How to Improve Important Skills Through Special Accommodations at School

Although students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) vary greatly across multiple domains such as age, intellectual ability, social and communication development, degree of behavioral challenges and family support, there are some accommodations and procedures that are helpful to very many students with ASD as they attempt to maintain behavioral self-control and make progress in their education.

How to Improve Important Skills Through Special Accommodations at School

Teams who individualize both expectations and accommodations for their students generally see the most progress, and parents are vital to this process. Take a look at some school accommodations you and your child’s team can use to improve skills in the classroom and in daily life:

Use a visual schedule

The first and nearly universally used accommodation is the visual schedule. Even for children who have memorized the routine, having the schedule accessible to the child in a visual or tactile form helps decrease problems with anxiety, transitional delays, and behavioral upsets. It is seen primarily as a tool to provide the predictability and structure which people with autism crave and secondarily to be a way to indicate changes in expected events. In addition, I use it as a tool for developing independence and sometimes as a significant part of incentive plans to change specific behaviors.

Develop a measured, predictable routine

Having an unhurried, predictable routine to the day with minimal times when children are waiting with no assigned activity is also important. Although a student with autism may be able to wait a very long time if engaged in a favored activity like reading or using the computer, he/she typically is not good at waiting when he/she doesn’t have something specific to do and is especially likely to become active, confused or agitated if other students are moving around the room and talking to each other. Having to transition away from an activity he has not finished is often stressful and may require support in the moment and repeated direct practice learning to leave things to finish later.

Utilize paraprofessional help

A student on the autism spectrum, even a highly intelligent one, will usually require a far higher percentage of the teacher’s time and attention than will most of his/her classmates.  Therefore, these children often, but not always, need paraprofessional help, especially in classroom settings. Sometimes this is a one-to-one relationship and sometimes just an extra adult helping several students will suffice. I often recommend supported instruction in areas of significant weakness and group participation for activities that are the child’s strengths. When the adult helper is calm, relaxed, and quick to help when needed and to fade help that isn’t needed, the student is more likely to be less anxious, more productive and increasingly independent.

Match academic expectations

Also important are academic expectations that are matched to the child’s cognitive developmental level, which may be significantly above or below his/her grade level, or above in some ways and below in others. Academic scatter is very common in the ASD population, with decoding often much better than reading comprehension, factual knowledge stronger than reasoning and judgment, math and science usually better than written composition, and handwriting often difficult and frustrating.  Maintaining success and forward progress from the child’s present ability level is much more important than trying to do everything the mainstream grade is doing. Many classroom behavioral problems of children on the autism spectrum can be traced to difficulty with competence or anxiety about expectations they aren’t able to meet.

Request fewer words and more demonstration

Being wrong or not knowing how to do a task or being confused by the language of instruction often upsets children on the autism spectrum. Many will automatically refuse a new activity or task in order to avoid the stress of trying something new. Learning in a large group is especially challenging. Teachers sometimes feel the child doesn’t understand what to do because he left to go to the bathroom while directions were being given, but often this departure appears to be the child’s attempt to avoid verbal directions he doesn’t readily understand.  Fewer words and more demonstration are usually more effective than multiple attempts to verbally explain something another way.  The two most important adult words may be “I’ll help.”

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Take breaks

Many students with autism need a space away from the crowd. This could be a carrel in the classroom, a small “office,” a desk facing away from busy classmates, or permission to go to the library or sit by the nurse’s office if a high school class becomes overwhelming. Having a retreat of some sort, whether to take a break or to work and to learn to politely advocate to use it, can avoid many classroom meltdowns and shutdowns.

Use sensory aids

Similarly, sensory aids like fidgets and seat discs, and opportunities for sensory breaks, especially those that allow for deep pressure, joint compression and repetitive physical movements like walking and swinging benefit many students on the autism spectrum. They can be very helpful for maintaining general emotional equilibrium, preventing stress from flaring to the rage level, and helping students recover from emotional meltdowns.

Develop an incentive plan

Since students with autism often lack the motivation to follow an agenda, perform a task or study a topic, not of their own choosing, incentive plans are often vital to maintain cooperation and make headway. Often, these students also need direct practice in accepting the consequences, but I generally find reinforcement plans, frequently based on an individual or group token economy, to be more beneficial in helping them develop self-control or become more productive and independent.  Of course, it is ideal when any student can comply with regular school rules and be intrinsically motivated to do his or her best, but when that does not happen, incentive plans can make a huge difference.

Direct practice, visual supports, and incentive plans can also help children with autism improve independence in social, and life skills, few of which seem to be easily acquired naturally, but true social understanding and independent common sense judgment may remain elusive.

The problems of autism are nobody’s fault, but the procedures described here are at least a part of the solution, and the synergy of a team working together is probably one of the best supports a student with an autism spectrum disorder can have.

This article was featured in Issue 81 – Building Self-Esteem in Kids with Autism

Elizabeth "Betsey" Field

Elizabeth "Betsey" Field lived in Maine until 2015 and had a rewarding career as a speech-language pathologist working in a state institution, community agencies, schools, a university, and private practice. The majority of that time she was serving as a consultant to school teams and to families working with children and young adults diagnosed on the autism spectrum with a focus on increasing communication, independence, and appropriate social behavior. Betsey now lives in Massachusetts, where she works part-time, maintains some long-distance consultation in Maine and enjoys having four grandchildren nearby.