There are a number of things that teachers can do that will make students with autism feel welcome and happy throughout the school year. Following some simple steps from the very beginning can help make the academic year enjoyable and productive for you and all your students.
- Provide clarity and structure. This is the most critical thing that a teacher can do. Perform activities in the same order each day so that the child with autism knows what to expect. If possible, place a chart of these routines more permanently on the wall or on a white board. That way, if you are not present in school for any reason, a substitute teacher will know not only what to do, but in what order to do things (and thus avoid being told by the child with autism that she or he is doing it wrong).
- Have designated areas. Everything in the classroom needs to have a clear purpose. That is to say, it is important to have a dedicated area in the classroom for separate and distinct activities such as saying the Pledge of Allegiance, story time, instruction, and any other routine activity that the teacher anticipates leading throughout the year. It is also important to display student work in a designated place.
- Praise and acknowledge children in a consistent way. Children with autism have difficulty understanding emotions, both negative and positive ones. It is important to acknowledge the students’ work. But expecting an excited response from children with autism after giving them an A+ or some other high grade may not come as they may not know that type of expectation in that situation.
- Avoid distractions. Children with autism are easily distracted. Windows and noise are prime offenders in distracting these children, who then often face difficulties in getting back on track. If possible, seat a child with autism away from windows and close to where you are sitting or standing to teach. Placing their desks or chairs close to you also reduces the risk of subtle bullying behaviors.
- Know the child. Finally, the best way to work with or teach any child is to connect with that child. Most children with autism, once one connects with them, are easy to get to know. They are typically consistent and dependable, and they do what they say they will do.
Children with autism, like most other children, don’t like surprises in their routines and take a bit longer to get used to them. But once a routine has been established, they follow it very well. Knowing your student who has an autism spectrum disorder and understanding how to set up the classroom and classroom routines are the best ways to have a happy and well-functioning classroom throughout the school year.