Helping Students with Autism—Tips for Educators

Posted on November 11, 2010

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Common Terminology

Autistic Disorder: People with autistic disorder have moderate to severe impairments in communication, socialization and restrictive/repetitive behavior.

Asperger Syndrome: People with Asperger Syndrome function in the average to above average intelligence range and have no delays in language skills, but often struggle with social skills and restrictive and repetitive behavior.  Asperger’s can be diagnosed later in life more than other disorders on the spectrum as their typical language development and typical intelligence can make it more difficult to recognize in young children.

Tips for Educators

When working with students with autism, an effective educational program will

• capitalize on the student’s interests

• offer a predictable schedule

• teach tasks as a series of simple steps

• actively engage the student’s attention in highly structured activities

• provide regular reinforcement of behavior

Encouraging Social Skill Development and Peer Relationships

Direct instruction in social skill development should occur in the same way that other educational needs are addressed. Students with autism require specific instruction to improve their social skill development….Students with autism also need opportunities to learn and practice social skills in a natural environment. Generalization of social skills from a structured learning setting must be practiced and performed in a natural setting.

Encouraging interaction with peers is one area of focus. Causton-Theoharis & Malmgren (2006) have provided 10 specific strategies to encourage peer-to-peer interaction:

• Ensure that the student is in a rich social environment

• Highlight similarities between the student with autism and peers

• Redirect conversation to the student with autism

• Directly teach and practice interaction strategies in natural settings

• Use instructional strategies that promote interaction

• Teach others how to interact with the student with autism

• Make rewards for behavior social in nature (e.g., playing a preferred computer game with a peer)

• Give the student responsibilities that encourage peer interaction

• Systematically fade direct support

• Make independence a goal

Students with autism do want to develop relationships with their peers. Educating both the student with autism and their non-disabled peers is necessary.

Addressing Challenging Behavior

Two of the core challenges for students with autism are communication and socialization. These communication and social deficits, at times, can result in students with autism responding to situations in an inappropriate manner. Behaviors exhibited by students with autism may include loud vocalizations, leaving the instructional area, self-injury, aggression or other inappropriate behaviors. The important thing to note is that this behavior is exhibited because of the communication and social deficits. With a quality, systematically implemented positive behavior support plan, students with autism—even those with the most challenging behavior—can achieve a reduction in inappropriate behavior and success in an educational environment. To effectively address challenging behavior, the educational team must understand “why” a behavior is occurring. A functional behavior assessment can be completed to assist with determining why a behavior is occurring…

Working with Families

Collaboration between parents/care-providers and the educational system is pivotal for success. Parents are the life-long advocates and social partners of their children….Parents are the expert on their child and are able to provide a wealth of information. It is important to build a trusting relationship with families. A phone call or home visit prior to the start of the school year may assist with forming the relationship. Throughout the year, information about areas of success and areas of need should be provided. Every parent wants to hear about their child succeeding. Be sure to have frequent communication about accomplishments.

(A Publication of Easter Seals and The American Federation of Teachers, 2009. The 24-page booklet can be downloaded without charge at http://capper.easterseals.com/site/DocServer/Helping_Students_with_Autism_-_Tips_for_Educators.pdf?docID=135566 or the content may be viewed at the AFT site at http://www.aft.org/yourwork/tools4teachers/specialpop/autism/index.cfm)

(Excerpts reprinted with permission from the American Federation of Teachers)