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9 Effective Ways to Motivate Students with Autism

May 1, 2024

Have you ever found yourself puzzled, trying to ignite that spark of motivation in your students, particularly when motivating students with autism? You’re certainly not in this alone. 

The secret lies in deeply understanding what drives each child. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have a wide range of needs, interests, and developmental challenges, with each child presenting a unique set of challenges and passions. 

Let’s explore nine effective strategies to fuel their interest and enhance their learning experience.

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Important Strategies that Can Help Autistic Kids

in the Classroom

1. Understand individual challenges

Each kid with autism is on their own unique journey. For example, one child could be all about dinosaurs, knowing every fact there is to know. On the other hand, another child might hate dinosaurs but love everything about numbers or music. 

Teachers tuning into these interests and challenges isn’t just nice – it’s a game-changer and one of the key factors to making school somewhere an autistic child enjoys going.

2. Establish a supportive and inclusive environment

Teachers creating a space where they encourage learning and where every student feels safe and supported is like laying down the foundation for a house. It’s what everything else is built on. Small adjustments can make a massive difference in a child’s motivation. 

Think about it – many children have a favorite home setting where they feel most at ease. Kids with autism are no different. They thrive in environments where they know what to expect and feel shielded from sensory overload.

A designated chill-out zone can be ideal for a student who’s feeling overwhelmed. It’s about crafting an environment that says, “Hey, it’s okay. You can be yourself here.”

3. Establish structure and routine

Routine is like a roadmap for kids with autism. It shows them where they’re headed and what to expect, reducing the anxiety and challenging behaviors that come with uncertainty. Clear, predictable schedules are like telling them, “Here’s how our day’s going to look.”

But it’s not just about having a routine – it’s about sticking to it. Sure, life has unexpected moments, but the more we can stick to our planned schedule, the more secure and focused the children will feel. And when changes are unavoidable, give a heads-up.

4. Make sure learning is fun

Putting some fun into the mix can be a great way to impact motivation for students with autism. When kids are having fun, they soak up every bit of knowledge without even realizing they’re learning.

Students learning through playing with legos
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/motivating-students-with-autism/

For example, learning math through cooking by measuring ingredients is math in action. It’s all about boosting creativity and seeing where that leads you and your students to get the skills needed.

5. Encourage interaction

Socializing can be tough for children with autism. But, like anything else, practice makes perfect. Encouraging interaction in a structured way can open up a whole new world for them.

Group projects, paired activities, or even just a structured playtime can help them develop those all-important social skills. The trick is to keep it structured and predictable so they know what to expect. 

6. Give them opportunities to choose

Choice is a powerful thing that can help children with their motivation. It gives kids a sense of control and ownership over their learning. For students with autism, this can be a big deal.

It’s like saying, “You’re in the driver’s seat.” And when you’re motivating children that way? You engage their interest more.

How about letting them choose which book to read for a project? Even small choices can have a big impact, encouraging independence and boosting motivation.

7. Make preferred activities follow the less preferred

We all have certain tasks we’re not thrilled about. For kids with autism, tackling those less preferred tasks can be a tad easier if they know something that interests them is coming up next. It may also reduce challenging behavior.

Perhaps it’s working through a challenging math sheet with the promise of playtime afterward. It’s the anticipation of the fun activity that can keep autistic children highly motivated.

8. Keep tasks simple and achievable 

Breaking down tasks into smaller, manageable chunks can help students with autism tackle them without feeling overwhelmed. It’s about setting them up for successful outcomes and new skills, such as independent learning, step by step.

And when they nail it? Celebrate those wins, no matter how small.

9. Use positive reinforcement and rewards 

Positive reinforcement is important in motivating autistic children. It’s about catching them doing something great, such as learning a new skill, and celebrating it.

Maybe it’s extra time with a favorite toy or having a favorite snack. The key? Make it specific to what motivates them personally. When they see that their efforts lead to positive outcomes, it encourages them to keep up the good work.


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Motivating students with autism requires patience and understanding

Navigating the world of autism in education is no small feat. It takes patience, a dash of creativity, and a lot of empathy and interest. But the truth is, with the right strategies and a bit of understanding, we can make a world of difference in these kids’ lives. 

It’s about more than just education – it’s about helping them feel seen, understood, and valued. And isn’t that what we all want?

FAQs

Q: How do you help an autistic student transition between lessons?

A: Smooth transitions rely on forewarning and clear cues. A five-minute heads-up before switching activities, like from reading to math, can be incredibly helpful. These clearly signal, “We’re moving from this to that now.”

Q: What do students with autism mostly struggle with?

A: Difficulties people with autism spectrum disorders have vary widely but often include difficulties with social cues, such as interpreting body language or understanding sarcasm. Sensory sensitivities to loud noises or bright lights and discomfort with routine changes are also common. 

Q: What is the best way to calm an autistic person?

A: Calming techniques should be tailored to the individual, but creating a sensory-friendly setting is a strong starting point. Often, the assurance that they’re understood and supported is most calming.

Q: How do you keep an autistic child focused in the classroom?

A: Maintaining focus involves minimizing distractions and adapting to the environment. This could mean seating arrangements that reduce sensory overload, employing visual aids to break down tasks, integrating their interests, or allowing them to take breaks.

References

Autism Parenting Magazine. (2023, December 21). Here’s Why an Autism Routine is Important. Autism Parenting Magazine. https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-routine-importance/ 

Autism Parenting Magazine. (2023, March 15). Time for Change with Concept Learning. Autism Parenting Magazine. https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/change-with-concept-learning/ 

James N. Meindl, Diana Delgado, Laura B. Casey, Increasing engagement in students with autism in inclusion classrooms, Children and Youth Services Review, Volume 111,2020, 104854, ISSN 0190-7409, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2020.104854  

Jill Cornelius Underhill, Victoria Ledford & Hillary Adams (2019) Autism stigma in communication classrooms: exploring peer attitudes and motivations toward interacting with atypical students, Communication Education, 68:2, 175-192, DOI: 10.1080/03634523.2019.1569247

Malaco, Amera & Aguilar, Ritchel & Ancheta, Hannah & Guzman, D & Malaluan, Angela & Quibert, Rob & Ii, D. (2020). ROLE OF POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT TO THE SOCIAL SKILLS OF CHILDREN WITH AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDER. 10.13140/RG.2.2.25456.07683  

Rebecca Wood (2021) Autism, intense interests and support in school: from wasted efforts to shared understandings, Educational Review, 73:1, 34-54, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2019.1566213

Reiko Shimokura, Kaname Yanagiawa & Shinko Sasaki (2023) Spatial organisation of “therapeutic” spaces for autistic children in special schools: lessons learnt from the united kingdom experience, Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering, 22:2, 620-634, DOI: 10.1080/13467581.2022.2047982

White, A. N., Oteto, N. E., & Brodhead, M. T. (2023). Providing Choice-Making Opportunities to Students with Autism During Instruction. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 55(4), 260-267. https://doi.org/10.1177/00400599211068386

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