Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) develop intellectual, communication, social, physical and emotional skills at different rates than their neurotypical peers. As a result, children with ASD may require specialised and varied forms of instruction compared to typically developing peers, whether in self-contained or inclusive educational settings.
However, as with any child, the strengths, challenges, and interests of a child with ASD are highly individual and influenced by several internal and external factors. Teachers, therapists, and caregivers for children with ASD can optimise their child’s unique abilities by implementing targeted teaching techniques designed to work in any environment and with a wide range of content.
There are five key strategies you can use when teaching children with Autism. They are:
- Minimising distracting stimuli
- Use concrete language
- Use visual strategies
- Focus on routine and repetition
- Promote social skills through inclusion
Minimise distracting stimuli
Children with ASD can sometimes struggle with paying attention to a given activity and focus. Creating a controlled environment is therefore beneficial for introducing new skills. Reducing distractions that a child with ASD may encounter can promote increased attention and on-task behaviour while also reducing the risk of sensory overstimulation and related behavioral issues.
This may look like limiting the number of wall decorations present in a room, using soft lighting to create a sense of calm, and avoiding unnecessary smells and sounds when possible. A 'clean' teaching environment will also increase the effectiveness of any visual supports used in instruction, as they can more easily become integrated into routine and better capture the attention of the child.
Use concrete language
Children with ASD often struggle with communication. This can appear as anything from challenges with vocal language to more nuanced difficulties such as understanding figurative and colloquial language.
To mitigate these challenges and set children up for success, it is helpful for instructors to use concise, concrete language when giving instructions. Using phrases that outline exactly what the expectations are for activities and transitions leaves less room for error, frustration and promotes the child’s confidence.
Examples of concrete language include modifying instructions from 'no running' to a clear and simple 'walk', as well as providing children with boundaries such as 'first we’re going to complete 3 math problems, and then we can take a break.'
Use visual strategies
Visual strategies are instructional techniques or tools that provide a visual representation of information being delivered to the child.
They involve the use of symbols e.g. objects, photos, pictographs and written words etc. in a variety of tools such as schedules, mini schedules, calendars, activity checklists, category books, social stories, social scripts, circles concept, comic strip conversations and white boards.
These tools are designed to enhance the child’s understanding but they also give means to express their needs, wants and feelings and increase participation in the learning process.
Focus on routine and repetition
Practice makes perfect! Children with ASD may require extra practice and/or breaking tasks into smaller steps before performing them independently.
This process can be aided by incorporating tasks into routines to help a child’s environment serve as a natural cue or prompt.
For example, a bedtime alarm, when paired with the instruction to go brush his teeth, may eventually serve as a reminder for a child to independently begin brushing his teeth as part of his bedtime routine.
Alternatively, having children practice tasks such as unpacking their backpack and gathering supplies for class every single morning will ensure they receive ample time to master the skill and promotes self-management, which is essential for executive functioning and independence.
Promote social skills through inclusion
The goal of teaching social skills should never be to inhibit their unique interests or preferences. However, to promote independent functioning and bolster the ability to form meaningful friendships, children with ASD should be exposed to and included in the social activities of their neurotypical peers.
Peers can serve as excellent models for appropriate play, social communication, and problem solving. Some children on the spectrum may require trial-based, direct instruction related to social skills, while others may naturally learn through observing and imitating their peers.
Regardless of ability level, children with ASD should be included in as many age-typical social activities as possible to help facilitate social learning and relationship development.
Examples of the Positive Behaviour Support framework used to support children with ASD
The Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) framework recognises that there is no single cause for behaviours of concern in children with ASD. It is a complex behaviour that is a product of the interaction between multiple factors contributing to its development and persistence.
In the following examples you can see how the teaching environment for a child with ASD presents challenges. A combination of stimuli and the child's inability to use coping tools to manage them leads to behaviour of concern.
Use the examples to find ways in which your own teaching environment may be improved for children with ASD or to better understand why a child might be exhibiting behaviours of concern and therefore find more effective ways of helping that child.
Example 1: Kiera
Keira has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) which causes her to be hypersensitive to visual, auditory (noise) and temperature sensory input.
Keira sits at the back of the classroom, next to the heater, which often causes her body to overheat. From her seat, she notices all the activity: using posters, the smart board and computers. It is a busy, noisy environment, and Keira's senses are often overloaded.
Some of the skills needed to cope with her environment include:
- Self-awareness: Can Keira identify how she is feeling? Can she identify what aspects of the environment are causing the overload?
- Emotional regulation: Does Keira know what strategies to use to manage her emotions?
Example 2: John
When John was six years old, his parents separated. His dad moved interstate, leaving his mum to look after and provide for John and his older brother, who has learning difficulties.
John’s mum reported changes she saw in John after the divorce. John went from an outgoing, fun, talkative boy to a quiet, shy and withdrawn child. He developed separation anxiety and would follow her everywhere in the house. He could only have her out of sight for a few minutes before he had to find her. On the way to school, she would have to reassure him repeatedly that she would be picking him up at 3pm. If she was late by a couple of minutes, John would have a meltdown. She could not convince him to go to school camps or sleepovers because he would never sleep away from home. He would always talk about his fears about what would happen to his mum if he wasn't next to her.
She also reflected on how John always had trouble making friends. His peers knew his name and would occasionally greet him but there wasn’t anyone he could hang out with at recess or lunch.
In Year 5, his mum noticed John starting to say things like ‘I hate school’ or ‘I don’t want to go to school’, but with her encouragement, he was able to. She didn’t think much of this behaviour as it would happen occasionally and she was able to manage it.
However, the School Refusal Behaviour (SRB) escalated when John started high school. John’s reluctance to go to school started to consistently appear once or twice a week, but John’s mum was able to convince John to go to school by offering him money to buy a treat from the canteen or after school.
At the beginning of Year 8, within a few weeks of school resuming, John started to outright refuse to go to school. He told his mother that he felt ‘lost’, he ‘didn’t belong at school’ and he was ‘dumb’. During this period, he also started to ask questions about why his dad left and why his dad had not been in touch for the last seven years.
John’s mum could see her son needed help, so she increased the amount of support she was giving him to get to school. She would wake him up in the morning, but that could take up to 30 minutes of going in and out of his bedroom. She would then help him prepare his breakfast, keep prompting him to eat and to get dressed for school. She would then drive him to school even though it was a 10-minute walk from their house. During school, John started to increasingly complain of stomach aches and chest pains by lunchtime and would then stay in the sick bay for the rest of the day where he would play games on his laptop. Despite John’s mum’s complaints to the school, their limited resources prevented staff from providing consistent additional support to John.
In the meantime, John’s mum was offered a permanent job. As the single income earner, John’s mum had no choice but to accept the job, which meant she would leave home by 6am and get home at 6pm. She would no longer be able to get John ready for school and drop him off. She helped him set an alarm, but John would still not wake up on time. He started to skip school entirely and stayed at home all day playing video games. This quickly devolved into a habit of playing video games until 3am and sleeping until midday. A whole term of school passed by and John had not been to school.
Knowing she needed to do something, John’s mum took him to see a range of professionals. He was diagnosed with Depression, Anxiety (Social anxiety disorder and Separation anxiety disorder) and Autism Spectrum Disorder.
John’s case study shows the complex nature of the development and maintenance of the behaviour of concern, School Refusal Behaviour. There is no quick fix or magic wand that can address all these issues overnight. John’s issues, as with any other child, are so multifaceted that a team approach is necessary to assess the underlying factors contributing to his SRB and develop a plan to manage them.
Positive Behaviour Support provides a road map to address School Refusal Behaviour by using a holistic approach to develop a comprehensive and individualised PBS plan in three stages:
- Assess stage: How to identify the triggers (events) that contribute to challenging behaviours,
- Manage stage: How to respond and support the child when they are triggered, and
- Prevent stage: How to minimise or avoid the triggersthat contribute to challenging behaviours.
Children with ASD often require specialised or individualised instruction related to their unique personal abilities and challenges. ASD generally affects language and communication in addition to social skills, individuals involved in the care and education of a child with ASD can employ various strategies such as the use of concrete language, visual strategies, routines, and appropriate models to help ensure their learner receives the support they need.