Did you know? April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day, and April is National Autism Awareness Month! To help you increase autism acceptance in your community, here are some strategies for teaching autistic students that can make a big difference.

You Are Not Alone

First, let’s start by acknowledging that teaching autistic students can be overwhelming with a whole classroom of students who demand attention. The first step for you is to realize that you never have to deal with everything on your own. Talk to your principal, seek support, and build a plan with health professionals and families around your student.

Research by Monash University showed an “Autism Specific Multi-Agency Team at school or district level” was the most effective way to coordinate and deliver special services. If the student has speech and communication difficulties, you probably need a speech pathologist on your team. If the student displays concerning behavioral patterns, search for a behavior analyst or psychologist.

If you are new to your school, ask colleagues what services and professional development are available; if there is no specific autism support plan, be proactive and collaborate with school leadership to see what can be done.

strategies for teaching PD

Look for opportunities to attend professional development sessions on teaching students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. A study from Georgia Educational Research shows PD can increase your confidence and improve the skills you need when working with ASD students.

Last but not least, loop in the parents. Telling them about your teaching philosophy and curriculum gives them the chance to help their child practice skills at home where there are fewer distractions. Sending a letter of introduction at the beginning of the school year is a great way to start a conversation with them and show you care about their child’s success.

Try Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

Developed by Andy Bondy and Lori Frost in 1985, PECS is a unique alternative communication system for teaching functional communication. It was first implemented with pre-school students diagnosed with ASD at the Delaware Autism Program. Since then, thousands of learners with various cognitive, physical, and communication challenges have adopted PECS.

Through many years of practice, this communication system became an evidence-based strategy with more than 190 research articles supporting its effectiveness.

PECS starts with teaching your students to give a picture that represents an action or item they want to a “communicative partner” who then honors their request. Later on, you show ASD students how to put images together to form sentences, use modifiers, and answer questions.


Image Source pecsusa.com

Create an Inclusive Learning Environment

A typical bright and structured classroom may not work for children with ASD. To help you design an autism-inclusive classroom environment, follow these guidelines:

  • Use colors and patterns sparingly and primarily for directional purposes.
  • Orient the classroom away from potential distractions, such as outside windows.
  • Give each student more than enough floor space.
  • Put equipment and materials in closed storage spaces when not in use so they don’t distract students.
  • Use visual schedules that include lessons, breaks, tests, activities, and therapy (if relevant).
  • Have earplugs for students who need help concentrating during tests or private study time.
  • Create a space for a sensory retreat that restricts light, has a simple color palette, and has bean-bag-like chairs for easy relaxation.

Read Tips for Creating an Inclusive Classroom Environment for more ways to help students with ASD and dyslexia.

teaching autistic students

Break Down Skills into Smaller Parts

Some ASD students have trouble learning component skills in the same way neurotypical students do. Task Analysis – an evidence-based practice that divides a task or skill into small, teachable components – can help them learn better, according to a 2015 Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders study.

If you notice your student is struggling with a task, try breaking it down into smaller chunks. Practice the skill yourself and write down each step.

Critical Aspects of Task Analysis:

  1. Start with the first step in the sequence.
  2. See if the student understands it and can accomplish the step independently.
  3. Proceed with the remaining steps in the same manner until the student can perform the complex task independently.
  4. Don’t forget to be flexible, as you may need to shift some steps to adapt to students’ abilities.

For a more in-depth review of implementing Task Analysis, read this article from National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders.

autism breaking down steps

Reinforcement and Video Modeling

A recent review of 27 Evidence-Based strategies for teaching autistic students found Video Modeling and Positive Reinforcement to be two of the most effective techniques.

Video Modeling
This technique involves showing ASD students videos modeling targeted behavior or displaying how to complete a task.
There are four types of video modeling:

  1. Basic video modeling uses other adults, peers, or animation as models.
  2. Video self-modeling uses the autistic child as the model.
  3. Point of view video-modeling: this shows what completing the task would look like from the child’s point of view. For example, the video shows a pair of hands doing a task.
  4. Video-prompting: this breaks up a task, like turning on a computer, into steps that the child watches as they complete the task.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement can be anything that serves as an incentive and happens after a student accomplishes a task or behavior. This reinforcer stimulates the likelihood of that behavior occurring again.

Reinforcers are divided into primary and secondary. Primary reinforcers are usually naturally reinforcing, such as sleep, food, or water. On the other hand, ASD students develop positive reinforcers over time and vary from person to person. Examples of secondary reinforcers: praising the student or putting a sticker or a letter grade of “A” on a worksheet.

(Read 101 Reinforcement Ideas for Students with Autism for more inspiration.)

The National Professional Development Center on ASD recommends using a combination of Video Modeling, Positive Reinforcement, and Task Analysis.

Remember, teaching ASD students is more complex than teaching neurotypical students, but it is worth every effort. If you have ASD students in your classroom, you can see more positive results with a bit of planning. Use these autistic teaching strategies to foster the best possible learning experience for these special learners and make a big impact on your community.

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