Ten Tips for Setting Up Your Classroom
1. Keep it structured
Children with autism thrive in a structured environment. Establish a routine and keep it as consistent as possible. Activities are successful when they’re broken into small steps. If children are creating a craft such as a paper airplane, define when it’s time to cut, draw and paste. Make sure children know what to do if they finish ahead of time. Typically, children with autism do not use free time productively; therefore strive to have as little downtime between activities as possible.
2. Use visuals
A picture speaks a thousand words! Use them whenever you can. Children with autism learn faster and with greater ease when you use visuals. In fact, we all respond better to visuals. When verbal instructions require too much concentration, children will tune you out. Visual supports maintain a child’s focus and interest. So what can you use visuals with? Just about anything.
People with autism like order and detail. They feel in control and secure when they know what to expect. Schedules help students know what’s ahead. Picture schedules are even more powerful because they help a student visualize the actions. Schedules can be broad or detailed. You can use them with any sequence of events. Written schedules are very effective for good readers. These can also be typed up and placed on a student’s desk. The child can “check off” each item as it’s completed, which is often very motivating for a student.
4. Reduce distractions
Many people with autism find it difficult to filter out background noise and visual information. Children with autism pay attention to detail. Wall charts and posters can be very distracting. While you or I would stop “seeing the posters” after a while, children on the spectrum will not. Each time they look at it will be like the very first time and it will be impossible for them to ignore it. Try and seat children away from windows and doors. Remember the old adage – out of sight, out of mind. Noise and smells can be very disturbing to people with autism.
5. Use concrete language
Always keep your language simple and concrete. Get your point across in as few words as possible. If you ask a question or give an instruction and are greeted with a blank stare, reword your sentence. Asking a student what you just said helps clarify that you’ve been understood. Avoid using sarcasm. If a student accidentally knocks all your papers on the floor and you say “Great!” you will be taken literally and this action might be repeated on a regular basis. Avoid using idioms. “Put your thinking caps on”, “Open your ears” and “Zipper your lips” will leave a student completely mystified and wondering how to do that. Give very clear choices and try not to leave choices open ended. You’re bound to get a better result by asking “Do you want to read or draw?” than by asking “What do you want to do now?”
6. It’s not personal
Children with autism are not rude. They simply don’t understand social rules or how they’re supposed to behave. It can feel insulting when you excitedly give a gift or eagerly try and share information and you get little to no response. If you get frustrated (and we all have our days) always remember the golden rule. NEVER, ever, speak about a child on the autism spectrum as if they weren’t present. While it might look like the student isn’t listening or doesn’t understand, this probably is not the case. People with autism often have acute hearing. They can be absorbed in a book on the other side of the room and despite the noise level in the class, they will easily be able to tune into what you are saying. Despite the lack of reaction they sometimes present, hearing you speak about them in a negative way will crush their self esteem.
Children on the autism spectrum feel secure when things are constant. Changing an activity provides a fear of the unknown. This elevates stress which produces anxiety. Reduce the stress of transitions by giving ample warning. Some ways you can do this is by verbal instruction example “In 5 minutes, it’s time to return to our desks” and then again “Three minutes until we return to our desks” and then again “One more minute till we return to our desks”. Another option is to use a timer. Explain that when the timer goes off, it’s time to start a new activity.
8. Establish independence
Teaching students with autism how to be independent is vital to their well being. While it’s tempting to help someone that’s struggling to close a zipper, it’s a much greater service to calmly teach that person how to do it themselves. People can be slow when they are learning a new skill until they become proficient. Time is usually something we don’t have to spare, particularly in western societies. Encourage your students to ask each other for help and information. By doing so, students learn there are many people they can seek out for help and companionship. Making decisions is equally important and this begins by teaching students to make a choice. Offer two choices. Once students can easily decide between two options introduce a third choice. People with autism may take extra time to process verbal instructions. When giving a directive or asking a question, make sure you allow for extra processing time before offering guidance. Self help skills are essential to learn. Some of these include navigating the school halls, putting on outerwear, asking for assistance and accounting for personal belongings. Fade all prompts as soon as you can. Never underestimate the power of consistency. Nothing works in a day whether it’s a diet, an exercise plan or learning to behave in class. Often we implement solutions and if there are no results within a few days we throw our hands up in the air and say “This doesn’t work. Let me try something else”. Avoid this temptation and make sure you allow ample time before you abandon an idea. Remember that consistency is a key component of success. If you’re teaching a student to control aggression, the same plan should be implemented in all settings, at school and at home.
9. Creative teaching
It helps to be creative when you’re teaching students with autism. People on the spectrum think out of the box and if you do too, you will get great results. Often, people with autism have very specific interests. Use these interests as motivators. Act things out as often as you can. Another great strategy to use is called “Teaching with questions”. This method keeps students involved, focused and ensures understanding. Another great way of teaching is by adding humor to your lessons. We all respond to humor. The saying goes that people on the autism spectrum march to the beat of their own drum. Therefore, they often respond to unconventional methods of teaching. While it might take some imagination and prep time, watching them succeed is definitely well worth the effort.
10. Don’t sweat the small stuff
The final goal is for children to be happy and to function as independently as possible. Always keep this in mind and pick your battles wisely. Don’t demand eye contact if a student has trouble processing visual and auditory information simultaneously. People with autism often have poor attending skills but excellent attendance. Does it really matter if a student does one page of homework instead of two? What about if a student is more comfortable sitting on his knees than flat on the floor? It’s just as important to teach appropriate behavior as it is self esteem. By correcting every action a person does, you’re sending a message that they’re not good enough the way they are. When making a decision about what to correct, always ask yourself first, “Will correcting this action help this person lead a productive and happy life?”