Autism Awareness Month: Advice for the Classroom

April is Autism Awareness Month. One of the more mysterious developmental disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder presents itself in many different ways from child to child. In an effort to raise awareness about the many learning styles of students with autism and effectively support them, it is important that educators receive valuable, current information and strategies to help empower students in the classroom. With diagnostic data indicating a rising rate of more than 1 in 70 births, it is likely that this information is vital for parents and educators.

No two students with autism are alike. This disability is unique in the sense that it manifests differently from person to person. The age of onset varies, as well, with most children exhibiting symptoms by age three. However, there are some consistent findings: boys are almost four times more likely to have autism, and language regression and sensory sensitivity are often the first reported signs or symptoms.

Because early intervention is paramount for treating and managing an autism diagnosis, students in your classroom that are affected by autism are likely to have certain routines or practices already in place. The key then becomes streamlining the successful practices and strategies from home into the classroom environment. Be proactive when asking parents about successful strategies that they implement at home. Be sure to make contact with families early in the school year to ensure that the classroom transition is smooth. As much as possible, reinforce the successful practices from home in your classroom. The more consistency that your students experience, the better. Parents are a teacher’s greatest assets when finding ways to best serve your students.

Plan to maintain consistent and positive communication with parents of your students with special needs. Parents of a child with autism may be hesitant or anxious about their child’s acclimation to a new classroom environment. This is 100 percent understandable, as some past experiences may have been unfortunate or stressful for the child. Put parents at ease by maintaining a communicative relationship—one based on positivity and growth. Of course, weekly reports may vary in positivity, but remember to lead with the pros. What did the student do well this week? What growth have you seen of late? What social milestones did you witness in class or at recess? And so on.

Since students with autism frequently experience a sensitivity to sensory stimuli, teachers should be sure to maintain a calm and consistent environment. This is much easier said than done, however. A classroom of 35 boisterous children does not necessarily lend itself to calm and consistent. In an effort to best accommodate your students with special needs, consider keeping a cozy corner or quiet spot in the classroom. Use cushions, pillows, and bookcases to create a somewhat private “cool down” area if a student is experiencing stress from the classroom. Bright lights or darkness, loud noises, commotion, or unexpected changes in the routine, like a fire drill, can totally throw students with sensory sensitivity for a loop. Students on the spectrum are most comfortable when routines are maintained and expectations are met. So consider giving your student a heads-up if the daily norm is going to be disrupted. Knowing what is to come is immensely helpful for students that rely on continuity.

Be careful about praise, criticism, and sarcasm. Generally speaking, sarcasm should be avoided in the elementary classroom because of the students’ inability to read those cues. However, with students on the spectrum, sarcasm and dry humor can be even more confusing or misleading. Similarly, comments of support, praise, or reassurance may actually come across quite differently, depending on a student’s social perceptions. Be careful when recognizing a student’s achievements. Some may loathe the limelight and attention. If you know that your student is particularly shy, consider writing him a congratulatory letter, or recognizing his accomplishment in a small group of his friends.

Autism Awareness Month: In the Classroom

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April is Autism Awareness Month. Autism Spectrum Disorder may present itself in many different ways in and out of the classroom. In an effort to raise awareness and support for each and every student, it is important that educators are informed about Autism Spectrum Disorder and learn strategies to help our students feel comfortable and achieve success. With diagnostic data indicating a rising rate of almost 1 in 70 births, it is likely that this information will prove to be helpful in the classroom.

Because treating and managing a child with an autism diagnosis is often stressful and nerve-wracking for parents, it is common for parents to be more involved and hands-on in many aspects of the child’s education. Especially when transitioning into a new class or school, parents, too, will likely need some extra TLC and reassurance to ease the stress of acclimating their child into a new environment.

Plan to maintain consistent and positive communication with parents of your students with special needs. Be sure to ask parents about successful strategies that they implement at home. As much as possible, reinforce these practices in your classroom. The more consistency that your students experience, the better. Remember that, as always, parents are your biggest assets when finding ways to best serve your students.

Maintaining a stress-free environment is always the goal. However, this is especially important when considering the needs of a student with an autism diagnosis. Stress, loud noises, commotion, or unexpected changes in the routine can totally throw students for a loop. Students on the spectrum are usually most comfortable when routines are maintained and expectations are met. If you are planning a collaborative group activity, a boisterous lesson, or anything that strays drastically from the norm, consider how your student may react. Being proactive as opposed to reactive can mean the difference between a good day and a bad day for your student.

Plan assignments and activities that generate positive self-esteem and celebrate every student’s unique talents. Too often, when we hear of a diagnosis or condition, our minds jump straight to the hurdles—“such and such is more difficult for so-and-so.” Instead, consider how to highlight your student’s unique strengths and hidden talents. Student choice is the best practice as is, but be sure to keep an open mind and truly tap into the interests of your students with special needs.

Providing encouragement while maintaining your perspective is not always a simple task when dealing with a student’s strengths and weaknesses. What we consider to be supporting, praising, or reassuring may actually come across quite differently, depending on a student’s social perceptions. Some students with ASD are not comfortable with any sort of recognition or attention—giving this type of attention, no matter how positive, may cause unnecessary distress. It is also possible that constructive criticism or suggestions could be taken more negatively than intended. Thus, we must be cognizant of student sensitivities and preferences when providing praise or suggestions for improvement.  

Autism Awareness Month

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April is also Autism Awareness Month. In an effort to raise awareness about autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it is important to both spread valuable information and to debunk common misconceptions. With diagnostic data indicating a rising rate of almost 1 in 70 births, it is likely that autism will affect someone that you know. 

An autism diagnosis will affect each member of the family differently.

Because of the time, money, and stress associated with treating and managing a child with an autism diagnosis, the entire family will experience the pressure in some way.

For instance, due to lack of knowledge on the topic, or misconceptions about ASD, parents or guardians may blame themselves for somehow contributing to the disorder. It is a natural instinct for parents to feel that they must shoulder the blame, but this is simply not the case. When the condition was first recognized in the 1940s, experts in the field of psychology believed that autism was an emotional disorder brought on by “detached” or unaffectionate caregivers. Psychologists thought that the child’s inability to socially connect was primarily due to parenting styles. While these theories surrounding children on the autism spectrum have long been discarded, parents sometimes still maintain a sense of guilt or responsibility.

Naturally, other siblings in the family may feel that the parents are focused more on the child with special needs. They may feel neglected or even act out to gain attention. Similarly, it is common for children with ASD to follow very specific routines, including sleeping and eating patterns. This may mean that the family’s meals and schedules revolve primarily on the child with special needs—again creating a sense of jealousy or competition amongst the other siblings in the household.

Early diagnosis and interventions are crucial.

According to autism-society.org, “The estimated lifetime cost of caring for someone with autism ranges from $1.4-2.4 million, but this cost can be reduced by two-thirds through early diagnosis and intervention.” Resources, such as behavior specialists and different nonmedical interventions provide numerous options for families that have encountered a recent autism diagnosis. The many options available—from art, music, and animal therapy—to applied behavior analysis allow families to take multiple approaches when it comes to treatment.

An autism diagnosis should not be a roadblock to independence in adulthood.

Too often, a developmental delay or disability of any kind is seen as an obstacle—a door that is closed. What many people do not know is that autistic children, while they do not grow out of the condition, go on to become successfully independent adults. Mainstream education is simply the beginning. A large percentage of students with ASD further their education after high school, earning degrees and preparing for the workforce. More and more, colleges are providing support for students with special needs. Everything from social skills and career readiness, to life skills and job placement, are provided on campuses.

Independent living and close social relationships are also a reality for many adults with ASD. Simply put, with the right interventions and supports, families managing an autism diagnosis have a plethora of supportive resources and options to help their children thrive and succeed.