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Bringing Them Back: Successful Integration into the School System for Children on the Autism Spectrum

By Laura Cavanagh and Tricia-Lee Keller

Delilah is a nine-year old girl with autism. Since starting the third grade, Delilah has begun exhibiting some behaviours that have made her difficult to manage in the classroom such as hitting her peers and stripping off her clothes. Her teacher calls home when Delilah’s behaviour becomes unmanageable, and as a behaviour-management strategy, the school principal has decided to shorten her day in the hopes that Delilah’s teacher and educational assistant would be able to manage her behaviours better if she were only there for part of the day. By November, Delilah is attending school for only 2 hours every day.

Richard is a 14 year old boy with Asperger Syndrome. Richard is intelligent but insecure, and his angry, combative attitude masks a deep-seated anxiety about his own abilities. He values intelligence and places a lot of importance on being more intelligent that others. In fourth grade he began calling his teachers stupid, and saying that no one had anything they could teach him that he couldn’t learn from a book. He began refusing to attend school off and on at the end of fourth grade. His school refusal quickly intensified, and he became aggressive towards his parents when they tried to make him go to school. Although he argues that he will teach himself the school curriculum on his own, he spends most of his days playing on the computer and sleeping. He has not attended school since the fifth grade.

Jesse has a diagnosis of high-functioning autism. He is bright and capable boy who struggles with anxiety. He gets nervous about school, and even when his teacher gives him assignments that are easy for him, or activities that he likes, Jesse will become so overwrought that he will melt down and make himself physically sick. This is understandably distressing for all the adults that care about Jesse, including his teacher and, especially, his mother. His distress is so intense and upsetting to his mother that she is reluctant to push him when it comes to the school issue. Jesse is now out of school. He is only 7 years old.

These stories are dramatic and sobering for parents and educators alike, but they are not unusual struggles for children on the autism spectrum within the school system. Having more than ten years of experience with school-aged children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), we have seen time and again students failing in—and being failed by—the school system. Even highly intelligent children on the autism spectrum have difficulty finding their place in the mainstream classroom, and many educators find themselves at a loss as to what to do to help these students succeed. Although every child is unique, there are certain strategies that are oftentimes of benefit to children with autism spectrum disorders, and there are things that you, as an educator, can do to increase the likelihood of your student’s success in your classroom.

Whether you are working with a child who has been refusing school, or just trying to provide the best possible transition for a new student with an autism spectrum disorder into your class in the fall, here are our top ten secrets to creating a successful school experience with the student on the autism spectrum.

  1. Building rapport

Take time to build rapport with your student. Most typically-developing children have an understanding of the teacher “archetype”, and they respond to constructive feedback from any one in the teacher role in a positive way. A lack of social understanding is part of the core deficit of the autism spectrum disorders, and children with autism don’t respond to you just because of your social role as a teacher. It is important to connect with your student as an individual, and build rapport so that praise and positive regard from you has value and is meaningful to them. For the first few days, your job is just to build a connection with your student. Have fun, play, talk about their interests, be the gatekeeper to activities or items that they enjoy, do your very best to make your student laugh. In this way, your relationship will serve as an economy of positive regard; your student will be willing to work to please you and your praise will be an effective way to positively influence your student’s behaviour.

  1. Make school fun

Sometimes kids’ lives take a turn for the worse when they enter school. Between the rules, the work, a change in structure, and the difficult social worlds they need to navigate, is it any wonder that some kids would rather just stay home? Of course, getting used to the rhythms and regulations of the school culture is an important way to prepare children for the real world. However, when you are dealing with a child who has a history of school refusal, it is a good idea to make the transition to school as positive an experience as possible. Ideally, at least for those first few days or weeks, being at school should be more enjoyable for the student than staying at home. In one case that we worked on, successful re-integration was achieved when the parents disconnected their in-home internet access, and the teen with Asperger Syndrome was allowed to spend his days at school surfing the Net. Over time, he became more and more integrated into the regular school day, but during those initial days he spent his days doing what he wanted to do, just in the school building. Sometimes, this is a necessary step in getting the reluctant student back into the academic setting. Making school fun also requires the art of flexibility and creativity. Oftentimes, a student with ASD will have unique and/or intense interests. We have seen success in imbedding these “special interests” into the curriculum, thereby making learning more motivating for the student.

  1. Deal with the behaviour first

Teachers and educators want to teach and educate, but you will find it impossible to teach a child whose behaviour is out of control. It is not only worthwhile but necessary to deal with your student’s behaviour problems before you expect her to be able to learn. There are many books out there on behaviour management strategies and positive behaviour support, and the approach you choose will depend on your student’s particular behaviour problems. Whatever your approach, we recommend taking the time to address your student’s behaviour problems before introducing new curriculum or expecting her to master new tasks. . Determine what pre-requisite skill(s) your student with ASD may be missing, which is causing her to be unsuccessful in a classroom setting. Then, prioritize the teaching of those skills first. Remember, as you address your student’s behaviour issues, you are teaching her valuable new skills that will contribute to her success throughout her school career and in her adult life. So don’t worry about the curriculum that you’re not getting to as you are dealing with behaviours; just remind yourself that you are teaching skills that will be important throughout your student’s life.

  1. Explain the rules and provide perspective

Don’t take for granted that your student will know or understand the rules, no matter how long he has been in the school system. The phrase “s/he should know better” is not helpful to anyone working with students on the autism spectrum, so try to move away from what you think your student “should” know by now. Explain the rules clearly, and spell them out more than you think you need to. Put the rules in writing, and make visual pictures or cartoon drawings that illustrate the rules for your student. For higher skilled students, providing the rationale for the rule, including safety reasons and others’ perspectives on the rule, will help teach them social norms and responsibilities. Give your student his own individual copy of the rules. And if a rule is broken, on top of whatever consequence is imposed, remind your student patiently and matter-of-factly about the rule and the rationale behind it. When a student with ASD understands the reason behind the rule and that it’s not just a rule because the adults said so, we have found that they are more willing to cooperate and follow the classroom rules along with peers.

  1. Zen Zone

In setting up your classroom, consider adding an escape pod or Zen Zone for your student to retreat to when the demands of the classroom exceed his ability to cope or when he requires access to sensory stimulation for calming and self-regulation. The Zen Zone could contain some of your student’s favourite items: books, toys, squeeze balls, and so on. It could feature music or a noise machine or even relaxation tapes. The most important thing is that it provides some sort of visual and auditory barrier from the rest of the class while providing the student with access to preferred sensory activities. We have seen effective Zen Zones created from a half cubicle wall placed perpendicular to a corner of the room with a couple of pillows thrown in. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it just has to be available to your student when he needs it. That’s right: the Zen Zone is not for time-outs. It’s a place your student can retreat to when he needs to. The student should control access to the Zen Zone, not the teacher. Consulting with your school board’s occupational therapist (one trained in sensory integration) may also be beneficial in determining appropriate resources.

  1. Breaks

Most of us need regular breaks to get through our busy days, and children are no exception. In fact, the function behind most school refusal is to escape – escape the curriculum demands, escape the social demands, or escape the sensory demands. So why not give your student an ‘escape’ for free; without him having to resort to negative behaviours to get it? Ideally, we want to teach a student to ask for a break; however, you can build rapport and trust with a student by identifying his needs and allowing that opportunity for a break before challenging behaviours emerge. What constitutes a break will be depend on your particular child, but walks, time in the office, time helping out in the library, or time on the computer are some of the options for breaks that we have seen work well for children on the autism spectrum. Again, these breaks must not be confused with time-outs. Give your student regular breaks throughout the day even if he is calm or participating well—don’t wait until your students get agitated before offering a break. This will help to manage your student’s challenging behaviour, and make the school day more manageable and enjoyable for him.

  1. Peer Buddy

Bullying is a real concern for children on the autism spectrum. The number one risk factor for being targeted by a bully is being alone, and children with autism spectrum disorders are almost always alone. Assigning your student on the autism spectrum a peer buddy is a great idea for a number of reasons. It teaches the peer patience and tolerance, and it gives the peer responsibility for some of the things that you would take care of otherwise, like making sure the student on the autism spectrum has the necessary materials at hand or is following along with the rest of the class in an activity. Setting up a peer buddy system can also lead to genuine friendships down the road, even if the interactions seem forced at first. Plus, if your student is with a peer buddy, she is not alone, meaning she is less likely to be a victim of bullying, and therefore less likely to begin refusing to attend school at all.

  1. Visual Schedule

It is best-practice among teachers to have a schedule posted in the classroom. But for most children with on the autism spectrum, the schedule at the front of the room, or the one written on the chalkboard, is not enough. There are few things we can say absolutely about children on the autism spectrum, but this is one: all kids need a visual schedule of their own. A picture schedule posted on his desk or a written schedule tucked in his pocket will go a long way to reducing your student’s anxiety and making the school experience more pleasant and manageable for him.

  1. A & B Days

Suppose the gradual transition has been a success: you have been able to build rapport, your student associates being at school with having access to preferred activities, you have explained the rules and set up your classroom for success. Once the student with an autism spectrum disorder has been integrated into your classroom, you now need to find the balance between pushing the child as much as possible in order to maximize her potential, without making the school experience so stressful that the student begins refusing to attend or responds with extremely challenging behaviours. We have seen teachers get great results from the A & B days method. Basically, you design two alternate schedules. The A schedule is closer to what the other students are doing, and includes new lessons and challenging activities like group work or cooperative learning tasks. The B schedule is less challenging and includes time to practice learned tasks, opportunities to work independently, and time to engage in preferred activities. For the most part, your student will follow the A schedule. However, if you can see that your student is not at her best on a given day—maybe she is under the weather, or didn’t sleep well the night before, or you have had three indoor recesses in a row, or there is a change in routine—then you can revert to the B schedule. This will allow your student to stay in the rhythm of the classroom, but avoids making the school environment more stressful than she can manage.

  1. Take absenteeism seriously

Most students don’t go from regular attendance to total school refusal overnight. More often, you will see months—sometimes years—of irregular and sporadic attendance. The reasons are always complex and the situations often volatile, but there are often actions that parents, teachers, and educators can take to reverse the course when a student is beginning to refuse to attend school. If you see issues with your student’s attendance record, take it seriously and work with your team to come up with a plan to address the problem. Involving a school social worker, if possible, if often a good idea at this point. Your plan to keep your student in school will be individualized to your student’s particular needs, but quick action can make a huge difference when a student on the autism spectrum is beginning to slip through the cracks.

In addition to the best practices listed above, a student who has been out of the school system for some time will require a gradual re-introduction to the school environment and the demands of the school day – especially if anxiety is a major barrier to school success. We have had success in using a shaping procedure for gradual re-introduction into the school environment. In this procedure the home and school team decides on a step-by-step plan whereby the student stays in school for longer days over time, tolerating gradually-increasing demands paired with significant and meaningful reinforcement. The expectations are clearly communicated to the student and safe opportunities for “escape” (including the use of breaks and access to a “Zen Zone” are negotiated with the teacher, support staff, and student ahead of their arrival.

While many students on the autism spectrum embrace their learning experiences in the school system, others are at risk for poor attendance or even dropping out of the system entirely. We hope that the tips above help you to successfully integrate and retain your students on the autism spectrum in your classroom.


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