Cover Image - Back To School: Teaching Students On The Autism Spectrum

Back To School: Teaching Students on the Autism Spectrum

By Hilda Pacheco

A Teacher’s Guide to Teaching Autistic Students

In the previous article Back to School, How Mainstream Education Has Changed in the Past 40 Years,  I mentioned that we were going to discuss more about the many neurodiversities that an educator may find among the students in their classrooms.  It is clear that the concept of “one size fits all” is no longer applicable in today’s classrooms. So what to do?  How to teach? Where to start?

End of Summer- Time for School

It’s the first day of school.  There is excitement in the air but there are also a lot of nerves! If the first day of school can be nerve wracking for any parent and for any “neurotypical” student,  imagine for the parent and child with ASD or in reality a child with any kind of “different brain”! Parents are apprehensive, the child is probably somewhat scared and the conscientious teacher is also worried and nervous. As a teacher you want to do your best for all your students.      

If the diagnosis is known beforehand, some recommendations are to ask the parent if it would be possible to come by the school with their child  before the official first day of school to  run a few trial practices with the child.  They can come by a few times before that first day, they should walk the hallways with the child in order to have him or her become as familiarized as possible with the new environment.  Arrangements for a brief meeting with the child and teacher can be scheduled.  Teachers always go back to school a week or two before the students, this is a great time to do this informal meeting.  It does not, as a matter of fact it should not be a long meeting,  10 to 15 minutes will suffice, just enough so that the child feels a little more comfortable on the first day.  It will also help to open the channels of communication in an informal and more relaxed way. There will be time for more formality when you meet the parents for a formal IEP (Individualized Educational Program).  

IEP – What’s that?

As a teacher you will soon learn how to conduct yourself during IEP meetings but for every teacher there will always be a first one. Learn as much as possible about the rights and laws students with any kind of disability have.  Read information about the existing laws and possible accommodations the child may be entitled and will benefit from according to his or her diagnosis.   IEP meetings can be intimidating,  usually there will be quite a number of people in attendance. After a while you will get used to these meetings and you will feel much more comfortable.  Please remember how you felt the first time you attended an IEP meeting and keep that in mind so you can empathize better with  how the parents of the child may be feeling.  For teachers, administrators and school counselors it might be just one more meeting but for the parent of a child with a disability this might be the first one.  Not only it may be their first one but the topic of discussion is their child,  probably the most important person in their life.  Be patient and empathetic with them as they may have many questions.  Also, make sure to explain some terms and acronyms that may be common to school personnel but that parents may not know what they mean or stand for.

As part of your early communication with the parents, encourage them to be as involved in their child’s school life as possible.  That doesn’t mean to suggest to them to become a “helicopter parent”, it just means to advise them to maintain regular communication with the school and to be aware of their child’s progress.  Suggest that they should, if possible, volunteer in some school activities and events,  they should make an effort to meet  other parents, to be informed,  to be involved and active. 

Good Morning Children, I Am Your Teacher

You have a classroom full of students sitting in front of you.  All beautiful, all different and some more “different” than others.  You want to do your best for all of them but you know having this neurodiversity in your care is not going to be easy.  

Here are some suggestions that have proven to be helpful when teaching children with ASD

A. Create an ASD-friendly learning environment

Start by organizing your classroom in a way that creates a learning environment which does not overstimulate the senses of the child with ASD. 

1 Keep your decorations simple and avoid the excessive use of posters, signs and other visual material.  These do make your classroom pretty and lively but it will also be a source of distraction for your ASD students.  

2 Make sure you designate and label clearly the areas for learning and for different activities in your classroom, for example: reading corner, blocks, play area etc.

3 Don’t sit your ASD students near the windows where they might see people or cars going by and be distracted by them.

4 If possible, have an area where a student may stand or pace for a little while when they feel the need to.  Preferably create this space in the back of the room to avoid distraction of the other students.

5 Make sure lights do not flicker, and if possible avoid very bright lights.

6 If the ringing of the bell is something that will startle certain students, allow them to put on headphones just a few minutes before the bell rings.

B. Create a routine and be consistent with it.  

1 Give your children a written schedule or some sort of visual chart if they are too young to understand a written schedule.  It is important for children with ASD to know ahead of time what is going to happen next.  Don’t expect them to be able to “just go with the flow”  , that is something they are not comfortable doing.  

2 On the days when there is going to be a change in the routine,  if possible, let them know ahead of time.

C. Use clear communication. 

1 Avoid using idioms or figurative language. Remember a characteristic of children with ASD is that they tend to take everything literally.  One of my coworkers told her Pre-K ASD student who was taking very long in telling her a complaint about another student ”Come on Mikey, spit it out”  well,  you can guess what Mikey did! 

2 Give clear and specific instructions.  Don’t just say pick up the play area.  Tell them: “Let’s put the toys away,  put the blocks here,  the crayons over here etc, etc”  At least until they have done it many times and they have learned the routine.  Also,  avoid multi-step and somewhat vague directions.  Don’t tell them:  Go to the bin, pick up some colored pencils and take them to Mary.  This can be overwhelming and stressful for an ASD child.  The child might panic, thinking: Which bin? Which colors should I get? What did she say I was supposed to do with the pencils?

3 Don’t force them to have direct eye contact when speaking to them.  This might be very difficult for a child with ASD to do.  Don’t assume that because they are not looking at you,  they are not listening. Several years ago, I had a 6th grade student who was very interested in Japanese Comic Art or anime.  He would be drawing this while I was teaching.  Forty years ago when I started teaching, that would have been completely unacceptable.  How dare he?  He is missing important parts of the lesson! Blah, blah, blah.   The truth of the matter is that he was so smart that he could do both things.  He was drawing his Japanese anime and listening to my lessons.  He always aced the tests!

D. Become interested in their interests

Students with ASD will very often have hyper interests on a specific topic.  I mentioned earlier my student who was obsessed with Japanese  art. Just recently I had another student with ASD and he was an expert in geography.  He could name any river in any place on the globe, he could tell you the name, length, point of origin, which countries and cities it would flow by.  He also knew every mountain range,  every world capital and much more.  Again,  I would be teaching and he would be drawing maps and labeling every corner of every country and body of water on those maps.  Again the old me would have probably tried to force him to stop drawing and “pay attention”  instead,  we worked out a deal. I said to him:  As long as you do well on the tests,  I will allow you to draw maps.  And guess what?  He did great on the tests!  Not only that, while in Sixth Grade he competed against Juniors and Seniors  in a High School Geography Bee and he got 1st place!  I was so proud of him and he was so happy.  That day he gave me the biggest hug,  not something that happened often.  I will never forget that hug!

E. Make sure to plan for regular structured supervised one on one or small group interactions between students. 

These kinds of activities will help the ASD student develop the much needed social skills.  Create some lessons in which the students have to cooperate with each other to come up with a final result.  However,  make sure to supervise closely the interaction and give specific instructions to avoid problems.  Keep the groups small and make sure you organize who is in each group,  don’t let them choose their groups as this will probably lead to your ASD students being left out. 

F. Be very vigilant during free time play 

Unfortunately it is not uncommon for children with ASD to be victims of bullying, teasing and taunting.  For many reasons some children can be cruel and prey on those who might seem different and appear to be more vulnerable.  This does not usually happen when in the classroom. It mostly occurs during playground time,  lunchtime and when they are older during changing of class.  It is extremely important to minimize the opportunities for this to happen.

Besides minimizing the opportunities where bullying or teasing may occur,  it is always a good idea to keep the school counselor or dean of discipline if an incident occurs.  Some schools have implemented programs designed to build up the self esteem and confidence of children who might fall victim to school bullying or teasing by their classmates.  Unfortunately many schools focus on the perpetrator and apply consequences etc. but it has been my experience that this sometimes just makes the problem worse.  While it’s important to not let the bully get away with abusive behavior,  it is just as important to teach the victim techniques and give them tools to be able to stop the bullies.

G. Build a trusting relationship

Make sure you gain your ASD student’s trust so that they may feel comfortable enough to talk to you if they are experiencing difficulties with other students.  Work with him or her to build their sense of power and self assurance.  The more self assured they are, the less they will tolerate any kind of abuse from other students. 

This is way easier to say than to actually achieve.  It is a slow process and one that develops little by little with a lot of love and a lot of patience. Never try to force your relationship,  just be genuine. Children with ASD will smell a fake a thousand miles away. 

H. Keep the channels of communication with the parents open

Parents and caregivers are the most important people in the lives of your students.  It is always important to have good communication with them but when it comes to children with ASD it is even more important.  Try to schedule calls with them where they can give you any updates on their child,  for example any changes of situation at home, any new behaviors they might have observed at home, any new therapy sessions they might have begun,  any changes in medication.  Sometimes and in consideration of time or lack of time, even regular emails between parents and teachers will do the trick.  Just make sure you make parents feel comfortable to know they can email you regularly and will not be perceived as a nuisance. Make them feel their input is always welcomed.

I.  Cut yourself some slack

Last but certainly not least,  give yourself credit for your work and your effort day in and day out.  Teaching is difficult and teaching  ASD children can be very challenging.   Even when you are trying to do everything right there will be times when you will feel very frustrated and feel like you are failing. Please know that you are not failing.  You are building resilience,  you are building that trust we talked about earlier. Most of all you are giving them the love, respect and acknowledgement every human being deserves.  Your students may forget some of the academic lessons you taught while they were in your classroom but I guarantee they will never forget the love they received.

Hilda Pacheco is a Florida Certified K-12 Educator.  She graduated cum laude from the University of Puerto Rico and continued postgraduate studies at Barry University. She was born in Havana, Cuba but at the age of two her family had to flee the island nation and settled in San Juan Puerto Rico where Hilda was raised and did most of her schooling.
Her first teaching job was coincidentally in the same school she attended as a child until 12 grade,  Academia Perpetuo Socorro, where she taught Language Arts to grades 3-6.
In 1982 she moved to Miami, Florida and immediately began teaching 6th grade Social Studies, Reading and Language Arts at St. Theresa Catholic School in Coral Gables.  Once she and her husband Jose began a family she took a few years off to spend with her young children Andres and Alina.  Decision which unbeknownst to her at the time, proved to be very helpful as her youngest was born with a severe hearing loss and mild Cerebral Palsy.  Those first years were crucial for Hilda to be with her child to assist the Early Intervention Specialists as well as the Speech and Physical Therapists.  Once her young daughter was ready to start school and just after a couple of years was doing so well,  it was recommended she should be incorporated into the mainstream regular classroom,  Hilda returned to full time teaching.
She took a job in St. Kevin Catholic School where both of her children studied.  There she remained for the next 25 years. The last six years she not only taught full time but also held the position of Curriculum Coordinator of the Middle School and was part of the Administrative Team of St. Kevin School.
During her 40 years as an educator Hilda acquired extensive experience teaching and helping students grow, learn and develop both in the regular and special education settings. Her greatest reward has always been when grown adult former students return to visit and tell her they are doing well and making a life of their own. Especially those that had great challenges to overcome.
After 40 years of a successful and fulfilling career in education, Hilda decided that this past June 2021 was a good time to retire.  She has seen firsthand how education has changed through the years and is ready to dedicate her time and effort to help create more awareness of these changes. She hopes to become an advocate and a voice for those who might be seen as “different” but who by all means can achieve and experience success in their life.