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Autism – Strategies at school and in the classroom

Most children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have difficulties at school and in the classroom.  They will require the curriculum to be adapted in some way so that they can understand and achieve. For many, it is important to have a trained teacher aid to guide them, as well as specialist input such as speech and language therapy, and occupational therapy. The other pupils should also have an awareness that the child with autism might behave differently and have different needs.


Sensory Sensitivity
Before we design a program and implementing an Individual Education / Learning Plan (IEP / ILP) and putting strategies into place, we have to have an indepth knowledge of the child. We have to have an awareness of the child’s sensory needs and sensitivities. For instance, if the child has a sensitivity to light, we have to look at their placement in the classroom and also at things like curtains and blinds. Special glasses may also be appropriate for light sensitivity. If the child has a sensitivity to noise, the other students have to have an awareness of their own noise levels. The child with ASD may not be able to take part in lessons such as music, if they have noise sensitivity. A sensitivity to touch may mean that certain art subjects are not appropriate.


We must also have an awareness of the child’s level of understanding. Some children on the autistic spectrum will not be able to follow classroom instruction at all and will need constant one-to-one guidance, preferably from a trained teacher aid. It is important not to assume the child understands what is going on if they do not question classroom instruction. To help with understanding and following a timetable a child with autism is likely to need written instruction and/or visual aids. As well as this, verbal instruction should be kept short and simple (possibly using the minimal speech approach). The child should be given time to process verbal information, and visual cues should be used to enhance the message.


Visual Aids
Visual aids and supports can be used in many ways to facilitate children with autism to learn and understand in the classroom. Single visual pictures can be used as tools to help understanding and, visual timetables can be used to help children follow a daily routine. A visual breakdown of an activity can facilitate a child to follow a sequence of activities to complete a task. A token system with rewards can be used to encourage motivation and attention. A visual clock can be use to help with attending to a single task.


Adaptation of materials
Some materials will need to be adapted to help learning. Certain tasks may need visual guidelines. Some children with autism will learn more effectively using “hands-on” tools, for instance using play-dough to shape letters, or sand to draw the shape of letters with their fingers.


Social stories
Social stories are a great way to teach and communicate with children with ASD. Social stories are easily produced, focus on real life situations and can be used repeatedly, whenever they are required. The stories are based on a written story form, but can contain visuals to help with understanding. They offer the individual information on what is going to happen, information on a particular social situation, and focus on who is performing certain actions and why they are performing those actions. Stories can provide place and time related information about when and where things might happen. The story can focus on particular areas of need such as social skills or communication, and can also provide the individual with socially appropriate responses.


Imaginative Writing
For most children with ASD it is difficult to write from imagination. One way to overcome this is to act out a scene or scenario prior to writing it down. The child then has a “blueprint” to work from.


Adapting the Curriculum
For some children with autism, strictly following the curriculum is not advantageous if they lack skills in communication, social skills, attention skills and difficulties with learning. Time would be much better spent learning some functional skills and trying to adapt subjects so that they incorporate aspects of communication and social skills learning. This can be achieved with small group work and involving class mates. Functional skills refer to skills that the child is going to need every day, skills that are important and useful, and skills that can be generalized to help with other aspects of their life. For instance, is it important that the child knows that the Normans invaded in 1066, or is it important that the child knows how to ask for help when he does not understand, or that he can tell you that he needs to go to the toilet rather than urinate in his pants.


If communication is an issue then a communication strategy and communication aids should be in place. A speech and language pathologist/therapist can plan, implement and support this strategy and program. Using a total communication approach can greatly enhance communication and understanding. This approach encompasses as many communication modalities as possible (e.g. sign, visuals, speech etc) to try and give as many cues as possible.


Other issues to remember
Teachers must also be aware of other issues around the child. Knowledge of motivators and agitators are useful when planning lessons for the child. Obviously if some lessons are motivating and others are not, we try and mix these up, with a motivating lesson following one that is not so motivating. The reason for this, is that we can use the motivating lesson as a reward for completing the nonmotivating one. Teachers should also be aware of diet and medication, not only for general health but because they may effect the child in various ways. The child may also display challenging and/or inappropriate behaviour so it is important to have a behavioural plan in place with strategies to deal with this. An Educational Psychologist can devise a suitable behaviour plan, and a speech and language pathologist/therapist can put visual strategies in place to help with understanding and communication breakdown so that challenging behaviour does not occur.


Trips out of school or transitioning
Making trips outside school or transitioning to a new classroom can be stressful for many children on the autistic spectrum. To help the process, warn the child well in advance of a trip or change, schedule it in on their visual timetable and if needed, write a social story. Transitions to a new classroom can also be planned in a similar way, and the new teacher must have a good knowledge of the child prior to the move.


Individual Educational / Learning Plan (EIP / ILP)
As these communication goals and strategies are developed they must be included in the childs Individualeducation / Learning Plan (IEP / ILP) and updated when required.

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