Children Raising Hands In Class

Have you ever heard the phrase, “If you’ve met a child with autism, you’ve met ONE child with autism”? This is probably the truest statement in the autism community. Autism is a “spectrum disorder”, meaning that a child might have a few barely visible characteristics and still meet criteria for a diagnosis, or very prominent or “severe” characteristics. It’s a wide range, and for this reason, it’s not easy to have a standardized plan of creating adaptations to teaching strategies for autism. 

Describing the perfect teaching strategies for autism would be like trying to describe the perfect conditions for every snowflake – each child is so unique, therefore their needs will be unique. This is where most curricula fall short, and individualized instruction becomes somewhat of a pipe dream for educators. 

The fact is, there are many factors that make teaching children with autism incredibly difficult. Teachers are expected to do it all – teach, report, case manage, manage behavior – the expectations grow daily. Not to mention, teachers (like myself early in my career) often find themselves graduating from teaching programs that tell them to implement socio-cultural approaches to teaching, only to find themselves handed a district mandated curriculum. What this means is that teachers rarely have the resources to teach the way they were taught to teach – let alone make modifications for children with autism.

Teaching Methods for Autism

All things considered, teachers really have a lot on their plate, but if you are a teacher, there are ways to implement research-based and effective strategies for children with autism in the classroom. Knowing how to implement these strategies for autism in the classroom also helps with classroom management – Applied Behavior Analysis deals with taking note of certain behaviors, the motivations behind them, and what makes them continue or decrease.

If you’re tired of sounding like a broken record, tired of behavior charts that always have the same students in the “red” zones, or tired of not seeing the progress you want to see – these teaching strategies for autism are applicable for you. 

Here is my go-to list of methods of Applied Behavioral Analysis strategies that will change the dynamics of your classroom and better accommodate kiddos you have in your class that may have or do have autism:

1. Understand and implement Antecedent Intervention strategies.

Antecedents are the events immediately preceding a behavior. Let’s say you have a child that consistently engages in aggressive behavior. An antecedent would be anything that is directly before an act of aggression. This isn’t a subjective account of why the aggression happens, like “He was mad that he had to go to the gym so he hit someone”. This is an objective observation of the environment and events that immediately occurred before the behavior, such as “It was time to go to the gym, the teacher said ‘Let’s go to the gym’, then aggression occurred”.

This is important, because we have no idea what emotion is occurring. Ever try to track your own emotions? It’s not even clear cut for grown adults without autism. I can lash out because I’m hungry, sleepy, moody and upset that I have to do something I don’t want to do. For a child with autism, I can’t presume to say that he’s mad for any particular reason. I can, however, take note of things that are happening right before an outburst and try my best to understand the conditions that make aggressive behavior more likely. If it happens every time it’s time to go to the gym, I can glean that something is happening in the gym that the child really doesn’t like. 

When I implement an antecedent intervention, it means I change those conditions so that aggressive behavior is less likely and the child receives support. First, I check out the gym and what’s going on in there. I try to single out what it is about the gym that the child doesn’t respond well to. Maybe it’s too loud and chaotic in there, maybe the child is overwhelmed by not knowing what activities will happen there. Once I have a better idea of what makes the gym a no-go, I can intervene. If it’s too loud, I can provide headphones prior to the transition to the gym. If he doesn’t like the unpredictability of the activities, I can coordinate with the gym teacher to see what their activity schedule looks like and create a schedule for the child. 

Antecedent interventions take preparation, but they save a ton of frustration on the child’s part and a lot of time and resources in the long run.

2. Ditch the Behavior Charts.

Honestly, we need to get out of the mindset that a child IS their behavior. Behavior charts at the front of the classroom are a good idea on paper – I’m sure the intent is pure. We want to signal a child that their behavior is meeting the standard of what’s functional for a classroom. The trouble with this system is that it doesn’t provide clear parameters of what these standards are, it doesn’t provide any type of motivation except the idea of being labeled as “good”, and it isn’t defined by the child, it’s defined by the classroom standard. So what happens when a child’s needs are unique, and they can’t fit into your expectations?

Behaviorally-based strategies have to be unique to the child, and we should strive to make children with autism aware of what skills are being worked on to thrive in a classroom environment. There are ways to signal to a child when they need to redirect themselves that are more reinforcement-based and far more objective. An example would be to set a specific goal for the classroom, one that is attainable and positive (walking quietly in the hallway 3 days in a row or waiting our turn to speak during group time 3 groups in a row) and have a visual representation of meeting that goal. This works toward motivation, while setting the expectation for classroom behavior. 

3. Allow for varied modalities of learning.

You may recall similar teachings from your elementary education undergraduate studies – the child psychology part with the different types of learning. Some kids learn by doing. Some kids learn by hearing. Some kids learn by reading. Build your curriculum to accommodate all. One of the best ways I’ve seen this, was when I attended a teacher training on a layered curriculum approach. Each week had a theme. The class was going to learn about a certain topic. The students were then given a task “menu”. They had all kinds of activities they could choose from that would demonstrate their understanding. 

Each activity required the child to know the material, but the child could demonstrate the material in a way most comfortable for them. If you have a child who is just barely verbal and you expect them to speak up in circle time, you’re not allowing to let the child show you their stuff. I’ll give an example. I thrive when I can write (or type) my thoughts. 

I can be incredibly thorough and I can get exactly the point across exactly the way I want it. If you ask me for the same results from asking me a question and having me verbally answer, I’ll fall short. I can’t organize my thoughts the same way. I will sound like I’ve never had a coherent thought in my life. If we allow adults to communicate and demonstrate their expertise in multiple modalities, we should be doing that in the classroom, too. 

4. Consider the skills a child needs to acquire, but also consider the barriers to acquiring them.

This is very common in the ABA world. We don’t just look at what the child has yet to gain in terms of skills, we also work on the things that might keep them from gaining those skills on their own. For instance, if a child is non-verbal, then the skill of greeting people by saying “hi” isn’t going to just pop up. We have to work on the barrier in order to achieve the skill. If a child is constantly engaging in restrictive or repetitive movements, then trying to teach them how to tie their shoes by modeling it isn’t going to be very effective. We first would need to teach them how to watch someone and take a break from the repetitive movements. If you are about to teach a science experiment to the entire class, but you have a child on the spectrum in your group who has a hard time following group instruction, start first by considering how else the child might be able to watch the experiment, or first work on the child learning in a group. We have to get down to the basics. In some cases, we are pulling double duty because we also have to teach how to learn in a group environment. Teaching ONLY skills without considering barriers is a lot like throwing confetti at a wet pillar. Some things will stick, but not many. If you can teach a child while understanding the barriers and building up their ability to overcome them, you’re taking each piece of confetti and putting on the pillar one by one to make sure it sticks. It’s slower. It’s more work. But it’s life changing. 

5. Be open.

This one seems obvious, but we all fall short of it. Have an open mind. Don’t make un-things into things. Sometimes we like to put our foot down on things that aren’t really issues. Everyone does it. It could be that these were rules that we grew up by and we subconsciously assume that they’re life or death. They’re not. I once worked with someone who insisted that the child learn by sitting across from them. The child constantly jumped up out of his chair, bounced up and down. Then was redirected to sit back down. Honestly, if she would’ve just let him stand and jump up and down during the instruction time, he could’ve done double the work. The amount of time asking him to sit down and learn a way that wasn’t natural for him took more energy than just teaching him in a way he was comfortable with. But, my assumption is that my colleague grew up learning the same way I did. With desks the all the children sat at all day except for lunch, recess and our specials. We create rules sometimes that don’t need to be rules. When you feel yourself about to dig your heels in – ask yourself some basic questions.

  • Is the rule a necessity to ensure the safety of the child? 
  • Is the rule a necessity to ensure the child will not be unable to learn?
  • Is the rule a necessity to ensure that the child will not distract others to the point where they cannot learn?
  • Is the rule a necessity to ensure the safety of the rest of the classroom?

If the rule doesn’t achieve all of these, then it might not need to be a rule. Yes, it can be very important for a child to learn conventions of a classroom, but any time we’re prioritizing the conventions over a child’s natural way of learning, we’re headed for trouble. This is where power struggles come in. This is where we start to create a recipe for meltdowns that didn’t need to happen. If you want to help with aggressive behaviors with a child with autism, this guide is step ONE. Be open to a child’s natural way of learning, and if the child needs to slowly progress towards following classroom conventions, teach the steps toward that goal using encouragement. 

Teaching Children with Autism: Final Thoughts

This guide isn’t meant to tell teachers how to change their ways to better accommodate children with autism, it’s meant to help teachers understand how to prioritize their values when it comes to teaching children with autism

Children with autism have the same motives as their peers – to be accepted and loved for who they are. It’s our job to meet them where they are and ensure their learning. It starts with being willing to change up what we had in mind for the ideal classroom and dare to make modifications for students with autism. 

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