To understand how children with autism learn, one must be cognizant of the core deficits that define autism and impede the development of the fundamental prerequisite skills essential for learning. Some unique learning characteristics of students with autism may include, but are not limited to:

  • Attention difficulties
  • Auditory processing impairments
  • The inability to generalize (easily transfer knowledge from one setting to another)
  • Difficulties with learning by observation and imitation
  • Troubles with task/event sequencing
  • Uneven patterns of strengths and weaknesses
  • Problems with organization and planning
  • Difficulties with time concepts and making transitions

As most students with autism do not learn in the same manner as their typical peers, modifications to the curriculum may be necessary to help a child with autism succeed (Wagner, 1998). An extensive discussion of techniques used to address the unique barriers to learning presented by students with autism is beyond the scope of this booklet. However, a brief description is offered here. For more detailed information, consult the resources section at the end of this booklet, especially Grandin (1998), Holmes (1998), Powers (1997), and Schopler and Mesibov (1995).

Addressing Sensory Differences

Many children with autism experience sensory input in variable ways. These sensory processing difficulties can be
quite an impediment to learning. Attentiveness is often improved if accommodations are made to meet a child’s sensory needs. An occupational therapist can often be an excellent source of ideas of ways to address these needs. A few suggestions are offered here.

Difficulties with auditory processing can be offset by providing visual supports, such as pictures, symbols, or written
instructions. Visual stimuli -such as a picture-based communication system, picture sequencing to convey routines or rules, and the written word -can serve as permanent cues for students with autism (Hodgdon, 1995). Some
students with autism are precocious readers; providing them with written instructions, schedules, routines, and/or rules can help them become successful participants in the classroom.

Children with autism may have difficulty processing the meaning of requests, whether visual or auditory. Allow for pauses to give time for a child with autism to determine an appropriate response.

Some children have great difficulty processing auditory and visual stimuli simultaneously. Some children with autism have a great need for physical exercise.  Often giving these children regular breaks to run, swing, or jump on a trampoline can help them become more organized and less anxious.

Addressing Attention Difficulties

Distractibility can be due to such things as self-stimulatory behavior or perseveration (an obsessive preoccupation with extraneous information or objects). Often distractibility can be addressed by redirection, prompting, and, at times, hand-over-hand manipulation. Careful observation of the environment from the child’s eyes can help identify distracting elements that may be easily remedied by changing the child’s seating arrangement or by removing or modifying the distraction. Allowing children with autism to have “breaks” to meet their sensory needs can often
help improve attention.

At the same time, it is important to provide stimulating instruction that is challenging to the student to prevent boredom that can lead to distractibility.

Addressing Social Deficits

Opportunities to help children with autism understand social norms and improve social interactions can be
created in a variety of ways.  Setting up “buddy systems” or “peer tutoring” arrangements that pair children without disabilities with those with autism provides opportunities to observe and model behaviors. Some leaders in the field have employed a special “kids club” to provide extracurricular opportunities. Using pictures to convey classroom rules and etiquette and assigning multi-step tasks are often very helpful.

Setting up play schemes based on social situations allows children with autism to “practice” some basic life skills, such as going to the doctor, shopping, or going to school. Stories written by the educator can be used to help
students identify relevant social cues, become familiar with routines and rules, and develop desired social skills. These stories can  also help prepare the child for unexpected occurrences or changes in routines (Gray, 1995; Gray & Garand, 1993).

Addressing Behavior Issues

Children with autism have great difficulty expressing their feelings in conventional ways. Sometimes their behavior is often the only way they have to communicate feelings of frustration, anger, confusion, happiness, or boredom. While not all children with autism exhibit challenging behaviors, it is not uncommon to see children become
aggressive, be disruptive, or have tantrums.

Adaptations to Make Learning Easier for Students with ASD

To compensate for the social, communicative, and sensory impairments experienced by students with autism, modifications to the learning environment can greatly enhance an education program’s effectiveness. There are
many ways to adapt activities and materials to meet the needs of the students. Such modifications should be viewed by educators as an enhancement to learning.

Here are 20 suggestions to help you make learning easier for students with autism:

  1. Extend a welcoming environment to all students.
  2. Identify and use appropriate functional communication systems across all environments
  3. Develop predictable routines; use timers or bells to assist children with transitions from one activity to the next (making transitions is an area of particular difficulty for most students with autism).
  4. Understand that behavior is a form of communication that can often be remedied by assessing the child’s
    communicative intent and making environmental changes or implementing planned behavioral interventions.
  5. Use visuals to convey instructions, meanings, routines, and schedules.
  6. Provide a classroom aide or paraprofessional to help the child complete tasks and to facilitate meaningful social
    interactions and appropriate adaptive behaviors.
  7. Encourage “peer mentoring”.
  8. Build on areas of strengths and interests. Develop skills and talents that can lead to success later in life.
  9. Use creative strategies to assist the child in learning more effective social skills.
  10. Provide frequent positive reinforcement. Find out from parents or guardians what type of motivators work for
    each child.
  11. Plan for “fading” prompts to promote more independence.
  12. Be aware of the child’s sensory needs when developing classroom activities and implementing behavioral
  13. Do things with instead of for the student when she or he needs assistance. Have high expectations!
  14. Allow extra time for the child to form a response to your request (many students need extra time to process the
    meaning of an instruction).
  15. Provide an environment that is uncluttered and without distracting noises.
  16. Whenever possible, use natural lighting; standard fluorescent lighting can cause difficulties for some children
    with autism.
  17. Consider the physical placement of the child in the classroom and how it relates to his or her unique responses
    to environmental stimuli.
  18. Do not request information from the child when she or he is upset -allow time for coping.
  19. Treat the student with autism with the same respect you would their fellow classmates.
  20. Empower the student to be an active participant in all classroom and social activities.

Educational Outcomes

Until recently, individuals with autism did not have the educational opportunities now available. As a result, many adults with autism require some assistance in their daily living. However, some adults with autism hold professional careers and live independently. Although there is no known cure for autism, we do know that early and intensive intervention with some degree of inclusion in the regular education setting through- out the school years can greatly benefit some students with autism, providing them with the foundation needed to live full and productive lives.

Temple Grandin, Ph.D., a college professor and business owner, credits her considerable accomplishments to “creative, unconventional teachers and friends” who looked beyond her autism and helped her develop her talents and interests into a successful career. She states that, “the common denominator of many successful autism treatment programs is early intensive intervention and mainstreaming with normal children” (Grandin,1988).


Goldstein, H., & Ferrell, D. (1987). Augmenting communicative interaction between handicapped and non-handicapped preschool children. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 52, 200-122.

Goldstein, H., & Wiskstrom, S. (1986). Peer intervention effects on communicative interaction among handicapped and nonhandicapped preschoolers. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 19(2), 209-214.

Grandin, T. (1988). Teaching tips from a recovered autistic. Focus on Autistic Behavior; 1, 1-8.

Gray, C. (1995). Teaching Children with Autism to “Read” Social Situations. In K.A. Quill (Ed.), Teaching Children with Autism: Strategies to Enhance Communication and Socialization (pp. 219-241). Albany, NY:Delmar Publishers.

Gray, C., & Garand, J. (1993). Social stories: Improving responses of students with autism with accurate social information. Focus on Autistic Behavior; 8, 1-10.

Gresham, F. (1982). Misguided mainstreaming: The case for social skills training with handicapped children [abstract]. Exceptional Children, 48.

Harris, S.l. (1994). Siblings of Children with Autism: A Guide for Families. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.

Hodgdon, L.A. (1995). Visual Strategies for Improving J Communication. Troy, MI: QuirkRoberts Publishing.

Siegel, B. (1996). The World of the Autistic Child: Understanding and Treating Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Wagner, S. (1998). Inclusive Programming for Elementary Students with Autism. Atlanta: Emory Autism Resource Center.

Resources for More Information

There are many resources for professionals to utilize for additional information on educating children with autism. Listed below are several of the books, videos, and websites available on this topic.

Helpful Responses to Some of the Behaviors of Individuals with Autism, by Nancy J. Dalrymple, 1992, Indiana
Resource Center for Autism.

Adapting Curriculum & Instruction in Inclusive Classrooms: A Teacher’s Desk Reference, y C. Deschenes, D.G.
Ebeling, & J. Sprague, 1994, ISDD-CSCI.

Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism, by Temple Grandin, 1996, Vintage Books.

The Original Social Story Book, by Carol Gray, 1993, Future Education.

The New Social Stories, by Carol Gray, 1994, Future Education.

Inclusion: 450 Strategies for Success: A Practical Guide for All Educators Who Teach Students with Disabilities, by
Peggy A. Hammeken, 1997, Peytral Publications.

Siblings of Children with Autism: A Guide for Families, by Sandra L. Harris, 1994, Woodbine House. (1995 Literary Achievement Award, Autism Society of America)

Visual Strategies for Improving Communication, by Linda A. Hodgdon, 1995, QuirkRoberts Publishing.

Autism Through the Lifespan: The Eden Model, by David L. Holmes, 1998, Woodbine House. (1998 Literary
Achievement Award, Autism Society of America)

Teaching Children with Autism: Strategies for Initiating Positive Interactions and Improving Learning
Opportunities, edited by Robert L. Koegel and Lynn Kern Koegel, 1996, Paul H Brookes Publishing Co.

The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Integration Dysfunction, by Carol Stock Kranowitz, 1998, Perigee Books.

Behavioral Interventions for Young Children with Autism: A Manual for Parents and Educating Students with Autism
Professionals, edited by Catherine Maurice, Gina Green, and Stephen C. Luce, 1996, Pro Ed.

Children with Autism: A Parents’Guide, edited by Michael D. Powers, 1989, Woodbine House. (1990 Literary Achievement Award, Autism Society of America)

Teaching Children with Autism: Strategies to Enhance Communication and Socialization, edited by Kathleen Ann Quinn, 1995, Delmar Publishers.

How to Reach and Teach All Students in the Inclusive Classroom: Ready-to-Use Strategies, Lessons and Activities for Teaching Students with Diverse Learning Needs, by Sandra F. Rief & Julie A. Heimburge, 1996, The Center for Applied Research in Education.

Social Behavior in Autism (Current Issues in Autism), edited by Eric Schopler & Gary B. Mesibov, 1986, Plenum Publishing Corp.

Learning and Cognition in Autism (Current Issues in Autism), edited by Eric Schopler & Gary B. Mesibov, 1995, Plenum Publishing Corp.

Asperger Syndrome or High-Functioning Autism? (Current Issues in Autism), edited by Eric Schopler, Gary B. Mesibov, & Linda J. Kunce, 1998, Plenum Publishing Corp.

The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for Your Special Ed Child, by Lawrence M. Siegel, 1999, Nolo Press.

Inclusive Programming for Elementary Students with Autism, by Sheila Wagner, 1998, Emory Autism Resource

A Sense of Belonging: Including Students with Autism in Their School Community (20 minute video), 1997,
Indiana Resource Center for Autism.

Autism: Being Friends (8 minute video), 1991, Indiana Resource Center for Autism.

Breakthroughs: How to Reach Students with Autism (25 minute video), featuring Karen Sewell, awarded “1998 Teacher of the Year,” Autism Society of America, Attainment Productions, 1998, Verona, WI


The Autism Society of America wishes to thank the following professionals for their contributions
to the content of this booklet:

  • Margaret Creedon, Ph.D., Easter Seal Therapeutic Day School
  • Andrew Egel, Ph.D., Professor of Education, University of Maryland
  • David L. Holmes, Ph.D., President/Executive Director, Eden Family of Services
  • Gary B. Mesibov, Ph.D., Director/Professor, Division TEACCH, University of North Carolina
  • Cathy L. Pratt, Ph.D., Director, Indiana Resource Center for Autism
  • Frank Robbins, Ph.D., Director, Quabbin Valley Educational Consultants
  • Eric Schopler, Ph.D., Founder/Professor, Division TEACCH, University of North Carolina

Autism Society of America 
7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 300
Bethesda, MD 20814-3067

The Autism Society of America. ASA is very grateful to the American Contract Bridge League for underwriting the original publication of this document in booklet form and other publications associated with our “Public Awareness of Autism in the Schools” Campaign, 2000-2001. This document can be found on the web site of the Autism Society of America free for download and duplication.