Teachers, counselors, speech therapists, occupational therapists, and parents and relatives all need teaching tips for children on the autism spectrum. I was delighted to come across an article at the Autism Research Institute written by no other than Temple Grandin! Since she is a college professor and also is gifted with autism, I thought that her insights would be particularly valuable you! She presented a total of 28 tips. Since I don’t have the stamina to present them all in this particular post, I thought I could start with the first 10. I’m going to paraphrase them, but you can read the article in full to get her full explanation of these tips in her own words.
Teaching Tips for Children on the Autism Spectrum
Gentle and firm. These seem to be the two general guidelines that Dr. Grandin introduces to teachers. Individuals with autism, in her opinion, benefit from the maximum amount of engagement possible, along with a good amount of structure. Dr. Grandin grew up with almost 40 hours of structured teaching activities, including speech therapy, imagination/play therapy with a nanny, and learning how to behave appropriately in neurotypical settings. The national research council produced one of the best comprehensive books I have read on the subject of teaching in this area, called Educating Children with Autism. I had the privilege of attending a continuing education seminar by Dr. Catherine Lord, one of the main contributors, and the common success factor for children with autism is intensive teaching intervention from an early age. This is consistent with Dr. Grandin’s story.
Remember that many individuals on the autism spectrum are visual learners.
Dr. Grandin illustrated this fact beautifully in her book titled Thinking in Pictures. Her first language, so to speak, is pictures. The words followed the pictures. Therefore, the more that you can do to adapt your teaching style to support that modality, the more easily the child with autism will comprehend what you are trying to illustrate. Since this could be an article in itself, I’ll recommend that you check out Polyxo’s article and resources on visual supports for teaching. You’ll find some helpful tips regarding visual teaching methods there.
Keep Your Instructions Concise and Simple
This teaching tip comes with a caveat. The autism spectrum is called “spectrum” for a reason. Each student will have a varying level of understanding and comprehension. I guess the tip here is to tailor your instructions to the comprehension level. Dr. Grandin is brilliant, as her teaching bio will attest to, but she herself states that she struggles with more than two-step spoken instructions. Therefore, you will want to make sure that your student understands each step that you are giving him/her. You may want to write out the instructions so that the student can read them, or even use the PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) to convey your instructions.
Accentuate Your Student’s Strengths
Children on the autism spectrum may have talents in a number of domains: drawing, art, computer programming, even words/language. Be sure to be on the look out for those strengths and talents, just as you would with any other student. Encourage the child and his/her parents to expand that skill or talent. Dr. Grandin feels, and she may be correct, that there needs to be a lot more emphasis in the area of identifying and developing strengths. You may enjoy reading an article I wrote on my Psychology Today Blog, Spectrum Solutions, titled Little Known Ways to Channel Your Asperger Child’s Strengths. In this article I point out other strengths and talents of children on the autism spectrum.
Utilize Your Student’s Specialized Interests
One of the key autism aspergers characteristics is a tendency to have specialized interests. For example, a child may be fascinated with trains, or with Pokemon, or with weather, or with any number of other subjects. Rather than trying to shut down or limit that interest, you may be able to harness that interest to teach other concepts. In the words of Temple Grandin,
The best way to deal with fixations is to use them to motivate school work. If the child likes trains, then use trains to teach reading and math. Read a book about a train and do math problems with trains. For example, calculate how long it takes for a train to go between New York and Washington.
Be Sensitive to Your Student’s Deficits
Before I go any further on this point, I ask that you please read 10 Things Your Child With Autism Wants You To Know. This article will open your eyes to your student’s perspective on living life with autism in a neurotypical world. I also highly recommend Rudy Simone’s article from Psychology Today, titled Imagine A World Where Aspergers Was The Norm. These two articles will help you develop empathy for your student’s experience. For example, your student may struggle with fine motor or gross motor difficulties. Or your student may be extremely sensitive to noise, sounds, or smells. Try to tailor your approach to teaching that student accordingly. The schools have come a long way in developing Individualized Education Plans that help take these differences into account, but it’s helpful to remember to be compassionate regarding differences.
Learn From Your Occupational Therapists!
Occupational therapists are amazing individuals :) I say this because of my experience in interacting with them, and watching them assist children with autism. They know so much about sensory challenges that children with autism experience. As a teacher, become a student of your occupational therapist, and learn about tricks, tips, and strategies you can incorporate into your teaching. For example, Dr. Grandin points out that weighted vests, or providing children with opportunities for sensory input such as swinging or running, will help calm the sensory systems down so that your students can concentrate on the subject at hand. I recommend Brian King’s article, 6 Simple Sensory Solutions for the Autism Spectrum, for some practical ideas on reducing the stress that stimuli can bring throughout the day.
Helpful Sites for Teachers
I want to share a couple of teaching websites that I’ve found particularly interesting and useful.
Polyxo is full of lots of practical tips and tools for teachers.
This article contained further links that seem to be promising for teachers: Lesson Plans for Autistic Children
Positively Autism has free resources, lesson plans, teaching materials, and more.
photo credit: Wonderlane
I hope you found this article helpful. If you’re a teacher, what sites, books, or other materials have you found helpful for teaching children on the autism spectrum?