Educator’s Guide to an ASD-Friendly Environment
Most children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) need specialized educational resources. Teachers and other educators have the challenging and rewarding job of supporting both their neurotypical and neurodivergent students.
Even if a child has higher needs on the spectrum, it’s likely that they’ll be placed in a standard classroom for at least for part of their day. Surveys show that over half of students with autism between 6 and 21 years old (from kindergarten through undergraduate studies) spend at least 40% of their day in a classroom with neurotypical children. About two-thirds of this group spends more than 80% of their school day in a classroom with predominantly neurotypical classmates.
Often, children with autism spend part of their day in a classroom for children with special needs, in special education, or in a classroom with at least one teacher who is trained in special education. However, this time is unlikely to dominate their school day. Most often, teachers have a blended classroom, with one or a few neurodivergent students and mostly neurotypical students.
Maintaining the health of a family isn’t easy in the best of times. During a global pandemic, the work gets even tougher.
We’ve outlined important ways to support your neurodivergent students, especially those on the autism spectrum.
Understanding Children With Autism in a Neurotypical Classroom
Children with autism are often put in classrooms with neurotypical students. This can create friction, stress, and misunderstandings if there isn’t the proper support from the teacher. Educators may also be teaching a child with autism who has not yet received an official diagnosis.
Here are some signs that a child in your classroom might be on the autism spectrum:
- They have trouble interacting with other children, often misreading social cues or becoming upset.
- They do not relate to other students and have difficulty seeing things from neurotypical students’ point of view.
- They often play by themselves.
- They do not make much eye contact, or they look into others’ eyes with hesitation.
- They may display unusual or repetitive movements.
- They may struggle with some developmental milestones like verbal communication while excelling in other ways, like reading comprehension.
- They have trouble paying attention in class.
- They may play with toys or items on their desk in ways that seem repetitive or unusual.
- They may struggle with physical coordination, appear clumsy or awkward, and play and interact differently than neurotypical children do.
If you have at least one student on the autism spectrum, you should have at least one teacher’s aide available to help you support that student’s learning. You can also request special training or certification to best support these students, even if your other students are neurotypical.
It is important to ensure you have the support you need in your classroom to help all your students learn in different ways. For children on the autism spectrum, this often means additional attention, alternative explanations or learning tools, and sensory-safe areas where they can calm themselves, if needed.
These are vital additional supports for children on the autism spectrum and other neurodivergent children, as children with special needs are suspended at twice the rate as their neurotypical peers. This is because children with special needs, like those with ASD, often exhibit behavioral issues because they struggle to understand social interactions and situations.
When a student cannot understand another student’s gestures, facial expressions, or body language, misunderstandings and disruptions can quickly occur. Suspending students or having them leave for the day means the child misses learning opportunities, which can set them back in their educational progress. Proper training for teachers and additional classroom support can help to mitigate these problems.
Basic Strategies to Support Children With ASD in Your Classroom
All children need structure and support in the classroom, but children on the autism spectrum especially benefit from routines, clear schedules, and repetition.
Here are some recommendations for basic classroom management, which can support children with autism and their neurotypical peers:
- Create a clear daily routine for your class that includes specific lessons and playtime.
- Discuss these routines when they are changed. If you shift from a reading lesson into a math lesson, give students some advance warning.
- Display visual guides for schedules, timelines, and other learning tools. Many children are visual learners, and children with autism are often in this group.
- Use clear language. Avoid humor, irony, metaphors, or hyperbole.
- Be clear with all students about which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. Do not rely on them understanding subtle social cues if there is a misunderstanding.
- When asking students, especially students with autism, a question, give them some options rather than leaving the question open-ended. For example, ask, “Would you rather read a book or play on the computer?” instead of “What do you want to do now?”
- Changes in all children’s behavior may reflect tiredness, stress, or anxiety, but this is especially true for children with autism. Be aware of behavioral changes, and offer options for relaxing and calming down, like a relaxation area in your classroom.
- Lead your class in mindfulness or breathing exercises to relax, especially if there is a social incident.
- Be clear as soon as possible if there are any changes to the schedule, like early dismissal or a fire safety drill. Remind students often about these changes as they approach.
- Keep instructions simple and concrete. Encourage children with individual praise. Use statements like “Good work!” or “You are doing very well.”
- Use cues to alert students when something is important. Say clearly, “This is important information.”
- Use your students’ names rather than simply saying “everyone” or “all of you.”
- Place children with autism at the front of the class so they can see and hear clearly. If they are very sensitive to being gazed at or sensitive to touch, you can place them in a location at the back of the class that feels safe for them.
- Have the child with autism repeat instructions or steps in the information they just received, like a math or grammar problem.
- Find safe sensory ways to practice these skills in different settings or at different times.
- Pair students with autism with neurotypical students who are good role models.
- Model expected behaviors yourself.
Creating a Safe Social Environment for All Students
Children with autism may have different behaviors, and they may struggle to understand the behaviors of neurotypical classmates. Helping neurotypical students understand the behaviors of children with autism is one way to reduce social challenges and bullying. In addition, it’s beneficial to help the child with autism understand the social responses of their classmates.
In the classroom, your teaching aide can help the child with autism understand social interactions by using different teaching tools. For example, a child with ASD may learn more easily with visual aids, like drawings, so your aide can draw social interactions, or use dolls or toys to replay social interactions, rather than explaining what happened to the child.
This is especially true for children on the spectrum who struggle with verbal cues, language processing, or complex spoken social interactions. If the child can have a social interaction replayed for them with visual aids, they can understand what was happening with the neurotypical student. They can then learn that certain cues in words, facial expressions, or body language mean specific things, and they are not meant to be aggressive.
As the lead teacher, you can help your neurotypical students understand behaviors displayed by children with autism. For example, stimming is very common among children with ASD regardless of autism severity. Stimming can include hand-flapping, making repetitive noises, or performing other repetitive actions.
Stimming helps people on the spectrum calm down by releasing emotional and physical energy. Modern therapists who specialize in helping children with autism do not stop stimming behaviors unless they are extremely disruptive or lead to injury. An applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapist may help the child learn when they can perform stimming behaviors and how they can do so safely.
Neurotypical children who are sharing a classroom with neurodivergent children are likely to see these behaviors. They may be wary of specific behaviors if they do not understand them.
Creating a Safe Sensory Environment for Students With Autism
Children with autism are especially sensitive to sensory overload, including excessive bright colors and patterns, flashing lights, moving images, loud or random noises, repetitive sounds, smells, and other input. One of the best ways to support a safe learning environment for all your students, whether they are on the autism spectrum or neurotypical, is to consider clutter and sensory inputs.
If you need a computer or tablet to work, find a way to turn the screen away from your students, turn the brightness down, or turn it off when you do not immediately need it. If your students also use computers or tablets for work, turning the brightness and sound down can help neurodivergent students to concentrate on their work.
Bright colors can be very distracting, especially when there are several of them. While having visual aids can greatly improve learning for students on the autism spectrum, having too many visual aids that are not organized can be confusing or overwhelming.
Keep toys in a specific location in your classroom, and have all children work together to put them away when they are done. Keep coats and belongings in cubbies or lockers, and teach students to organize their desks so pencils, books, and paper are easy to reach and orderly. Reducing clutter on your desk will also help students with autism focus on their own desks.
For older students who may not be in your classroom for the whole day, ask your school for a place the student can go when they need to calm down. This space might feel safer than the classroom environment. This might be outside in a courtyard, the nurse’s office or the school administrator’s office, or a room dedicated for students with special needs.
The Relaxation or Sensory-Friendly Area
Create a “relaxation corner” or “concentration corner” for your students. Make sure there are a few soft places to sit, like large pillows or beanbag chairs, and some simple toys, like stress squeeze balls or fidget spinners. When you create a space for children to relax after a stressful encounter or to go when they simply feel overloaded, you reinforce that their feelings are important, and they are responsible enough to manage them.
A teacher’s aide can work with students with autism if they are especially stressed and having a hard time learning or interacting with their neurotypical peers. By standardizing that recuperation and de-stressing help all students learn, you create a safe learning environment for all your students.
Here are some tips for creating a relaxing area of your classroom:
- Offer soft surfaces for sitting or lying down.
- Provide a weighted blanket, as the physical pressure can help to create a sense of calm.
- Create lower lighting in the area, if possible.
- Get some noise-cancelling headphones for children who are sensitive to excess or sudden noise.
- Place some tactile or sensory toys in the area, to help the child ease stimming and stress.
Meet the Parents
Connecting directly with parents is one of the best ways you can help children with autism in your classroom.
Parents may have outside help for their child, like an ABA therapist, or they may have specific types of training to support their child at home. When you connect with the family, ask questions about specific ways the child learns new skills and enjoys interaction, so you can recreate some of these positive supports in your classroom.
When you talk with parents, reiterate the good things their child has done. Make a list of the child’s strengths, and report new skills they have learned or positive social interactions they have had. Just like with neurotypical students, you are not attempting to control or suppress a child with autism. Instead, you are seeking to support their positive qualities and their learning ability.
If you need additional help in the classroom, you should ask for it. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires schools and school districts to offer these classroom supports so all children can learn in a safe, accessible, and supportive environment.
Returning to the Classroom During or After the COVID-19 Pandemic
Children with autism are more susceptible to stress and sensory overload than neurotypical students, but everyone may be anxious, fearful, worried, or exhausted during this time. Even if a child on the autism spectrum benefits more from classroom learning, they may have become used to home schooling, as their parents established a specific routine for the day. That routine will change when they return to school.
If your school is attempting online or hybrid virtual-live learning, children with autism may struggle even more. They may become easily distracted by other computer programs, sensory input from their house, or how other students appear on the screen. It may be difficult for them to follow verbal instructions online because they do not have the same expected cues they would receive in person.
You can take some steps to make an online learning environment better for all students, especially those with autism.
- Allow students to keep their cameras off if they do not want to be gazed at or if they need to create a more comfortable environment for themselves.
- Reiterate instructions in a written form, either in a chat window or in an email to the students. Tell them explicitly that you are also writing down their homework or class work instructions.
- Create time for several breaks, as children can become tired more easily when staring at a screen.
As schools reopen or offer some in-person learning for children with special needs like autism, neurodivergent children are likely to experience higher levels of stress than in previous years. This is partially due to changes in their daily routine and changes in their expectations of school. It may also be because they are understandably afraid of getting sick.
Before children return, make sure you are clear with parents about the steps being taken to ensure classroom health and safety. Make sure children understand the necessity of:
- Wearing masks.
- Using hand sanitizer and keeping hands clean.
- Social distancing rules in the classroom, in other areas of school, and even outside.
- Using one-way corridors.
- Avoiding areas with a certain number of people in them.
There are many changes that will be made over the next year or two as schools continue to adjust to the pandemic and reopen. Keeping up with these changes, and making sure your students with autism understand them and get reminders of these changes frequently and in a calming manner, will help students stay as relaxed and focused in their new environments as possible.
Supporting Students With Autism Means Getting Support for Your Teaching
It is important to create a safe environment for all your students regardless of where they are on the autism spectrum. Neurotypical students may seem to “fit in” more easily, but even students who do not have a diagnosis of autism can benefit from an environment with less stimulation, an area for them to calm down, clear guidance and instruction, and well-defined daily timetables. This also helps neurotypical students to develop empathy for children with autism, who need additional support to learn, especially regarding language and social interactions.
There are also resources that your school can provide, like a teacher’s aide, training in specific teaching styles, support from outside organizations that work with children with autism, and even special education training. These can all help you support children with autism or other forms of neurodiversity in your classroom.
Most importantly, the ADA requires schools to accommodate children with special needs. This includes providing you with necessary support so you can ensure all your students feel safe and able to learn.
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Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and Educational Accommodation. Law Offices of Stimmel, Stimmel, & Roeser.
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