Teacher leaning over an autistic students’ desk to help them with work.

April is Autism Awareness Month, and we know that the first step to spreading awareness involves educating those around us about Autism. We can do this by sharing facts, resources, and information to help dissipate any misconceptions about Autism. Whether you are a parent or advocate, there are many ways to spread awareness this month, but what about educators? Educators play an important role in children’s lives and it’s important that they are equipped with the information and tools to not only spread awareness about Autism but to support any autistic students that they may have. So if you are an educator or a parent who wants to share these tips with their children’s teachers, this article is for you!

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

One in every 59 children in the United States is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), so you will likely have a student or two with an ASD diagnosis if you are an educator. To fully understand why students with Autism may require additional support from educators, we must first understand what Autism is. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder or condition that causes sensory hypersensitivity in children and adults. Although an “Autism Spectrum Disorder” diagnosis is an umbrella term and is usually accompanied by an additional diagnosis of ASD level 1, 2, or 3 to distinguish the severity of the disorder, where level 1 would indicate “mild” symptoms.

Although not all symptoms apply to each person, most students with Autism can experience some of the following:

  • Trouble making eye contact
  • Struggles in social interactions with other classmates
  • May display “stimming” behavior such as rocking back and forth or other repetitive movements or noises
  • May prefer to play alone
  • Appears to be hypersensitive to noise and overstimulation

Although it is not certain what causes ASD in children, evidence from various studies seems to point to genetic and environmental factors.

What Challenges Do ASD Students Face?

The first step in learning how to teach students with Autism is understanding the challenges they face. As we said, there are different levels of Autism, and if you are an educator, it is a good idea to recognize some of the obstacles or difficulties that a student may face.

One of the first things to understand is that Autism itself is not considered a learning disability. However, the symptoms associated with ASD may create challenges or difficulties for a student with Autism. In fact, there have been studies that show children diagnosed with Autism are more likely to develop other developmental disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or even dyslexia.

Although ASD students may not struggle with their cognitive abilities, they do tend to have difficulties navigating social norms or reading non-verbal cues in social situations. As much as we would like to believe that schools are just for learning, we know that this is not always the case. Social interaction and the ability to communicate are two other major components of the “student experience” and this is where autistic students tend to struggle the most.

Here are some struggles that autistic students may face in the classroom that educators should be aware of:

  • Sensory Sensitivities: Many aspects of everyday classroom life may not be as easy to deal with for students with Autism. For example, things that neurotypical students may ignore or pay no attention to– class bells, fluorescent lighting, loud cafeterias, loud children, echoing gyms– may cause a great deal of stress or anxiety to a student with ASD.
  • Executive Functioning/Planning: Some students with Autism may struggle with managing homework, timelines, exam preparation, and other vital items. Although this is something all children may struggle with, it can be challenging for someone with ASD to switch between activities, especially if they have become hyper focused on one topic or area of interest.
  • Changes in Routines: It is not uncommon for children with ASD to have strict routines and structures. School life is generally good for this because students typically have a set schedule, but if there is a change in routine, this may be stressful for Autistic students.
  • Social Communication: In a school setting, students are surrounded by social interactions, and if a student with ASD has difficulties navigating these situations, it may result in social isolation or ridicule from the other students.

How To Teach Students with Autism By Understanding The Challenges They Face

Now that you have a better idea of some challenges that ASD students face, it’s time to find some solutions to incorporate into your curriculum. Most teachers or educators may only have one or two autistic students in their classroom, so it wouldn’t make sense to change your lesson plans for the entire class. However, having educational strategies for Autistic students, even if it’s after or before class, can make a huge difference when it comes to improving learning difficulties.

Here are 5 tips for supporting students with Autism in your classroom:

  • 1. Establish Routines
  • Repetitive and restrictive behaviors are common in people with ASD. Routines and structure are forms of these behaviors, and teachers can help to make students feel calm and safe by explicitly teaching instructional and non-instructional routines. Essentially, educators are creating a manageable and predictable classroom environment.
  • 2. Reduce Sensory Triggers
  • Sensory discomfort can cause a great deal of stress to some students with ASD. Educators can help their students with sensory issues by identifying the triggers and doing what they can to eliminate or reduce them. For example, if a student is struggling with fluorescent lights, it may be a good idea for them to sit closer to a window, so the lights are not as distracting. If a classroom has a lot of natural light, consider turning the lights off on one side of the classroom.
  • 3. Be Mindful Of Your Tone & Delivery
  • It can be easy for educators to become frustrated in stressful situations, and it is not uncommon for teachers to raise their voices to get the attention of loud or disruptive students. However, because students with Autism can struggle with social cues, they may misinterpret any change in tone or volume of their voice, resulting in unnecessary stress.
  • 4. Incorporate Outdoor Activities or Exercise Games
  • There are studies that have shown regular physical activity may help to alleviate ASD symptoms and even help to improve social skills. You could incorporate one day per week into an activity that involves learning while you are moving.
  • 5. Use Direct, Concrete Language Instead of Figurative or Implicit Language
  • While teaching a classroom, avoid using figurative language because many students with Autism may not understand what you mean. It is essential that educators provide students with clear, concise instructions regarding what is expected of them, even if it seems evident to other students.

If you have an autistic student in your classroom, it is critical to their learning that they feel supported and understood. Having even a basic understanding of Autism can make a world of difference in that student's life. There is no instruction manual that lays out exact directions on how to teach students with Autism, but understanding what challenges an ASD student faces, can help you to create a safe and manageable classroom environment.