10 Tips for Teachers Who Work With Kids on the Autism Spectrum
Little does my 7-year-old son know, but I look upon back-to-school with a lot of anxiety. I talk to him over summer about the upcoming year. I’m trying to prepare us both for the impending change. We go through the dreaded back-to-school shoe shopping (which is an event in itself). I try my best to prepare us emotionally and stock up on school supplies. The backpack is carefully selected. We look ready. But how do I know if the teacher will be ready for him?
As a former middle school teacher and a parent of an autistic child for the past seven years, I have a unique perspective on back-to-school. If I have the opportunity and ability to teach again, these are the things I’d keep in mind going into a new school year with an autistic student in my class:
1. Read those Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and look for kids who need proximity control or cues and prompts. You will want to make your first seating chart works for all of you. Don’t set your classroom up with kids who need extra support from you in the back only to have to move them in a few days. These students are already adjusting to new teachers, new classmates and sometimes even a new school. Changing their seat a few days into school should be avoided if possible.
2. Be understanding and do not take meltdowns or outburst personally. Remind yourself to be patient and that the new routine can cause a lot of anxiety for a student.
3. Teach specific social rules and classroom procedures. Remind all your kids about personal space and taking turns.
4. As school begins, many young autistic kids need their parents to smooth the transition. Gradually decrease this parent involvement to help get students used to coming to class independently. For example, let the parent help them to their seat and organize their items the first couple of days, but then remind the parents to have their child unpack the next day. Then have the parent drop them off at the door the following day.
5. If you ask an autistic child a question and get only a blank stare, try rewording your question and/or give options for answers. Sometimes they just need help and time processing your questions.
6. Avoid sarcasm and idioms. This is a reminder to parents, too. The child is likely to take your sarcasm seriously or think you literally want them to cut something if you tell the class to, “cut it out.”
7. Provide the class with a clear daily schedule and remind them of impending changes in the routine. Placing a visual or written schedule on the board is helpful but teachers will still want to remind and warn students when an activity is going to end and when transitions are about to occur.
8. Repeat instructions for students and be concise with directions. Chunk long activities to help kids that have trouble processing multi-step classwork.
9. Avoid overstimulation in the classroom environment and try to provide a quiet space for the student to go to if they become overwhelmed.
10. If students have trouble with group activities and games, gradually increase their involvement in them. Have them watch the other kids at first and then have them participate. If they still resist, try to find out what the student’s interests are and create a game that includes their interests. Cooperative activities and games help kids practice and learn social skills. For instance, my son might balk at the intimidating idea of playing kickball but would be thrilled to play any game that included Legos.
Best wishes to all the teachers and kids during this back-to-school time. It can be truly tough, but keeping these things in mind will definitely smooth the transition and help the students succeed!
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