Effective strategies for teaching children with autism spectrum disorders

March 25th, 2007

1. Environmental Considerations
Visual and auditory stimulation in the classroom must be taken into consideration.

Many students with autism are sensitive to auditory input and have a more difficult time processing auditory stimulation. Their work stations should be placed away from excessive auditory stimulation and away from unnecessary movement.

2. Visual Schedules
Students with autism perform best when their daily routine is predictable, with clear expectations. Establishing and following a visual schedule eliminates the unexpected and assists students in anticipating and preparing for transitions. Schedules must be visual and kept in the same location at all times. For pre-readers, an object schedule can be used. A tangible object that is related to the class or activity it represents is attached to an icon and the printed word. Other students are able to follow an icon schedule and strong readers can use a printed schedule.

A “check schedule” transition cue is then given to the student each time he is to transition to a new activity or class.

3 .Visual Structure
The environment needs to be structured visually to help the student clearly see and understand what is expected of him. Work stations must be clearly defined. Some students will need three-sided work stations, while others will be able to work in more open areas. Taped outlines on the floor, chairs labeled with the student’s name or using furniture to reduce visual and auditory stimulation are examples of environmental considerations. Work stations also need to be structured. Activities should be designed with strong visual cues so less auditory directions are needed. Each station also needs to clearly show what needs to be done, how much needs to be done, when the student will be finished, and what’s next.

4 .Alternatives to Verbal Communication
Many students with autism have impairments in communication, particularly expressive communication. For those who are non-verbal, an augmentative communication system must be in place. The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS has been very effective. Voice output communication devices may be very appropriate. For those students who do have verbal communication skills, many benefit from having some form of augmentative communication available as a back-up system for times when expressive communication may fail them. It is very common for students to be unable to access verbal communication when in a stressful emotional state. Having a back-up visual form of communication can assist with expression and reduce aggressive behaviors.

5. Direct Instruction of Social Skills
The majority of students with autism need direct instruction in social skills. Most do not learn interaction skills by simply being placed in social environments. They need to learn social interaction skills in the same way they learn other academic skills. Using strong visual structure, activities can be designed to teach about identifying emotions in self and others, situations that can cause certain emotions, and how to respond in certain social situations. Social stories have been found to be very useful. They are short stories written about specific social situations that briefly describe a social situation, how others may respond in this situation, and how the student should respond.

6. Literacy Instruction

Because many students with autism rely on some form of augmentative communication, even if it is only a backup, literacy instruction is very important. If a student is literate, s/he will be able to communicate at a much higher level than if the child is forced to depend on communications devices that are programmed with limited vocabulary. Literacy instruction should begin at a very early age and continue throughout all school years.

7 .Consistency
All students do best when the daily program remains consistent with clear expectations. All staff working with students with autism need to be well-trained and must implement the daily program as consistently as possible.

8.Sensory Opportunities
Most students with autism have some sensory needs. Many find deep pressure very relaxing. Others need frequent opportunities for movement. All students should have a sensory profile completed by an occupational therapist or other professional trained in sensory integration. Based on the profile, a sensory “diet” can be created and implemented throughout the day.

9. Functional Curriculum
Children?with autism have a great deal of potential to live and work independently as adults. The curriculum should place a strong emphasis on following a functional curriculum. Skills that emphasize daily living skills, community skills, recreation and leisure and employment need to be incorporated into the curriculum. Students in inclusive settings can follow the regular curriculum, but emphasis should be placed on those skills that are the most functional. Functional academics should always include literacy (reading and writing, basic math, time and money skills. Self-care skills, domestics, recreation and community experiences should also be emphasized. Older students should have formal employment opportunities beginning in middle school.

10. Take advantage of student strengths and interests
Many students with autism have particular strengths and interests and these should be taken advantage of in the classroom. For example, if a student demonstrates an interest in trains, the student should have opportunities to read about trains, write about trains, do math problems about trains, etc.

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