The Challenges Students with Autism Face

Kate Malone
Kate Malone
Middle school principal; Ed.S. in School Leadership
“Autism” spelled out in colorful clay on a wooden table.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) manifests in unique ways from person to person. For the purposes of teaching a child with ASD, it is most useful to embrace the concept of neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is the idea that students with ASD are not “disabled,” but rather exemplify the scope of human difference present among all individuals. Teachers who embrace these differences help empower neurodiverse students through supports targeted at their specific needs and differences. There are as many differences among people with ASD as there are among neurotypical individuals, but since there are some common challenges for people with ASD, there are also some approaches that have been proven to yield positive results in the classroom.

How Does Learning Differ for Students with Autism?

Although ASD often co-occurs with ADHD and specific learning disabilities, the learning of students with ASD is not necessarily impacted by a lack of cognitive ability. Instead their struggles in the classroom tend to have other origins, usually social-emotional and/or sensorimotor.

In a neurodiverse classroom, one might observe individuals’ fascinations with specific topics. Students with ASD tend to develop passions (even fixations) on specific topics, objects, or interests. Their knowledge of these narrowly focused areas of expertise can be astounding and demonstrate the level of mastery a student is capable of when engaged and motivated. A teacher can capitalize on that motivation by relating new skills to the topic of fascination. The context doesn’t much matter if the learning is occurring, right?

Although students with ASD are characterized by their difficulty with social relationships, they tend to prefer to learn with authoritative adults in small group or one-on-one settings and find peer interaction motivating, so finding ways to help students engage with others is critical. Additionally, students with ASD, tend to be visual learners and benefit greatly from new or difficult content being presented in a variety of ways, but especially by being shown what to do. If one chooses to frame these characteristics as differences, rather than disabilities, the door is open to view these differences as strengths and places to “plug into” learning.

What Challenges Do Autistic Students Face?

Perhaps the most well known trait of autism is difficulty with social skills, including recognizing and responding to other people’s feelings, reading nonverbal cues, and navigating social norms. Language development and communication difficulties are common challenges in students with ASD that are often inextricably intertwined with issues related to socialization – so much of human socialization is related to verbal and non-verbal communication.

Students with ASD may struggle with sensory processing and may avoid or seek out sensory input. Some students will have difficulty completing tasks or planning ahead, while others may find it difficult to break a pattern of thinking to approach a problem in a new way, as executive functioning may be a challenge. Motor skills can be impaired in students with ASD, and may require a great deal of concentration or effort that interferes with a student’s ability to concentrate on the material being presented.

Supporting Students with Autism in the Classroom

  1. Use Explicit, Concrete Language Rather than Relying on Implicit Learning

Perhaps because they socialize differently, students with ASD tend to need explicit instruction to gain skills that other students might pick up without even trying. It’s important that adults provide students with clear, simple instructions regarding what is expected, even it if seems obvious to others. Young students might need explicit instruction in how to pretend play, while older students may need clear and specific directions related to how they should enter the classroom and set up for learning. Discrete Trial Teaching is one method for teaching skills explicitly.

  1. Establish Routine, Include Breaks, and Practice Making Changes

One defining characteristic of people with ASD is a tendency toward “restrictive and repetitive behavior” in the form of routines. These self-imposed routines help a child with autism who doesn’t always understand the “rules” of the world around them to feel safe and make the world a bit more predictable. Teachers can help redirect harmful routines by establishing helpful routines with students. By explicitly teaching students instructional and non-instructional routines, the teacher is making the classroom a predictable and manageable environment for them.

While establishing routines, be sure to include instructional breaks. Breaks can help students by reducing or providing sensory input and helping to focus their attention on the task at hand.

The presence of structure in the classroom is a key piece in supporting students with ASD, and once routines are established it is equally important to practice breaking the routines in order to prepare students for times the routine cannot be followed. Teachers can lay the groundwork for a potentially disruptive change by starting with a perceived positive change in routine and working up to a less comfortable disruption. A visual timer and/or visual schedule can also support neurodiverse learners.

  1. Reduce Sensory Issues

Many behaviors that disrupt learning for students with ASD are the result of sensory discomfort. By helping a student with ASD identify the sensory input that is either impeding them or that they are seeking, a teacher can help eliminate a barrier to learning.

  1. Watch Your Tone

Because students with ASD struggle to decipher social cues, maintain a calm, even tone in all interactions, but especially when providing feedback, as any increased excitement, volume, or tone in the voice of the speaker may be misinterpreted or even eclipse the meaning of the words being shared.

  1. Support Transitions by Creating Teams

Transitions, big or small, represent a change and a potential stumbling block for students with ASD. By establishing a team of staff across a school that knows students and their needs, a teacher can ensure that even when she is not present, a student is able to transition appropriately without trauma or disruption.

This theory of supported transitions should be applied to the much larger transitions between grades and schools, as well. An effective teacher will have spent an entire year (or maybe several years) getting to know what works for a particular student. That knowledge should be passed on to the next teacher in a purposeful, collaborative manner to ensure continuity of service to the student.

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