Monday, August 30, 2010

Autism Spectrum Toolbox

You have your new class list in your hands. A new year and a brand new set of students is an exciting and sometimes stressful time of each year for educators. What kind of learning styles will you see? Are you going to have new behavior issues that will throw you for a loop? What will really work to engage your students this year? Although most classes include a range of skill levels and learning types, this range can be increased for those mainstream teachers with students identified on the autism spectrum. How can we best serve these children so the school year can be productive and meaningful for all the students and the teacher?

As the name implies, the autism spectrum includes students with characteristics that vary across a wide continuum. I spoke with a couple of teachers who work with students from all different levels of the autism spectrum and a mother of a wonderful young man with autism. I compiled their advice with some online tools to help teachers with autistic students succeed this year. These experienced teachers stressed that we need to be prepared to teach students on the autism spectrum with our own large toolbox of resources and strategies. Keep a list of ideas and strategies, and if something doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to move down the list and try something new.

Most people on the autism spectrum are visual learners, so it can be very helpful for teachers to include plenty of visual supports in as many areas as possible, from math manipulations to a visual daily schedule. You can also use visual aides to help students tell you things when they are upset, especially when it is to the point that it’s difficult for them to talk. You can add visual supports to daily lessons and include them on classroom signs, bulletin boards, and directions. There are many different icon programs available for teachers to use with autistic students. Unfortunately, most companies charge a decent amount of money for their software. You can try out one of the teachers’ favorite programs for 30 days to see how it would work for your students. Try out the Boardmaker Software from Mayer-Johnson to see how it would work for you.

Another way to incorporate more visual supports into your lessons is to use an interactive whiteboard (if you’re lucky enough to have one!). One source of these programs is Promethean Planet. Check out Triptico E-learning Design and Training for some other great tools for your interactive whiteboard. Thanks to one of our Facebook fans, Ryan Devlin, for pointing out this excellent resource.

You can also go online to find other free tools to help you include more visual aids in your classroom. Many teachers have used comic strips to communicate ideas to their autistic students. Students and teachers can create their own comics to convey messages to one another and to demonstrate learning. Some good sites are ToonDoo and Make Beliefs Comix. Another fun visual tool for all different kinds of learners is Fotobabble, which allows students to make their favorite photos talk.

A big thing to consider when planning your lessons is the sensory triggers your students might have. There are all different kinds of triggers that can be going on in your classroom that you might not notice if you didn’t have a student on the autism spectrum in your class. The computer can often be a source of over-stimulation for autistic children as well. Try this web browser, recommended by Autism Speaks: ZAC (Zone for Autistic Children) Browser. This free browser was created specifically for autistic children. The teachers I spoke with also recommended having a plan for what to do if the students go into sensory overload. Don’t be afraid to ask the special education teachers in your school for advice about what to do in these kinds of situations.

The last piece of advice they gave me was to find out what motivates the student, and use this as a way to motivate them to get work done, or as a behavior plan if needed. As you may have noticed with many of your other students, providing structure to an autistic student and being consistent are of utmost importance. Last, but not least, modify your student’s work as needed. Something as simple as giving a whole sheet of math problems may be overstimulating and cause a melt-down. In a situation like this, fold the paper so that only 1 or 2 rows are showing at a time. Following simple tips like this should help to make this year successful for you and your students with all different ability levels. For more reading on the subject of including children on the autism spectrum in the mainstream classroom, please read this article.

Working with a student on the autism spectrum may seem like a daunting task at first, especially if you don’t have any experience with it. Using simple modifications and lots of visual supports should be very helpful. You might find that it is helpful to all the other students in the classroom as well! I hope you find these resources to be useful to you and your students.

~Peggy's Corner - 8/28/2010~


  1. Thank you for this post. I have a student on the spectrum in my class this year so I will use some of the ideas and suggestions you gave.

  2. Fantastic advice and resources. I worked with several autistic children in my undergrad program. One thing I learned early on was that routine was important. Spontaneity was overwhelming and stressful. I had the kids take pictures of our various activities throughout the day and then we made up a time-chart that they could follow. It was really successful! Any time we had to change something around, they would see the change first and that made it easier to anticipate.

  3. I'm so glad the advice will be useful! I love the idea of a time chart with actual photographs. I agree that a predictable routine is essential for success in a classroom with students on the spectrum.


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