Tips for Teaching Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder
by Janissa Jackson, Ph.D., PLLC
April is Autism Awareness Month, providing our community an important opportunity to focus on an ever increasing diagnostic population. An Autism Spectrum Disorder, as recently re-categorized by the DSM-V, includes deficits in social communication and interaction, restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior or interests, as well as sensory problems. There are no longer categories of Asperger’s Disorder or Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified, in favor of a single category with varying degrees of severity.
According to the Center for Disease Control, autism is now occurring at an alarming rate of one in sixty-eight children and as many as one in forty-two male children. Autism can be intimidating for teachers and caregivers, parents, and professionals. The usual or default strategies of interacting simply do not work well in engaging these individuals who see the world differently. It is important to note that children, adolescents, and adults with autism are all very unique and it is very hard to define global strategies that will work for all. However, there are a few key recommendations that can certainly be helpful.
In working with children with autism, my first strategy is to allow them to teach me something. This usually involves information regarding their special “restricted” area of interest. These topics have ranged from zoo animals to detailed information about world currency. For nonverbal children it may involve watching something along with the child that they find visually stimulating. The child with autism is used to having to try to learn ALL the time. Many of their natural reactions do not fit the environments they are placed in on a daily basis. They must learn to memorize the rules and navigate a social world that is difficult for them. When I work to learn something from the child, I see them relax and enjoy the therapy process. This can work for parents and teachers alike! It takes a little time but can create lasting bonds. The most important part of this process is that the child begins to understand that as I learn from them, they can learn from me. Motivation for change increases exponentially as does trust in the relationship.
In addition to learning from the child, important recommendations for parents and teachers include the buddy system and giving the child structured jobs to complete in unstructured situations. From an early age, it is incredibly helpful to pair the child with another who does not have the same developmental struggles. This is incredibly effective in teaching the child age appropriate behavior. This child could be relative or playmate. As the child enters the school system, they should be paired with a classmate. This buddy system not only gives the child an appropriate model but can serve as a protective factor against many forms of bullying. I typically insist that this buddy system be written into the child’s individualized education plan within the school system. Furthermore, due to social confusion, unstructured times without clear rules and expectations are especially stressful for children with autism. These times can result in emotional meltdowns and behavioral acting out. It is very helpful to provide the child a specific job such as holding the door open for an assembly or cleaning the white board during free time in the classroom. This reduces overall anxiety and provides the child some tangible guidelines for managing their behavior and the expectations of others.
In summary, individual within the autism spectrum are highly unique and offer a valuable perspective to those of us working with them. Each recommendation provided must be given considering the severity of the autism spectrum disorder which can range from completely nonverbal to hyper-verbal and high functioning. Serving this population is incredibly rewarding! To learn more about autism, an excellent website to visit is autimspeaks.org.
Janissa Jackson, Ph.D., PLLC
Dr. Jackson specializes in working with children, including those with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She works in private practice in Fort Smith, Arkansas.