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Ten Tips for Teachers: Welcoming a Student with an ASD to Your Classroom

As school begins, teachers welcome students with diverse backgrounds, abilities and learning needs to their classrooms. Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders may present challenges to even the most experienced teacher and in this short article, we would like to share ten strategies that may smooth the way for a successful school experience for both the student and the teacher.  Click on each checked item to read more.

You will feel much more confident if you have some knowledge about autism. It is critical to keep in mind that the brain of the person who has ASD is different in some of its structures as well as at the cellular level. Access information through your school board resource staff or call local autism organizations, such Autism Ontario or the Geneva Centre for Autism, to access print information and videos (information on the Internet is not always reliable).

Because of difficulties with communication that are inherent to ASD, your student may not be able to share personal information and interests with you. Take the time to talk with parents about the child’s interests and preferred activities, toys and habits. What are his strengths? What are his areas of particular difficulty? What are the kinds of things that he has enjoyed at school in the past? There may be ways to accommodate special interests to enhance the student’s interest in classroom activities. Also, it can very helpful to let the student know some information about you – do you have children? pets? What are their names? What are your hobbies?

While brightly decorated posters, student work samples and art work can be stimulating for typical learners, for students with ASD this kind of decoration may be very distracting and prevent him from being able to focus and attend to tasks. Whenever possible, allow for an area in the room where a visual barrier to the other activities in the room can be created. On a plain wall surface, attach the student’s schedule and work exemplars. Most importantly, keep the area simple and uncluttered.  In helping the student to build good habits, use work bins: new work on the left, finished work on the right. (Ask a resource person for information on Structured Teaching strategies.)

For the majority of students with ASD, the visual learning style is the most effective and efficient. Information taken in visually is processed much more easily than spoken language.
- Think about translating what you say into what your student can see. This may take the form of pictures, text, charts, diagrams and exemplars.          
- When it is necessary to deliver information verbally, keep instructions short and simple. Give the student time to process the information and provide a visual guide whenever possible.
- Many students may not be able to learn to read efficiently through a phonics-based approach. Be open to alternative approaches, such as whole word sight recognition.
- Another key aspect of performance is the difficulty with printing and writing experienced by many students with ASD. - - Encourage the development of keyboarding skills and allow written work to be done on a keyboard, rather than with a pencil.

At the beginning of the school year, meet with the student’s parent(s) to discuss the manner and model for home/school communication. Traditionally, a home/school communication notebook is used; however, ideally, preparation of the daily communication should involve the student and be a component of his daily routine. It is crucial that the teacher read and sign the book every day and write in it as often as possible. Call the parents regularly to share good news as the student may not be able to share information himself. If there are difficult issues to discuss, a telephone call or a meeting may be most appropriate. It is essential that the communication not be comprised of a litany of the student’s misdemeanors. Parents want to know what learning was demonstrated, what story was read, what new words were learned, and other small achievements and events of the day. The parent’s involvement in sharing information from home should also be discussed.

Peer awareness training can significantly increase understanding of the student with ASD. It is important to ask parents how and if they would like information about their child to be shared. While many parents are agreeable to this, others are not and their wishes must be respected. Demystification of ASD for neurotypical students paves the way for successful inclusion. Videos, such as those created for the Toonie for Autism initiatives of Autism Ontario, provide excellent information and are a useful springboard to class discussion.

Students with ASD occasionally have difficulties with behaviour caused by factors such as environmental or sensory irritants, frustration with not being able to communicate, health issues, incorrect perceptions of social situations, etc. Keep in mind that the student with ASD may not perceive the world as others do. If necessary, access assistance to learn about doing a Functional Behaviour Analysis to discern the purpose of student behaviour: what is the student trying to achieve? Attention? Avoidance? Escape?  Many students with ASD do not like (or perhaps even understand) verbal praise. Often, a tangible reinforcer may be necessary and this may include food. If a small portion of a preferred food (such as a chip) provides an incentive for desired behaviour or is an effective reward, then that is what needs to be used. Other students do understand and it is fair.

Often, students with ASD and other developmental disabilities benefit from teaching assistant support to help them participate in academic tasks, as well as social activities. Teaching assistants also help to control the student’s environment and experience to reduce the chances of behavioural difficulty. For some teachers, having a student with ASD in their class for the first time may also mean that they are working with a teaching assistant for the first time. You often spend more time with the teaching assistant than you do with your family so this extremely important relationship must be carefully fostered and maintained.  Courtesy, consideration and communication are critical.

A team approach to service delivery is ideal. Be prepared to welcome support personnel to your classroom to assist in the programming for your student with ASD. They may include an Itinerant Resource Teacher, an ASD Consultant, a Speech and Language Pathologist (SLP), an Occupational Therapist, a Behaviour Therapist and occasionally a Physiotherapist. These persons will contact you to make appointments to visit the student. It is useful to maintain a binder in which consultation notes can be stored and which also provides a ready reference. You may wish to make appointments to accommodate your planning time so that you can have direct conversations with the service provider.

Depending on the age or ability level of the student, the visual schedule may be comprised of objects, photographs, picture symbols or words. The schedule is used to show the child what activities will take place during a particular section of the day and in what order. The primary purpose of the schedule is to reduce the student’s anxiety by letting him know that the immediate future is not an unknown void, but that there are activities, most of which he will like, through which he will progress.

And finally, NEVER say, “but I have 25 other students.” Regardless of whether or not the student has teaching assistant support, you are his teacher. He needs to know that he, too, is worthy of your individual attention. The look on your face and the sound of your voice as you welcome your student who has ASD to your class each day sets the example for everyone.

About the Authors
Leslie Broun and Pat O’Connor were project managers for Provincial Teachers’ Assistant Training Initiative, a publicly funded initiative that was completed in June 30, 2009.