Since autism spectrum disorder cause a wide range of learning disabilities that are unique to each child, classrooms must remain equipped to help every student work around those difficulties. Each individual’s executive function level and sensory processing difficulties play a role in the resulting learning disability types and severity. With 1 in 68 kids diagnosed on the autism spectrum, with many high functioning individuals, teachers at all grade levels must remain prepared to provide accommodations designed to mitigate those learning difficulties. With the right classroom accommodations, it is possible to overcome barriers to learning and help children with autism tackle schoolwork with confidence.
Difficulties with transitions between tasks and activities is common through the full range of the autism spectrum. Therefore, a daily class schedule detailing the broad activity categories for the day is a must. A detailed daily schedule will greatly assist with the transitions related to moving between the classroom, lunchroom, schoolyard and other destinations throughout the day.
It does not, however, have the power to assist with lesson micromanagement. Students with autism perform best when they know how to break up their time between each tasks required to complete the exercise or project in front of them. Teachers can provide an outline for each assignment to help students transition between the required tasks.
Kids on the autism spectrum often have difficulties with visual or auditory learning styles. Teachers should provide multiple media options to suit each child’s specific learning style. For visual learners, a combination of literature, videos, pictures and charts relays the lesson information best. Auditory learners, on the other hand, often require an audio tape or recording of the written information for the lesson.
For children exhibiting difficulties with both visual or auditory learning styles, it is possible to provide tactile tools to convey the information provided with each lesson. Tactile tools may include flash cards, board games, pads for notetaking, computer games and craft projects. Although it can be beneficial for the students to try the other types of media from time to time, the best progress will be made with the child’s preferred learning style.
Up to 95% of autistic children have difficulties regulating their sensory system, which is often referred to as sensory processing disorder. Therefore, sensory tools, or fidgets, can help relieve the resulting stress and improve focus for autistic children as they attempt to learn in a busy classroom environment. The fidgets allow these kids to self-regulate their emotions and keep themselves on task when distractions compete for their attention. Many kids who are prone to repetitive behavior can keep their typical motions under control with a fidget in hand or under foot.
There are many different types of sensory tools suitable for classrooms, including stress balls, pencil toppers, tangle puzzles, clay, wiggle cushions, weighted lap pads, chair bands and foot rollers. Since fidgets are fun, yet low key, they are a nice tool to have available to all of the students to avoid having anyone feeling singled out or left out.
Classrooms are full of distractions that students with autism frequently find difficult to drown out. The screech of chairs moving across the floor, other students walking around, intercom announcements, flickering lights and school bells are all bothersome distractions that are near impossible for children with autism to ignore. Even strong smells can overpower the senses and dominate the mind of students sensitive to that type of stimuli. These distractions often become incredibly overwhelming to the sensory system, especially as the day goes on, which can lead to a meltdown.
To prevent sensory overload, teachers can provide their students with a place to escape the constant barrage of noise and visual stimulus by creating a quiet corner in a low traffic area of the classroom. The corner should have somewhere for the students to comfortably rest and allow their sensory system to calm down. Noise canceling headphones or ear plugs, sleep masks and weighted blankets can all help the student overcome sensory overload and prepare to begin the learning process anew.
Teachers can help the school day go much smoother by building breaks into the schedule. A single five minute break every hour provides much needed time to transition between tasks and recover from the demands of the classroom environment.
Breaks should also be available on an as-needed basis to allow students with autism to learn how to respond to internal cues and take the actions required to regulate their being. Without an adequate number of breaks each day, students may be prone to meltdowns from sensory overload and fatigue from constantly attempting to regulate themselves.
Kids with autism tend to return from the break reorganized and ready to focus on the task at hand. Teachers may want to suggest extra breaks at first to help kids become mindful of their feelings. Guided breaks also give kids a chance to see which break time activities provide the biggest benefits. Kids who seek stimulus may prefer to listen to music, while overwhelmed students may benefit from quietly working on a puzzle.
Playing It By Ear
There are always going to be opportunities for teachers to further customize the classroom in an effort to mitigate the challenges autistic children face in school. Each child with autism provides a chance to observe the classroom accommodations that provide the biggest benefits and identify discrepancies in the learning environment. As teachers navigate the process of providing support for all students, it is important to utilize all of the available resources to create a learning environment friendly to all.
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