12 Things Teachers Should Know About Students With Autism

What follows is information geared towards helping teachers work with the types of higher functioning autistic students who they are increasingly seeing in their general education classrooms.  This list reflects my insights as: (1) a person with a masters degree in special education, with specific emphasis on autism spectrum disorders; (2) a general and special education teacher; and (3) the mom of a son with an autism spectrum disorder.   
  1. Autism is a "pervasive development disorder."  That means that individuals with autism demonstrate "pervasive" (lasting) impairment in three or more developmental areas.  The most common areas of impairment include: gross motor functioning (awkward gate/odd facial expressions); fine motor functioning (poor handwriting/odd pencil grip); social functioning (poor social skills); cognitive functioning (impaired critical thinking skills); speech/language functioning (odd speech patterns); semantic/pragmatic language comprehension (impaired reading and listening comprehension) and emotional functioning (difficulties with empathy, excessive anxiety). 
  2. Autism is a "spectrum" disorder.  This means that each individual with autism exhibits a unique mix of relative strengths and weaknesses in the above areas of functioning. For instance, some students may demonstrate good critical thinking but poor handwriting; or, they may demonstrate relatively normal speech patterns but facial tics or grimaces.  Be prepared for your students with autism to require very different levels and types of support.
  3. Stims.  Short for "stimulations," students with autism often have physical gestures, "tics", noises, or words that they repeat, particularly in situations in which they are experiencing stress. (Examples include: rocking, tapping foot, touching nose, making repetitive noises). These stims are coping/calming mannerism; generally speaking, it is better not to try to extinguish these stims unless you are in a position to simultaneously introduce a replacement stim (possibly something more socially acceptable or less noticeable) that can serve the same functional purpose (self-calming).
  4. Sensory sensitivity.  Students with autism may have an unusual (oversensitive or undersensitive) reaction to physical stimulii.  For instance, they may be oversensitive to noise, light, pressure (seatbelts, elastic waistbands), or texture (food, clothing, water).  Simultaneously, they may lack sensitivity to pain.  These sensory sensitivities may trigger "meltdowns" (see below).  As a teacher it is important to understand that though these sensory sensitivities may not be reasonable (or even discernable), they are very real to your student, and therefore need to be addressed in some fashion. 
  5. Obsessive interests. Students with autism often have one or more areas of obsessive interest.  These areas of interest range from fairly functional (example: a fascination with math, physics or history) to fairly eccentric (example: a fascination with school buses, maps or laundry machines).  Obsessive interests may change/evolve over time. A good way to motivate students with autism to learn is to build their obsessive interest into the curriculum.  (Example: let them write reports related to their interest; create math word problems related to their interest.)
  6. Literal comprehension.  Students with autism tend to have very poor pragmatic (practical) and semantic (social) understanding of language. As a practical result, they may have extreme difficulty comprehending non-literal information.  When possible, information should be presented in a clear and literal fashion.  When teaching these students to identify and comprehend implied information, it will probably be necessary to explicitly teach them how to look for "clues" in the text (oral or written).  Here are some corollaries to this: (1) students with autism rarely lie, as they find it difficult to use language in non-literal (untrue) ways; (2) students with autism have a tendency to perceive decisions are black/white, failing to appreciate that there may be options "in between"; (3) students with autism respond well to "rules-based" instruction - give them a rule and they will follow it!
  7. Eye Contact/Body Language. Students with autism often have difficulty recognizing and decoding "body language." As a result, they may (without realizing they are being inappropriate) stand too close, speak in monotone, use inappropriate volume, miss non-verbal signals (example: "I'm bored of this topic" look), or stare at inappropriate parts of the body. You may need to extinguish these behaviours in explicit ways: for example, by using point charts or some other incentive-based system.  Making eye contact can be particularly uncomfortable for them. (And largely pointless, since they are unable to "read" messages conveyed by facial expression). If possible, allow students with autism to avert their eyes when talking; alternatively, you may wish to encourage them to look at the speaker's mouth, which will make it appear as though they are making eye contact.
  8. Troubles with generalization. Students with autism may have difficulty generalizing information learned in one context to other contexts. For instances, if taught that jogging is healthy, they may not intuitively comprehend that walking is healthy as well. Or, if they had a good time in lunch yesterday, they may not intuitively predict that they probably will have a good time in lunch again today.  Connections between old information and new information often need to be explicitly pointed out to them.
  9. Troubles with "theory of mind." Students with autism often have difficulty grasping that other people think and perceive the world differently than themselves. They genuinely believe that everyone has the same background knowledge as themselves (which explains why they often launch into conversations without providing necessary introductory info); they genuinely do not understand that everyone does not share their interests (which explains why they expect others to share their obsessive interests); and they genuinely believe that everyone shares their perception of right/wrong (which explains why they can be very defensive when told that they have done something "wrong" - they do not perceive it as being wrong themselves and, therefore, can't understand how anyone else could perceive it otherwise).  You may choose to remediate each of these separately, but it is useful to recognize that they stem from the same underlying cognitive deficit.
  10. Anxiety.  Because of their deficits in generalizing, comprehension, and critical thinking, students with autism constantly find themselves in situations that are unfamiliar.  This, in turn, triggers anxiety.  (Imagine never being able to anticipate what's coming next or knowing whether it's going to be something safe or terrifying ... you'd live with a high level of anxiety too!) The best way to treat anxiety in students with autism is to establish "safe" areas and familiar patterns.  Visual schedules work well for helping them anticipate upcoming events.  When a pattern needs to be disrupted, it is useful to foreshadow the disruption - perhaps even helping them come up with a "script" they can use to cope with the situation - well in advance.
  11. Meltdowns.  Students with autism may succumb to a unique type of tantrum known as a "meltdown." Understand that this is not the same thing as a temper tantrum, and must not be handled in the same way.  Temper tantrums commonly arise when children attempt to manipulate a situation that is not to their liking.  Meltdowns, in contrast, occur when the child's coping mechanisms fail and they lapse into a state of panic in which they instinctively seek those most fundamental of protective instincts, "fight or flight."  Students in meltdown are not capable of processing logical information, no matter how calmly delivered.  Yelling or punishment, rather than extinguishing meltdowns, will usually escalate them by making these students feel even less safe.  The most effective way to cope with meltdowns, once they occur, is to remove the student from the stimulus, place them in a neutral (preferably prearranged) environment in which they feel safe (a room, a corner, even a closet), and give them time to recover their senses.  An even more effective strategy is to prevent meltdowns from occuring by recognizing the physical signs that a meltdown is building (ex: tensing of muscles, increase in stims) and immediately removing the child from whatever stimulus is threatening to overwhelming them.  Eventually, your goal should be to help your students with autism learn to self-monitor and self-implement appropriate coping mechanisms (example: asking that a stimulus be removed or modified; seeking safe harbor) to negative stimulii.
  12. Separate them from students who manipulate.  Although there may be some compulsion to place all your kids with "social skills issues" in one group, it is very important to separate students with autism from students with conduct disorders/disabilities.  Students with autism are not only incapable of manipulating others (they lack the social sophistication), but they are incapable of realizing when they are being manipulated.  The worst possible situation in which to place them is teamed with students who gain power/positive motivation by manipulating others.  (Think lambs among wolves ...!)


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  2. The Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may show may symptoms which are easily visible with the people.
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