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Connect. Expect. Reflect. Strategies for Students With Autism

By Brian Smith on May 4, 2014
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

I am not an expert, but I do have a lot of experience with students who have autism on all ability levels from self-contained settings to regular education. My action research project for my grad school capstone was about how to teach social skills to kinder students on — or suspected to be on — the spectrum. I'm hoping that these tips can help teachers working with these special types of learners.

There is a well-known quote in the world of autism that says, “If you’ve met one person with autism, then you’ve met one person with autism.”  Please keep this saying in mind while reading these tips because no one strategy will work for every student.

Another point to remember is that when referring to students on the spectrum, it is very important that we put the student before the label. Referring to them as autistic students or autistic children puts the disability before their individuality. We all want to be known as individuals. This thinking is called "people first language," and it really conveys a sense of humanity when discussing any individual with a difference. 

1. Tell the student what you would like for them to do instead of telling them to stop a behavior.

This strategy is so easy to say, but is so hard to do. It can work like magic though when you understand it. For example, if you are walking down the hallway and a student is running their hand along the wall (which is a very tactile-seeking activity) telling the student to stop touching the wall still leaves a thousand other ways they can use their hands. However, if you tell the student that hands belong by their side, it very clearly says that this is the one way that they should be using their hands.

Once I had a mom tell me that she told her son to stop throwing tomatoes from their garden at the back fence. She said that she felt really good that he listened the first time — until she realized he had started throwing the tomatoes at their house. He had completely followed her directions and stopped throwing the tomatoes at the fence, but what the mom really wanted was for him to leave all the produce in the garden alone.

It really took me a long time to be able to implement this strategy without consciously planning it out before I spoke, but even then I’d do a great job with it at school, only to walk in the door at home and almost instantaneously tell my own daughter to stop doing something! It really is a hard habit to break, but completely worth the effort.

2. Use a "Talk-About-Later Box."

Talk-About-Later BoxI LOVE this strategy and I’ve always had success when I’ve put this into practice with a student. I have no idea where I first saw or heard it, but I’ve used it for years.

You use the talk-about-later-box when a student has something to say, but their contribution is lengthy AND off-topic. When I know this can be an issue for a student, I place a sticky note on the corner of their desk each day. At the top of the note it says, “Thank you for waiting to talk about these things. I can’t wait to hear all about them at 2:20 p.m.”

This is not to be used every time a student wants to contribute to a class discussion, but comes in very handy in circumstances like this real-life example:

Everyone has their dictionaries out, learning about guide words. Your student with autism sees the picture of a falcon in the "F" section and decides he needs to tell you everything that he knows about falcons (which is a tremendous amount). You can see how they this student has connected the guiding words at the top to discover the word "falcon," but you simply don’t have enough time to get that side-tracked. This is the perfect time to write "falcon" in the talk-about-later box and keep moving.

The most important part of this strategy is that the student knows you are excited to hear what they have to say and that you value their input. You can convey this by making sure you go to them every day at the time listed on the talk-about-later box and ask them to share what they wanted to say about all of the topics on the list. It is perfectly fine to set a time limit on this and you can easily do that by saying, “It’s 2:20 p.m. For the next five minutes I want to hear all about what you wanted to share about falcons.”

What I have found is that after the moment passes, most of the students with autism no longer want to talk about those topics, but giving them the opportunity to share will let them know that when you write something in the talk-about-later box, it is important to you.


3. Allow flexibility within your structure.

Students with autism crave routine and structure but it’s often what I call “flexible structure.” During math, cut their sheet in half and ask them which half they would like to complete first. Once they choose, say, “First you will do these problems and then you can finish these problems.” The problems will get completed and the student had a choice in it.

Another example would be if students are answering open-ended questions and your student with autism hates writing (a very common trait from my personal experiences in the classroom). It's helpful to present the assignment like this:

Answer questions 1-10 on page 119. Write your answers in complete sentences. I will write any two of the answers for you. Please raise your hand when you get to a question that you would like me to write for you.

The structure of the assignment is set, but the flexibility is there in the way that the student gets to choose when they get your help. Interestingly enough, I have experienced times where the student ends up answering all the questions for the assignment because they were saving their two helps and finished before they realized they didn't use them.

First Then ExampleThese types of scenarios can be found throughout the day, but you often have to be creative to find that flexible aspect within the structure that you created. Incorporating structure doesn't mean there is no flexibility, but instead means letting the student know the expectations and what will occur after the activity is complete. By giving this structure to students with autism, it decreases their level of anxiety. Additionally, using “First-Then” wording comes in handy not only in flexible structure, but also in sharing your daily schedule.

4. Make a visual schedule of daily events.

ScheduleThis is a simple one, but many people make the mistake of attaching times to their daily schedule. By having the times listed beside each event, a student with autism may expect that when the clock indicates a specific time, you are moving on to the next thing, no matter where you are in the lesson. By just having a sequence of events, students will know what is coming up next, but you won’t be bound by exact times.

Don’t forget that using picture representations of the different events of your day is a way that you can provide the same support for non-readers.

First Then

If you have younger students or students who struggle with processing a lot of stimuli at once, a full day may be too much information. In this case give them two events at a time. Here again, I’ve found it’s best to use the words, “First-then” as in, “First we will do math, then we will have snack.”

5. Connect. Expect. Reflect.

This is the strategy that is the most important to me. I came up with this as a way to help me when working with all students, but especially those on the autism spectrum. Connections don’t come easy to students on the spectrum but these kids do understand genuine care and compassion. Once you’ve made a connection and understand your student, your expectations will be appropriate and more likely to be met. The reflection piece is what I consider the most important because that is where you really figure out how to make tomorrow better for your students on the spectrum. What went right? What happened that might have caused unnecessary anxiety?

Working with students who have autism isn’t always easy, but it is always rewarding if you allow it to be. If you are a teacher who has a child with autism included in your class, helping that child feel included will produce wonderful results for you and all your students. You will realize how they enhance not only the learning that occurs in your classroom, but also your teaching.

Let’s connect on Pinterest and Twitter.

I can’t wait to see you next week.

Comments (5)

Brian, I am a fourth grade teacher and found your insights so valuable. I think many of these strategies would work well with all students to show them that their opinions, knowledge and preferences are important. Thank you for taking the time to post this for those of us who are always looking for ways to lift these students up!

Brian, I thought your article contained some valuable, helpful strategies for both teachers and parents. Thanks you! I would respectfully disagree, however, with your assertion that using person-first language is preferable. I have an autistic daughter, and though I initially read everything the "experts" said, I eventually started reading what the true experts (autistic adults) had/have to say. In my years of reading, I have yet to meet an autistic adult who prefers to be called a "person with autism." When discussing people with physical disabilities, I think most would agree that person-first language is the gold standard; however, when it comes to people on the autism spectrum, 99% of people whose blogs/books I've read say that autism is *who they are* - not something they have (like Cancer, Diabetes, etc.). To me, when a group of people (whose experience is unarguably different than mine) state what feels safe and respectful to them (even if I don't fully understand), I respectfully listen. Just my two cents acquired along the way to autism acceptance :).

That is a great point and I truly appreciate you taking the time to comment. If someone doesn't mind the label first then they have a level of comfort with themselves that I feel is enviable. I would much rather be called Brian because there is more to me than just one label but I also completely respect the differing opinions about this issue as well. I think taking it on a case by case basis (much like we do each child) may be the best way to handle it. However, I don't feel that people first language should be reserved to just physical disabilities. I would never introduce anyone as Dyslexic Gary, Asthmatic Amy, or ADHD Lisa. Where I fully believe that there are people who feel identified by their differences, I don't feel it's my place to make those identifications. I really included that paragraph as an introduction to that idea for those that may not be familiar with it.

As always, Brian, fantastic insight and great strategies for all kids!! Thank you!!

Thanks Lisa!
That means so much coming from you!

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