By Kelley Yost Abrams, PhD

About the Author: Dr. Yost Abrams received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley and is a fellow with ZERO TO THREE. She is a parenting expert and early childhood researcher. Dr. Abrams specializes in parent-child attachment relationships, social-emotional development, and infant mental health.

How to Accommodate and Support Students With Autism in the Classroom

Students with ASD face behavioral challenges that can impact their performance at school. Because of these obstacles, they often require additional information and resources teachers may not already have.

If you are wondering about how to support students with autism, you are not alone. Many teachers want to feel prepared in helping this group of individuals grow. It’s estimated that 1 in 44 school-aged children have autism, and this number only continues to increase over the years.

After reviewing this blog post that details how to support students with ASD, we hope you feel confident in aiding anyone who enters your classroom.

Above All, Promote Inclusivity Within Your Group

Teachers may feel inclined to automatically separate students with ASD from the other children in their classroom. However, teachers do not necessarily need to break these students away from their larger group. It is important for teachers to keep students with autism amongst all other children in the classroom; this setting provides these students with numerous opportunities to develop relationships with peers. Because many children with ASD struggle with interacting in social situations, the classroom will provide them with learning experiences that will help them build confidence in their communication skills.

Embrace All Learning Styles

An inclusive classroom acknowledges and honors a wide range of learning styles. Every student learns differently whether they’re on the spectrum or not, but for children with autism it can be particularly difficult to adjust to a specific style of teaching or classroom setting due to difficulties with social skills and sensory processing.

That’s why, when running a neurodiverse classroom, it’s important to be aware of the different styles of learning and make the necessary modifications for students with autism. While there are a greater number of learning styles than those we outline below, learning preferences are often categorized in these four ways.

Auditory Learners

Some students retain information best when it is relayed through concise language. These learners are considered auditory. Students who are auditory will prefer listening and discussing a lesson as opposed to interacting with written or visual resources. Offering verbal reminders to children with this learning preference can be very helpful in a neurodiverse classroom.

Kinesthetic Learners

Others may be more receptive to tactile-learning and concrete examples, and with these students, you can showcase projects completed by previous students. You can also relay expectations and ask students to demonstrate these expectations through physical movement; kids may better understand what you expect from them through this roleplay method.

Visual Learners

Visual learners learn by reading or seeing pictures. They are often good at interpreting graphs and charts and retaining information through visual resources. While it’s still unclear if children and adults with ASD are predominantly visuospatial learners, it may still be helpful for some children in a neurodiverse classroom to work with signs and visual cues to learn lessons. Using visual representation is one of the recommended methods for potty training children with autism, and it might provide similar support to children learning new skills and concepts in a classroom.

Reading/Writing Learners

Your classroom may even include students who prefer to learn through reading. If reading helps these students make connections, you can consider incorporating books they will love into your teaching plans. Many children’s novels contain valuable themes, so even if you think a favorite story would not necessarily align with your current curriculum, you can always plan for it in your future lessons.

Provide a Variety of Activities

Speaking of supporting your students’ learning styles, you can appeal to every individual in a neurodiverse classroom by maintaining a variety of activities every week. If you are feeling stumped on where to even start, consider your students’ interests. Do they love to spend time outside? Do they enjoy art? It is worth asking yourself these types of questions, as you can develop plans that excite every student.

Also, consider that children with ASD may not tolerate sitting in one place for long periods of time. To help these students maintain focus, plan for a range of activities or tasks that involve moving to different groups of students or traveling to various areas of the classroom. You may want to have them perform hands-on tasks such as creating crafts at several stations, caring for animals or insects within a large group, or learning musical instruments in small groups. 

Finally, before introducing children to a new subject or lesson plan, remember to incorporate items or techniques that help the class smoothly navigate transitions between activities. Abrupt stops may prompt confusion from neurodivergent students, so taking extra time to communicate new activities will go a long way in ensuring they feel at ease. A big calendar and timer can even keep your class accountable.

Consider Modifications in the Classroom

To ensure maximum academic success, you may want to think about modifications for students with autism. A large mission for teachers is to provide any opportunity for their kids to understand and effectively demonstrate what they learn, and often, accommodations can help in achieving this initiative. 

A popular modification is allotting extra time to complete assignments. If this student does not receive ample time to thoroughly understand their assigned work, they may feel anxious. By providing this additional time to the student, they can feel more confident as they process and follow instructions. You can also reduce anxiety through priming, which is a practice of providing an overview of an assignment before the student completes it.

Another option is to adjust project requirements for students to display expertise on a subject in their own way. For instance, if you assigned a public speaking project to your class, but you have a student who prefers to write, they can sit out the presentation. Instead, ask that student to complete a written report and turn in the assignment for you to review privately. If the child is a tactile-learner, modify the lesson to incorporate physical objects that they can manipulate to convey their understanding of the lesson.

As you can see, there are numerous types of classroom accommodations for ASD. However, there are a couple things you should keep in mind as you propose to support neurodivergent students. First, you will want to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to the students who require these modifications. Conversations revolving around requests for accommodations should remain private; opening up about schoolwork struggles can feel very personal for students and their families.

We also want to note that modifications are intended for support and may not resolve issues completely or instantly. Teachers may burn out from trying to both manage and satisfy multiple personalities in the classroom. Ultimately, we want to ensure children feel empowered to learn and do things on their own or with minimal support, and supplemental resources promote self-management; in other words, this support helps children feel in control versus feeling controlled. It is effective in that it can help children to further develop their skills; as they improve their skills, they will require less supervision and complete tasks independently.

Transform the Physical Space

As teachers decorate their classrooms, they always need to consider how their students will interpret the different types of stimulus in their learning environment. No doubt, you will probably want a clean, organized classroom with visual resources that boast both pictures and words. This is an excellent starting point; kids can easily find required supplies, and they can engage with the visual materials in a safe, non-disruptive way.

Additionally, it is not uncommon for students–particularly those with autism–to feel they need to give their senses a break. Create a designated calm space that children can utilize as a temporary retreat. This area can include cozy seating such as bean bags, floor cushions, or a sensory swing, as well as other soothing items such as fidget toys and a fluffy textured rug. Keep in mind, however, that it can be easy to crowd this space with decorations and furniture in an effort to make it fun and kid-friendly. To prevent overwhelmed feelings, the area should remain intentional, with perhaps a few purposeful décor and furniture pieces.

Develop Relationships With Parents

Finally, it is important to seek more information about your students with ASD; in turn, you can offer support that is aligned with their specific needs. For one thing, your students’ parents are probably eager to share stories with you about their children’s strengths. These can aid you in identifying future opportunities to celebrate them, especially when they achieve goals. Plus, by speaking with your students’ parents, you will not only gain an understanding of the students’ symptoms, but you can also use your newly-acquired information to prioritize their comfort in the classroom. As a result, your students will be less likely to feel anxious about what else they should expect throughout the day.

Your students’ parents also benefit from your efforts to connect with them. When you regularly update parents on how their children are performing each day, they can plan how to implement strategies enforced in the classroom at home.

We hope our insight on how to support students with ASD can aid you this school year. From all of us at Jigsaw Dx, we wish you success in your teaching efforts.

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