Autism at school: how teachers can help

High School can be a very difficult time for students with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders, but there are ways to make it easier. Shutterstock

High school can be difficult for youths with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders, who often have IQs superior to the general population, but can struggle with communication, social skills, and regulating their emotions. Compared to primary school where students only have one teacher, high school involves dealing with a number of different teachers and teaching styles every day, not to mention there are more students, more homework, and more rigorous grading policies. Considering the social challenges they face, problems associated with teen years such as puberty, friendships, and hormonal changes, are exacerbated. Because each youth on the autism spectrum has very different needs, there is no one-size-fits-all policy for assisting students with autism. However there are basic things teachers can do to make their time at school run smoothly.

Provide a home base

A home base is a place in the school where the student can go to plan or review the day’s events, escape the stress of the classroom, prevent a meltdown, or regain control if a meltdown has occurred. The location is not important, but it is essential that the home base is viewed as a positive environment. It is not a “naughty corner”. Nor is it an escape from classroom tasks; the students take their classwork with them to home base. Some students need home base to be scheduled as a regular part of their day. A home base at the beginning of the day can serve to preview the day’s schedule, introduce and get familiar with changes in the typical routine, ensure the student’s materials are organised, or prepare for specific subjects. In addition, home base can also be scheduled after particularly stressful activities or classes.

Minimise handwriting requirements

Many students with autism have difficulty with handwriting, and with listening and writing at the same time, due to motor problems. If writing is problematic for the student, don’t force them to do it. If handwriting itself is not being tested, another mode should be used.

Get organised

Lack of organisation often prevents students with high-functioning autism from demonstrating their full competence. It is not uncommon to hear of students who have completed an assignment but weren’t able to find it to hand it in on time. Organisation entails knowing which papers to keep and which ones to throw away; being able to open a locker; organising backpacks and other school supplies; and remembering money for lunch.

Create a program that works for them

This requires creating a balance between what they have to achieve academically, and their levels of stress and anxiety. Programs have to have a predictable structure to avoid anxiety about something the student wasn’t prepared for, and so students know they can achieve what their teacher and parents are expecting them to do. While predictability is important for the student, they are not always predictable themselves, and changes in mood can happen in an instant. For this reason it’s also important for classroom teachers to be flexible. The student’s need to de-stress should come before completing an activity in the way that was planned. If the teacher has planned a specific lesson but notices the student is experiencing anxiety, they should be able to quickly change the planned routine. Some options include offering the student some time alone before class begins, letting them complete a task with just one other student rather than in a small group, or giving them the choice to observe rather than participate.

Give them a reason to come to school

Teachers need to put in greater effort to make school relevant for students with high-functioning autism, as they think differently to the majority of other kids. Incorporating special interests into the curriculum is often key to these students wanting to attend school, engage and participate. Students with high functioning autism often develop special interests that become much more than a hobby, but a way of life, so this is a great way to get them interested in school. Focusing on a student’s strengths and interests can increase confidence and engagement, especially when the student has other skill areas that need to be addressed. Testing content before it is taught allows the teacher to find out the student’s strengths and weaknesses. The student can then take part in activities that explore their strengths in greater depth.

Students should gradually be taught to assume responsibility for requesting and monitoring the things they need to prepare for adulthood. It’s here they will ultimately be responsible for structuring their own environment for success.

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