Transformative Teaching: Supporting our Students with Autism

Transformative Teaching: Supporting our Students with Autism

Co-authored by: Michelle Leip and Kathleen Kryza

Recent statistics show that 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (CDC, 2014). ASD occurs across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups; so chances are high that every teacher will have a student with ASD in our classroom at some point. How do we meet the needs of these students? The first thing to do is ensure that we have as much legitimate information as possible about the disorder. Commonly held myths stand in the way of our ability to differentiate effectively for these students. This month we will tackle 3 of the most common misconceptions about students with autism and give you tips and resources for working with students on the spectrum.  For information on the common characteristics of autism, check out this site.

   Myth 1: These students cannot learn. 

Students with autism are certainly able to learn when the way we teach matches the way they learn. In order to provide students with the appropriate level of support, teachers really need to know our students. We need to be aware of these students’ strengths and struggles, what types of things help them, how do they communicate, etc. It’s important to connect with all of the people who know this student best (including the student himself) to learn as much as you can about what they need to be successful. (See our free resource for a list of potential topics to discuss with students, their parents, and their former teachers under the "Try It Out" section to the right.)

Next teachers and students need to know the target. What exactly are students expected to learn in each lesson? When we are clear about our targets (or objectives) we’re better able to create lessons that will result in student growth. Approximately half of those diagnosed with autism have average or above average intellectual ability (CDC, 2014). These students can meet the same standards as the rest of the students as long as the material is presented in ways that work for them.  In other words, we need to know our students, know our target, and vary the pathways.

Breaking the lesson into small chunks and providing time to chew the information, will help students create deeper understanding.  That is true for all students, but students with autism benefit from even more attention to chunking and chewing the curriculum. When material is presented in bite size chunks it is more manageable and less anxiety-inducing. Directions should be given one step at a time and supported with a visual aid whenever possible. With this kind of support students can focus on the task at hand and master it before moving on to the next section.

Many students with autism also benefit from visual instruction methods. This type of instruction can include materials like graphic organizers, pictures, concrete objects (especially when used to explain abstract concepts), norm and procedure posters with pictorial symbols rather than just words, etc. With appropriate scaffolds and lesson structure these students can make incredible academic gains. We just need to know how to teach the objectives; so they can reach the objectives! (See our bookTransformative Teaching for more tips on teaching students with ASD and creating a learning environment that works for ALL kids.)

  Myth 2:  These students are badly behaved.

Some students with autism react strongly to sensory stimuli, exhibit repetitive behaviors or compulsions, and in severe cases can resort to self-injury. These students need a supportive, structured, calm environment to help them succeed.

Students with autism benefit from predictable schedules.  The use of age-appropriate visual schedules with symbols representing the activities for each time block is an excellent support for these students. (See the video in the "Spotlight on Video" section on how to use visual schedules.) Being extremely intentional and transparent is imperative when working with students with autism. Knowing what is coming next and being able to prepare themselves, helps create a sense of calm and control for autistic learners.

Providing choice to students with autism can be empowering and motivating. These students often struggle to be understood. Creating concrete opportunities for choice with a finite amount of possibilities (not open-ended) can help these students develop their confidence and decision-making skills. Depending on the student, direct instruction on decision-making may be necessary. Some examples of possible choices could be choosing to set up their own break times as needed during the day or offering three choices for creating a project that shows what they’ve learned.  You can also create a choice board of daily activities and have the student create his/her schedule for the day.  A free IPAD  App, ChoiceBoard Creater, allows you to generate pictures to show kids choices.

Offering frequent breaks and a place to unwind in the classroom can be very helpful for students with autism. This area can have a place to listen to soft music or - if needed - to engage in soothing behavior. Such behavior can be limited to that section of the classroom to offer the student a place to calm down. 

Finally, offering behavior-based, positive feedback will help students with autism connect their actions to positive learning outcomes. (See past newsletters onMindsets and Safe Environments.)

  Myth 3:  Students with autism are not interested in or unable to have social relationships.

Students with autism generally have difficulty expressing and interpreting emotions with body language or tone of voice. That does not mean, however, that they do not experience the same feelings as the rest of us. These students do experience empathy and generally want to have a fulfilling social life. We can support our students with autism by providing structured opportunities to practice social skills. These students will also benefit from deliberate social interaction outside of structured class time. We can partner them with a buddy during recess or lunchtimes or while walking down the hallway, etc. The buddy should alternate to avoid creating a dependence on one particular student. When done thoughtfully, this practice can help both partners develop empathy and appreciation for others. 

We hope you see that many of these teaching tips are good for all students. Our students with ASD can help remind us that we need to consider each of our student’s needs when preparing our lessons. We also need to keep in mind that what works for one student might not work for another. As indicated in the name, there is a wide spectrum of autistic behaviors and diagnoses. Some students will only present minimal symptoms while others will need a much higher level of support.  Hugh Dancy, star of the 2009 film about a man with Asperger’s syndrome,Adam, said it best with this quote: “There’s a saying within the [Autism Spectrum Disorder] community: if you’ve met one person with [ASD], you’ve met one person with [ASD]… Within this condition, beneath this label, the variety of personality, of humor, of behavior, is infinite.”  

As educators we need to be endlessly curious and tireless in our efforts to meet the needs of all of our students. We at Infinite Horizons seek to support you with that goal through these informative newsletters and our numerous publications. If there are any topics that you’re dying to hear about or you’d like more support from us, please reach out to us via Facebook, Twitter, or email. Remember you can always find access to a wealth of helpful resources on our website and in our books. 

Some Activities/Resources to help bring the info to your classroom.

  • Survey - To help you get to know your students with ASD 

Some meaningful, related web content.

  • Learning & the Brain, Santa Barbara, CA - July 11-15, 2016.  Register here.
  • Parent University Center for Communication and Stixrud Educational Consulting Group, Rockville, MD - Sept 10, 2016
  • Asociación de Psicología de Puerto Rico, San Juan, PR - November 17-19, 2016
  • Bring Kathleen to your school!

















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  • Kryza, K., Brittingham, M., & Duncan, A. (n.d.). Transformative teaching: Changing today's classrooms culturally, academically, & emotionally. 
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  • Willis, C.. (2009). Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Strategies That Work. YC Young Children, 64(1), 81–89. Retrieved from