A Teacher’s Brief Guide to Teaching More Advanced Students on the Autism Spectrum
Susan Moreno, Consultant, Indiana Resource Center for Autism
While these tips are meant to facilitate your interactions and successes with students identified with high-functioning autism, remember that all students are unique individuals. Each will have varying sets of talents and challenges. And remember that what works with one, may not work with another. And what works one day, may not work the next.
Many students on the spectrum demonstrate exceptional abilities in a vast array of skills and talents. Sometimes the interests and/or talents of the individual may become quite specific and somewhat obsessive. Others students may not demonstrate exceptional skills. Whenever these talents or interests seem obsessive, use them to widen the students learning adventures into other subjects.
Areas of Challenge:
- Many people with ASD have trouble with organizational skills, regardless of their intelligence and/or age. Even a “straight A” student who has a photographic memory can be incapable of remembering to bring a pencil to class or remembering a deadline for an assignment. Two practical suggestions to help a student stay organized: Have them keep an agenda/day planner where s/he writes all daily homework assignments. Teachers/assistants can also use this book to write short notes home. Have the student keep all of his loose papers in a “trapper” or an accordion file with separated compartments (sections for each class, a section for papers to come home and papers to return to school, and a section for blank paper, etc.) so all papers can be in one place.
- Students on the spectrum are either hyper-organized or seem to have few or any organizational skills. A large number of students with ASD seem to have either the neatest or the messiest desks or lockers in the school. The one with the neatest desk or locker is probably very insistent on sameness and may be very upset if someone disturbs the order s/he has created. The one with the messiest desk will need your help in frequent cleanups of the desk or locker so that they can find things. This student is not making a conscious choice to be messy; they are most likely incapable of this organizational task without specific training. Train in organizational skills using small, specific steps.
- Many people on the spectrum have problems with abstract and conceptual thinking. Some may eventually acquire a few or even many abstract skills, but others never will. When abstract concepts must be used, use visual and concrete examples to illustrate the abstract idea.
- Many individuals on the spectrum show tremendous creativity and talent in such fields as music and art. While some may demonstrate a somewhat repetitive creativity, it is still uniquely generated by them and their intellect. This talent does not indicate their capabilities in other academic or social areas, nor skills of daily living.
- An increase in unusual or difficult behaviors can indicate an increase in stress levels. When this occurs, establishing a “safe place” or “safe person” may come in handy. Many times the stress will only be alleviated when the student physically removes himself or herself from the stressful event or situation. Remember that all people need to feel that they are controlling or regulating their environment. Having special needs does not change that basic, human need.
- Don’t take misbehaviors personally. The person with ASD is not a manipulative, scheming person who is trying to make life difficult. Usually misbehavior is the result of efforts to survive experiences that may be confusing, disorienting, or frightening. People with ASD may respond in an egocentric fashion and have extreme difficulty reading the reactions of others.
- Most people on the spectrum use and interpret speech literally. Until you know the capabilities of the individual, you should avoid:
o Idioms (save your breath, jump the gun, second thoughts, etc.)
o Double meanings (most jokes have double meanings)
o Sarcasm, such as saying, “Great!” after he has just spilled a bottle of ketchup on the table
o “Cute” names such as Pal, Buddy, Wise Guy, etc.
- Be as concrete as possible in all your interactions with these students. Remember that facial expression and other social cues may not work. “Why” questions can be challenging or impossible for these students. In answering essay questions, students on the spectrum rarely know when they have said enough, or if they are properly addressing the core of the question.
- If the student is not learning a task, break it down into smaller steps or present the task in several different ways (e.g., visually, verbally, and physically).
- Avoid verbal overload. Be clear. Use shorter sentences if you perceive that the student does not fully understand you. Although they probably have no hearing problems and may be paying attention, they may have a problem understanding your main point and identifying the important information.
- Prepare the student for schedule changes, such as assemblies, substitute teachers, special events, etc. Use a written or verbal schedule to prepare for change.
- Use positive and chronologically age-appropriate behavior procedures. Avoid “babying” your student on the spectrum by over-supporting his/her or speaking at a level associated with younger students.
- Consistent treatment and expectations from everyone is vital. Be sure you are maintaining good feedback with other staff members and parents.
- Be sensory sensitive. For example, the hum of fluorescent lighting is extremely distracting for some people with on the autism spectrum. Consider environmental changes such as removing some of the “visual clutter” from the room or seating changes if the student seems distracted or upset by the classroom environment. Perhaps a seat in the front row would work, as this takes out some of the visual clutter. The overload and under-stimulation problems may occur in other senses, including tactile and olfactory stimuli. Avoid wearing strong perfumes and the touching of hands, etc. unless you know the student is not challenged by this.
- If the student is not looking directly at you, do not assume they are not listening or are daydreaming. Some students on the spectrum have more reliable peripheral than frontal vision. When you speak, they tend to look at your mouth rather than your eyes. Your mouth is where the sound comes from. They seldom understand any communication you may want to give them with your eyes or facial expression.
- If your student on the spectrum uses repetitive verbal arguments and/or repetitive verbal questions, try requesting that she write down the question or argumentative statement. Then write down your reply. As the writing continues, the person with ASD may begin to calm down and stop the repetitive activity. If that does not work, write down their repetitive verbal question or argument, and then ask them to formulate and write down a logical reply or replies. This distracts the student from verbally escalating the argument or question, and sometimes gives them a more socially acceptable way of expressing frustration or anxiety. If the student does not read or write, try role-playing the repetitive verbal question or argument, with you taking their part and they yours. Continually responding in a logical manner or arguing back seldom stops this behavior. The subject of their argument or question is not always the subject that has upset them. The argument or question more often communicates feeling a loss of control or uncertainty about someone or something in the environment. Individuals with ASD often have trouble “getting” your points. If the repetitive verbal argument or question persists, consider the possibility that they are very concerned about the topic, and does not know how to rephrase the question or comment to get the information they need.
- In an effort to connect with your conversation, a student on the spectrum may seemingly “go off on a tangent,” talking about a topic that seems to have no connection to the classroom discussion. Because of difficulty in generalizing information and concepts, they have perhaps focused on a single word or concept that was used in the discussion and began to talk about that word or concept in the context that was experienced before. For example, in a discussion of Bowling Green, Kentucky, a student may start talking about his bowling scores or an experience at the bowling alley. Since it could be difficult to discern what that past context could have been, simply redirect the student to the current discussion. Do not assume they are just daydreaming.
- Since these individuals experience various communication difficulties, do not rely on the student with ASD to relay important messages to their parents about school events, assignments, school rules, etc. unless you try it on an experimental basis with follow-up, or unless you are already certain that the student has mastered this skill. Phone calls or emails to the parent work best until this skill can be developed.
- If your class involves pairing off or choosing partners, either draw numbers or use some other arbitrary means of pairing. Or ask an especially kind student if he or she would agree to choose the individual on the spectrum as a partner. This should be arranged before the pairing is done. The student with ASD is most often the one left with no partner. This is unfortunate, as these students could benefit most from having a partner.
- Be aware that students with spectrum challenges are socially naive. This makes them perfect targets for bullying. Make sure that your school uses active bullying prevention plans. Be sure to lead by example by not sighing or rolling your eyes when the student with ASD is doing something you find irritating. If students see their teacher being unaccepting, they will follow the example.
- Do not limit your expectations for the future of any student. Individuals with ASD can and have achieved things far above the expectations of family, friends and teachers. YOU may be the key to achievement of future success for these unique students!
Moreno, S. (2018). A Teacher’s Brief Guide to Teaching More Advanced Students on the Autism Spectrum. The Reporter 22 (9). Retrieved from https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/a-teacher-s-brief-guide-to-teaching-more-advanced-students-on-the-autism-spectrum.