• Cory Morrison

Elementary school: How do I teach an autistic person?

Updated: Jun 13


A primary school classroom of children working at their desks
(Photo credit: Victoria Museums on Unsplash)

You’re a teacher. You teach numerous children a year. Many children have different learning styles where you will need to work at their level. As an autistic person’s brain operates differently, this can include additional challenges. How do I make it easier? How do I help them reach their long-term potential? Through my personal experiences with learning in a regular classroom, as well as how a person’s symptoms may make school harder, I suggest the following:


Use visual cues for missed information


Since people on the spectrum are often strong visual learners, visual cues can help if they miss information. Some examples can include a model version of the activity, drawings, or written words. These can especially be helpful if the content or instructions are too abstract for the student to understand.


Be concrete and literal


People with autism tend to see the world literally. I was no exception. Be as direct as possible with your requests. Instead of “Why don’t you have your indoor shoes for gym class?” say, “Please remember your indoor shoes for gym class.” Also, avoid phrases such as “Break a leg,” and say, “Good luck at your Cross Country meet.” The person may interpret it as actually breaking a leg.


Give short requests


Given the before mentioned difficulties with abstraction, keep your requests as short as possible. If you give a direction such as “Finish your math, ask your neighbour to correct it and hand it in for me to grade,” it may be too much for the student to process. Instead of giving all of the steps at once, you can let the person know that you will come over to tell them what to do next once they finish the math.


Provide several short activities instead of one big one

young children do workbooks at a table
(Photo credit: CDC on Unsplash)

When I was in school, a quick math or spelling worksheet didn’t overwhelm me. However, if it was a bigger project, I needed constant assistance from my educational assistants to understand everything I needed to do. They would often break down the steps for me and turned the projects into a few smaller chunks at a time. This way of doing projects was a lot easier for me. If a long activity is particularly overwhelming for the student, allow them to take a break from their desk to recharge briefly.


Remember that non-verbal cues don’t always work


A frown that you don’t approve of the person interrupting your lesson will not always work. Be very clear with your words that you do not like the person’s behaviour. The person will most likely learn the behaviour quicker and may even self-correct if they accidentally do the same thing again. Similarly, if you notice that the student doesn’t pick up on cues from their peers, remind them what they want.


Be aware of what frustrates them


Factors to watch can include being aware of their weakest subjects, who they don’t get along with in the class and how well they respond to constructive criticism.


Examples:

  • If the student finds reading, for example, particularly frustrating, provide simpler questions. Instead of “How did Terry’s goal of running across the country make an impression on Winston?” you can ask, “What is Terry’s role in the story?” Indeed, questions that involve talking about feelings can be especially hard for autistic people, given their deficits in understanding others’ feelings.

  • If there is a peer the student has had a notably negative relationship with, avoid putting the student in any group activities with that person if possible. Or, you can help the pair accept one another.

  • You may want to make sure you don’t come across as too condescending to the person, as it may affect their self-esteem. Be firm when they do something wrong, but don’t act superior. Patronizing behaviour does not help people learn well.

Don’t assume the worst with bad behaviour


A classroom of 6th graders looks at teacher who is talking
(Photo credit: NeONBRAND on Unsplash)

If the person has an outburst in class, for example, don’t assume they try to make everyone’s day miserable. Try to understand where the behaviour comes from. Are they too overwhelmed by too much light or noise? Is there a change in a routine? Did another child say something they didn’t like? In any situation, gently let them know the behaviour isn’t appropriate. If the behaviour is clearly intentional and they know better, then you can let your anger out.


Prepare student for routine changes


Moving from preferred to less-preferred activities can be a struggle for people with autism. If drama appears to be a person’s favourite subject, but you learn that there is an assembly during the drama period, let the student know in advance. This communication can ensure that the student won’t be as stressed out when the actual time comes. Sudden changes are especially tough to deal with.


Know what distracts them

5 pencils lay on a notebook
(Photo credit: David Pennington on Unsplash)

One of my biggest challenges in elementary school was that I was often distracted. If there were a field trip or special event on the same day, I would be preoccupied with these events

instead of the present lesson. If I had an incident with someone at recess, I would feel distressed and guilty enough not to attend the lesson. Give the student subtle cues to engage them. You can maybe make a joke out of lesson material or relate it to the student’s interests to get them back on track.


Make partner activities less stressful


Given the social struggles with autism, it was too often with picking partner activities that I would be the odd person out. These situations would especially occur if there were an odd number of people in the class. In this case, you can maybe use “pick names from a hat”, “work with your neighbour”, or “assign a peer to the student” methods more often to prevent the student from feeling isolated.

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