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Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is used as an umbrella term to cover four disorders or range of disorders. Included under the ASD umbrella are autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and childhood disintegrative disorder (Research Autism, 2016). ASD is referred to as a “spectrum” because of the “wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of disability in functioning that can occur in people with ASD” (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, n.d.). ASD can present differently from person to person and in a variety of ways. While some diagnosed with ASD may show severe developmental delays, others may show average or above average intelligence and even giftedness. However, ASD primarily displays as qualitative impairments in three areas: social interaction, communication, and restrictive, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior (Doorlag & Lewis, 2011). There are a number of ways to consider these impairments in order to differentiate instruction, provide accommodations in the classroom, and aid in student success academically, socially, and communicatively.
Students with ASD often struggle socially. Reciprocity in social interaction is challenging and may be difficult, confusing, or uncomfortable for ASD students. This delay is often presented as a lack of joint attention, inability to comprehend social cues, poor or absence of eye contact, limited or lack of interaction with others, difficulty reading facial expressions and body language, and more. Social interaction should be encouraged in the classroom and can be done so in several ways. First and foremost, a full inclusion environment is highly beneficial and preferred for ASD students whenever and wherever possible. Immersion in the classroom with neuro-typical peers offer ASD students the opportunity to gain influence as well as observe and participate in social structure. Keeping the ASD student in a central location in the classroom is best, so as maintain social immersion as well as to prevent ASD students from distraction or deterring themselves from peer interaction (Doorlag & Lewis, 2011). ASD students should be encouraged or placed in social situations or cooperative play. Buddy systems offer motivation for ASD students to interact socially, but also the comfort of one-on-one interaction that is not too over-stimulating (Doorlag & Lewis, 2011). Once an ASD student is comfortable interacting with one buddy, they may benefit from a social skills group. Within a social skills group, ASD students may practice social skills with each other and with neuro-typical peers. Both general and special educators can lead these groups and provide scaffolded language support, structure and predictability, multiple and varied learning opportunities, and more (Anderson & Anderson, n.d.).
Fostering social development varies widely depending on the maturity level and severity of delay of the ASD student. Students may benefit from interactive games and activities that foster social give-and-take. Simple tasks such as delivering and returning messages to/from the main office or leading a choral group in memorization tasks (alphabet, counting, etc.) are excellent examples of mutual interaction. A game of bean bag toss – in which academic topics can also be adapted within the game – is effective in promoting socialization in that it provides “clear reinforcement of nuanced communication: children ask, usually through non-verbal cues, for the bean bag and are rewarded by having it tossed their way” (Integrity Inc, 2015). Any turn-taking activities that require the sharing of space and materials engage students in social interaction. Older students should be involved in group work and activities with well-defined roles and expectations. To reinforce what has been learned, visual prompts in the form of videos, pictures, checklists, or prompt cards are a great way to remind ASD (and all) students of their new social skills. All of these techniques teach ASD students a “script” for what’s “appropriate” in social behavior that they can memorize and follow as needed.
Communication delays are highly prevalent in ASD. Some ASD students are non-verbal while others – such as those with Asperger’s syndrome – are less likely to exhibit language delays. Still, communication and social interaction go hand-in-hand, and most ASD students would benefit from communication building activities. Communication delays include “delays in spoken language, inability to initiate or sustain conversation, repetitive use of language (or echolalia), and lack of make-believe or imaginative play” (Doorlag & Lewis, 2011). Delays in language may also include delayed responses – give these students the time to think and formulate responses without the stress of being rushed. Echolalia is a great way to foster responses from ASD and all students as well: when posing a question, immediately model a response, such as (question) “What is your name?” (answer) “My name is Dan” (Doorlag & Lewis, 2011). Educators should encourage the student to mimic phrasing and can even use the ASD student’s name in the example for extra direction. Narration of actions is also a way to provide a lens for the student to see how communication works: narrate everything from what you are writing on the board to what the student is doing as you watch them work through a problem. This way, much like the “script” that an ASD student might memorize from social learning, a more literal “script” can be learned for communication. If a student is reluctant to attempt new or reciprocal speech, focus on the student’s interests. Once these channels of interest are noted and open to discussion, the ASD student may feel comfortable or encouraged to begin a conversation on their own.
Nonverbal students also require communication building. Although a student may be nonverbal, there is potential for that student to emerge upon language in some form. Much like with social interaction, initial focus should be placed on nonverbal communication. “Gestures and eye contact can build a foundation for language” and enables a student to communicate in some form (Dawson & Elder, n.d.). Simplifying your language and narration will help to build a receptive language databank and may lead to expressive language. Apps and devices are also available to give these students a means of communicating, from choosing pictures to associate with words to text-to-voice typing.
Receptive language, or what a child understands, is just as important as expressive language, or what a child can say or express. Some ASD students may understand literal speech but have trouble decoding what is indirectly implied. Idioms and hypothetical language may prove difficult for some ASD students to comprehend. Clear and concise language is always best. For example, asking students to “please put your workbooks away, push in your chairs, and line up at the door” is better than a conversational, meandering monologue such as “It looks nice out today, students! When you are done with your workbooks, maybe we will go outside. Line up after you put your workbooks away, but only if you’re finished with your work.” You can see how the first set of instructions is less confusing that the second.
Finally, restrictive, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior are often indicative of ASD. This behavior may include “preoccupation with an interest, compulsive adherence to a routine, motor mannerisms, and occupations with parts of objects” (Dawson & Elder, n.d.). Though by definition these are classified as impairments, some of these tendencies can be advantageous or even helpful to ASD students. Preoccupation of interests can be used to influence students; for example, if a student fixates on the topic of trains, they can be asked to expand on that topic for a writing assignment. Compulsive adherence to a routine, if viewed positively, can be a sign of good instruction- and rule-following. If a student reacts negatively to disruption or to diversion of a routine, set a visual timer that the student can control themselves (upon request of the teacher). Give the student the role or task of transition scheduler where he is responsible for keeping track of transitions, provided the schedule is clearly written and accessible; this also aids the student in fortifying transition strategies which can often be a struggle for those on the spectrum.
Motor mannerisms, or stimming, should not be viewed negatively unless the student is causing themselves harm. Instead, stimming can be an involuntary means of regulating sensory overload. Some students may stim if upset or overwhelmed while others may stim from excitement or boredom. Stimming is often viewed by ASD individuals as a means of creating output to release the overwhelming sensory input they experience. Thus, stimming should not be discouraged unless absolutely necessary, as it is often a way for students to comfort themselves. If peers find the ASD student’s stimming distracting or unusual, use this as an opportunity to educate your ASD student’s peers on autism and sensory processing. Foster awareness and acceptance among them, and subsequently, you may help to evade potential bullying and exclusion. Often, ASD students are viewed as “different” by their peers, so it is especially important for educators to help promote peer relationships and understanding.
With all of the techniques listed above, it is absolutely crucial to take note of overstimulation in ASD students. An ASD student may easily become overwhelmed or stressed and may need to be allowed to cope or, in some cases, be helped to cope. Allowing the student a break from activities, a chance to get out of their seats or time for stimming allows them to work through the sensory overload. If a student is overly sensitive or overstimulated to sounds, adaptations can be made such as socks or pads on chair legs to prevent scraping or noise cancelling headphones to help with concentration. If a student is under-sensitive, remove objects that are distracting or suggest compression or weighted clothing/vests for the student.
Understanding autism, differentiating instruction, implementing classroom strategies and adaptations, and fostering awareness among peers is essential to creating a full inclusion classroom for ASD students. Countless resources are available for educators, parents, and students alike in the education of ASD and ASD awareness. Websites such as ResearchAutism.org and NationalAutismAssociation.org provide programs, materials, and a central hub for educators, parents, and those affected by ASD alike.
Autism Speaks (n.d.). About Autism. Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/sites/default/files/documents/family-services/social_skills_groups.pdf
Dawson, G., & Elder, L. (n.d.). Seven ways to help your nonverbal child speak. Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2013/03/19/seven-ways-help-your-nonverbal-child-speak
Doorlag, D.H., & Lewis, R.B. (2011). Teaching students with special needs in general education classrooms: student value edition (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Integrity Inc (2015, July 21). Seven ways to increase social skills in children with autism. Retrieved from https://www.integrityinc.org/7-ways-to-increase-social-skills-in-children-with-autism/
Lowry, L. (n.d.). Helping your child cope with his sensory needs. Retrieved from http://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Articles/Helping-Your-Child-Cope-with-his-Sensory-Needs.aspx
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (n.d.). Autism Spectrum Disorder fact sheet. Retrieved from https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Autism-Spectrum-Disorder-Fact-Sheet
Research Autism (2016, January 22). Types of Autism. Retrieved from http://researchautism.net/autism/types-of-autism
Sussman, F. (2012). More Than Words: A Parent’s Guide to Building Interaction and Language Skills for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Social Communication Difficulties. Toronto: The Hanen Centre.