimize complex and layered conversations
- Try to make connections of information in very unexpected ways
- Infusing these ideas and providing training for my colleagues has been a game changer for the neurodiverse student population on campus. The faculty better understand ways to support and provide a more inclusive learning community for their ASD students and these students have a more positive experience. It is my hope that these small suggestions will resonate and provide tools for your child’s teacher.
Love the life you live.
This article was featured in Issue 100 – Best Tools And Strategies For Autism