Last June, my oldest son graduated from high school. All parents who can say that about their children are proud, but for parents of children with autism, and learning challenges, it has an elevated meaning.
My son graduating meant that he accomplished something we didn’t think was going to be possible for a long time. After years of struggle, we finally found an alternative learning environment that would facilitate his success, not just academically, but socially and emotionally as well.
He worked with an educational therapist for four years, it changed our entire world and gave him access to it. Through it all I learned: teaching strategies make a huge difference for neurodivergent kids.
In this article I would like to talk about strategies for teaching children with autism, and their potential impact on learners. I would also like to offer some suggestions and resources for parents helping children overcome learning challenges.
What are some learning struggles common to autism?
Reading is one of the most common aspects students with autism struggle with. Not just the decoding of words, but comprehending what they are reading. Figurative language in a text can be confusing, as abstract concepts in conversations are sometimes a problem for children with autism.
Social skills can be difficult for many autistic children. Inclusive classrooms are often best, but can also require the students to work together in ways that may present a challenge. Deciphering facial expressions, making eye contact, and missing social cues can all be factors in an autistic child’s ability to achieve success during required social interaction.
Special interests can be a blessing and a curse. If a child’s special interests consume their mind, they may have trouble focusing on school work.
What kind of learning environment is best for children with autism?
Everything from a child’s desk, the lighting (things like fluorescent lights, can be a distraction for children with sensory issues, migraines, or seizure disorders), and the layout of the room can inspire a child and further their positive learning experience. Young children can benefit from a structured nursery school. As a child grows, their needs for more or less structure become apparent.
With modern technology it is easier than ever for parents to get support for their child’s educational needs. For some, home is the most effective environment for learning.
For most students, learning from home provides the best opportunity to control their environment. For others, the deficisets outweigh the benefits, especially socially.
Parents may want to reach out to experienced teachers to help them form lesson plans for their students with autism. This can include online educational programs.
They can also reach out to tutors and educational therapists for their students as well. Enrolling your child in a homeschool program, depending on where you live, can be a wonderful option.
A child’s ability to pay attention is greatly impacted by their emotional well being. If a child is constantly melting down, or they have behavioral issues, it can be totally disruptive to the rest of the class. There should be varying degrees of emotional support available in the classroom to maintain a peaceful atmosphere.
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A teacher should be able to exercise self control as they move through the day, showing grace with firm but loving instruction provided for each student. The best teachers help children believe in themselves, while giving them many opportunities to practice and demonstrate their ability.
For those students attending regular school, an inclusive classroom can provide a wonderful place to learn. An inclusive classroom takes into consideration the best way to structure all components for the purpose of making all students feel comfortable, supported, inspired, and successful. It is not a one-size-fits-all scenario, it is actually, a several-sizes-come-together-for-the-good-of-all situation.
Teaching students with rigid standards and concrete guidelines is often a fast pass to butting heads with children on the autism spectrum especially. This is a little ironic since people with autism tend to operate with some rigidity of their own.
Being flexible in the right ways, at the right time, can provide a structure conducive to creativity without frustration. Many autistic students can be perfectionists in their work, learning to allow their creativity to flow can be tough on them. If their teacher can inspire them with flexible leadership, they can learn by following that example.
What are some other factors that can contribute to learning challenges?
There are many conditions that have been linked to autism spectrum disorder. These conditions can affect a child’s ability to focus and challenge the learning process. Here are some examples that are common:
- Sensory processing disorder (SPD)- Balancing sensory stimuli can support students with autism spectrum disorder as they are focusing on their work
- Dyslexia- Alternative teaching methods, specifically designed for dyslexic students, can help them understand what they are reading in new ways
- Auditory processing disorder-verbal instructions can be switched out with visual aids
- Seizures-Making a child feel safe in an inclusive classroom can ease their mind and help them focus without worrying about what could happen
- Visual processing disorder-verbal instruction and manipulatives can drive the concept home more efficiently
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – distractions can make or break the way children learn.
Tailoring a child’s curriculum to their needs is key. Teaching students in a way that helps them manage their own issues can empower and encourage children as they learn.
What are some teaching tips to help children overcome autism related challenges?
Many children with autism feel most comfortable with a predictable schedule of events. A routine including sensory activities is often most effective. Knowing what is coming next can calm anxiety. Knowing everyone is following the same rules can offer a sense of belonging and equality.
Knowledge is power. A teacher isn’t just imparting knowledge. Teaching students with autism requires knowledge of autism in general, as well as collecting information relating to each child. The more information a parent can impart about their child, the better the teacher can be at teaching them.
An individualized education program (IEP) is not just for special education. Children with autism spectrum disorder, in a mainstream classroom, often have an IEP. This legal document tells the teachers and administration what accommodations the child is entitled to in order to have their educational needs met. A teacher referencing an IEP, can teach students based on their individual needs, and be guided by those needs when making lesson plans and structuring their classrooms and schedules
Offering choices in the classroom can be a great strategy. Allowing students to maintain and be accountable for the choices they have for their day can be helpful and can even preempt negative behaviors. However, making sure the right amount of choices are presented is key. Two to three choices are often the best number to offer.
Choices can also be a way for teachers to have multiple approaches to any given subject. Teaching young children often requires many different kinds of teaching aids. Older children may have less variety, with items having more than one function, as opposed to many items with a single purpose. From picture books to toys that engage motor skills, to rewards for positive reinforcement, having lots of choices on hand can help.
Showing the children respect and promoting mutual respect between adults and children is important. Many children with autism are treated as less than by their peers, and sometimes even adults who do not understand them. Treating them with respect makes them feel valued and inspires them to cooperate and have fun throughout the learning process.
Using the right technology is important. Children today need access to the right technology. For children on the autism spectrum, technology can make the difference between success and failure. Tablets, computers, and earphones can all contribute to better communication, innovation, sensory input, and change the way children with autism feel in the classroom.
A child can utilize technology while learning a second language, regulating emotions by managing sensory needs, and engaging in social interactions with other students (my autistic nephew feels most comfortable communicating with family members over video chat. He suffers from selective mutism, but talking over video takes gives him back his voice–literally.)
Employing technology can motivate school work completion by helping children, especially with auditory processing issues, have more learning opportunities with visually engaging content.
Resources and tips for teaching
Recently I sat down with Sheri Taylor, MEd. founder of Uniquely Taylored Educational Consulting, and asked her some questions. Sheri is a Professionally Certified Educational Therapist, Certified Dyslexia Therapist, Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment Mediator, Florida Certified Teacher, and MNRI Core-In-Training.
She has over 25 years of experience teaching and supporting children with special needs and their families (mine, being one of them.) Her expertise is an invaluable resource I would like to share with you.
Q. What are your favorite strategies for teaching kids who are autistic?
A. Strategies for working with people with autism should be individualized. This is true for all learners, but it is especially true for our “outside-the-box” thinkers.
Take time to think about things your student is interested in, and take an account of their strengths. Start there.
Focus on the child, not the subject matter or skill. This does not mean that you do not have goals. On the contrary, goals are very important. However, your goals or the state standards may not be your child’s goals, which brings us back to finding that “thing” that interests your child.
What makes your child’s eyes sparkle? What would your child gladly do for hours at a time? Even if the answer is video games, that is where you start. Find ways to connect with your child as they pursue their interests.
Identify the strengths they have as they pursue that task. Use those strengths as the foundation for building their skills and intellect in other areas.
In addition, when a child has a choice in what he or she will do, they soon find the reward is inherent to the task, then they become driven by their passion.
Q. What do you wish other teachers knew about working with kids with special needs?
A. I wish everyone could understand that our brains are the most changeable and flexible organs in our bodies. We form our brains by what we do. In order to build our brains, we must start at an appropriate level and then little by little increase that level. Every student deserves the opportunity to work at their own level.
Q. What advice would you give to parents seeking help for their autistic child’s education?
A. Early intervention is the gold standard, but just because a parent did not seek help early does not mean a child cannot grow and change. I work with clients of all ages from infants to senior adults. It is important to accept and understand where they are in terms of their abilities at this present time, but then I do not expect them to stay the same. I expect to move them up to the next level…over and over again…until at some point the child becomes a self-directed, life-long learner.
Q. What is the best approach to teaching kids on the autism spectrum?
A. There are as many ways of teaching as there are children. The best approach is the one that works! Keep in mind that there are options within public school, private school, and home school. However, the potential for growth is best when a child can learn at their own pace, at the right level, with the right curriculum, in a calm, nurturing, loving environment. If you have not found this type of environment in a school setting, consider homeschooling.
Q. How important is tone of voice, manors, and mutual respect when working with a child?
A. Every word we choose and how we say those words conveys a message to our children. What message do we want to send them? It’s what you say AND how you say it. As Dr. Feuerstein said: “You have to believe to achieve.” Parents, teachers, and therapists must believe their students can achieve. Every word we say needs to communicate that belief to the child.
Children know when we are insincere. Use specific phrases: “When you can complete this 50 piece puzzle, you will get to try one that has 75 pieces.” “When you finish your rough draft, you will be able to edit, and then publish your book so your friends can read it.” These statements orient the child to the task at hand. There is no doubt in these statements, and they guide the mind of the child to the next goal. Our words and actions should strongly affirm our children.
Q. How can educational therapy support parents who homeschool?
A. I work with several families who homeschool their children with special needs. I support the child and parent in educational therapy with research-based techniques that help to build the foundation for learning. Although I can and do use academic subjects as a part of therapy, the focus is not on the academics, but on the processes involved in the production of those academics. Through interesting and appropriately challenging activities, I teach my clients to use 26 Cognitive Functions.
There was a video floating around social media recently that made an excellent point. A child was grasping a rope, crying hysterically because they thought they were going to drown in the rushing water swirling around at their feet.
Someone came by and helped them put their feet all the way down so they could realize they could stand in the water beneath them. Relief flooded their little face as they realized they were safe.
This is what the right teaching strategies can do. Parents, if your autistic child is struggling in school, there is hope. Though it may not seem like it right now, there are options. Finding the right teacher can be overwhelming, but you know your child best. Start with your child’s needs, find someone who will utilize a variety of tools, with the right attitude, who will show your child the respect they deserve. It may even be you!
Randi, J., Newman, T., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2010). Teaching children with autism to read for meaning: challenges and possibilities. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 40(7), 890–902. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-010-0938-6
The National Institute for Learning Development
Masgutova Method of Neurosensory-motor Reflex Integration
North American Feuerstein Alliance