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Resources > Articles

Autism Awareness Month:
Facts and Tips for Working with Individuals on the Autism Spectrum



  • According to Indiana’s child count data for school year 2012-2013, the incidence rate for children identified within the autism spectrum is 1 in 77.  The Centers for Disease Control issued a report in 2009 which looked at a sample of 8 year olds, and concluded that the prevalence of autism had risen to 1 in 110 in American children. By 2012, using a similar sample, it was announced that the incidence had climbed to 1 in 88. Last year in a phone interview with 100,000 families, CDC reported that the incidence may now be as high as 1 in 50.   Different methods were used in determining each of these incidence rates. Regardless, it remains clear that ASD is on the rise.  Each year brings new cases of ASD, and many who present complex challenges.

  • Effective in 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Fifth Edition (DSM-5) has revised the diagnosis to Autism Spectrum Disorder, and has merged the previously separate sub-categories which included Asperger Syndrome and PDD-NOS into a sole Autism Spectrum Disorder category.

  • There is no single known cause for autism spectrum disorder.  Instead multiple factors may lead to an individual obtaining a diagnosis. If you are concerned that your child may be on the autism spectrum, it is important to speak with your child’s physician and to be aware of their progress through the developmental milestones.

  • The Autism Society notes the incredible costs associated with autism spectrum disorders and the ongoing need for services that promote early identification and programming, effective transition planning, and individualized adult options.   Studies show that over the course of a lifetime, treating an individual with autism can cost upwards of $3.5 million.

  • Studies show that early diagnosis and intervention can lead to greatly improved outcomes over the course of a lifetime.  Ongoing support through the community, schools, and providers is essential for the individual and for the entire family, throughout the lifespan. 

For more information on the Autism Society, visit their website at

For more information on the Autism Society of Indiana, visit their website at

For more information on the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, visit our website at  Also be sure to "like" us on Facebook and join us on Twitter.


Remember that each person is different, and specific tips may not apply to all. Many tips are courtesy of Indiana's Autism Leadership Network.

  • Build relationships and rapport.  Spend time with a student before making programming judgments.  Listen to, and observe, the individual with input from family members, teachers/therapists, or others involved before commenting.  There is not a single approach that works with all individuals.

  • Educate students using their knowledge, interests, and strengths.  Build learning opportunities around these special interest topics so that they are motivated to learn and so others see their skills and gifts.  This will help build self-esteem through success and through peer acknowledgement.

  • Make it Visual!  Most individuals on the spectrum are visual learners.  Reduce verbal interactions and use visual supports.  Avoid getting into verbal arguments with students.

  • Visual supports are beneficial even after the child no longer seems to “need” them.  Many of us need and use them as well.  Consider how to transition visual supports to life-skills for scheduling, organization, and self-management. Do not discontinue their use without a conversation with the individual’s team.  In times of stress, these visual supports may be a great support throughout their lifetime.

  • Visual schedules can help students prepare for the day and understand expectations.  If there is a given schedule, follow it.  Prepare for any upcoming variations.  Prepare in a manner not to enhance anxiety in anticipation of the change.  Designate a “change” visual to signal when things in their schedule are changing.
  • Use literal, succinct, and direct instructions.  “First, put your coat in the closet, and then come to class.”  Avoid idiomatic phrases or sarcasm that the student may not understand.  If the student does not perform a task correctly, revisit how it was phrased and pair with a visual. The individual may simply not have understood. 

  • Use a calm tone of voice; even in the midst of a behavioral outburst. Excited adults yield excited children.  Practice your poker face.  The ultimate goal is to de-escalate behavior. 

  • Carefully consider communication needs.  If an individual has difficulty with communicating wants and needs or with requesting help, they may become frustrated or upset.  Don’t assume that because an individual is verbal that they have skills to cope when stressed or in unfamiliar situations. 

  • Individuals on the spectrum often have difficulty with social skills. It is part of the diagnosis. Insert naturally occurring lessons into the day as situations arise. For example, prior to the event, coach a child to say “happy birthday” to a peer, raise their hand to answer a question, etc. 

  • Consider successes. When assessing behavior, be sure to determine those conditions, situations, events, and people with whom the individual is most successful. Replicating those factors is an important part of a behavior support plan.

  • Reinforcement is a powerful tool.  Individuals need to be reinforced for specific positive behaviors. Instead of saying “nice job,” say “nice job of sitting.”  Know what reinforces the individual.  If praise is not reinforcing, find out what is and develop strategies to build motivation and increase desired behavior. 

  • Anxiety is a game-changer.  Information processing is diminished and sensory issues are heightened when the child is stressed.  For those with sensory challenges, build in sensory strategies across the day to diminish negative impact of difficult situations, and to help the individual cope. 

  • Know the signs of anxiety or stress: pacing, hand-wringing, cussing, flushed face, laughing, stating certain phrases over and over, etc.  Know what causes anxiety or stress for each person.  Adjust your language and demands when anxiety is heightened.

  • When trying to extinguish unacceptable behavior, always identify an alternative skill or replacement behavior.  And when you are targeting a behavior, be sure to choose your battles carefully.   Sometimes focusing too much attention on a behavior may actually intensify that behavior.

  • Remember that the best time to address behavior is when behavior is not happening.  Teach the individual alternative ways of responding when they are calm and not in the heat of the moment.

  • Stay in close contact with family members and physicians about what is working and what is not, especially when individuals are on medications.

  • For individuals who need it, build in small breaks throughout the day, even in secondary school or in a job setting.  Identify a safe area or safe person for the individual to access when they are stressed. Rehearse the strategy with the individual when they are calm.

  • Help individuals choose activities and strategies that help them to calm down during breaks and when upset.  Developing skills to self-manage anxiety, anger, and behavior is essential to success.

  • Build a team to support individuals.  When one support person is feeling overwhelmed by a situation, it helps to be surrounded by a team of people to discuss and share ideas. Sharing resources, perspective, and the wisdom of a group helps us to be more creative and to problem-solve more effectively.  Nobody has all the answers. 

  • The ultimate goal for any individual is to have a happy and successful life.  No matter the age of the individual, teaching specific procedures and skills and then fading support, is essential to developing the highest level of independence and autonomy possible.

  • The transition process begins at the moment of diagnosis. We are continually transitioning people across grade levels and settings, and ultimately into adulthood.  Be sure to plan for all transitions.  Consider the skills and behaviors individuals will need as adults, and begin teaching at an early age. 

  • And finally, enjoy individuals on the autism spectrum, regardless of their challenges.  They have many gifts and talents.  Building a strong and positive rapport may be your most effective tool.


Organized by Dr. Cathy Pratt BCBA-D, Director, Indiana Resource Center for Autism, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community. Visit our website at or visit us on Facebook.

Rev. 2014

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