How Students With Autism Learn (page 2)
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:
- Extend a welcoming environment to all students.
- Identify and use appropriate functional communication systems across all environments
- 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).
- 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.
- Use visuals to convey instructions, meanings, routines, and schedules.
- Provide a classroom aide or paraprofessional to help the child complete tasks and to facilitate meaningful social
interactions and appropriate adaptive behaviors.
- Encourage “peer mentoring”.
- Build on areas of strengths and interests. Develop skills and talents that can lead to success later in life.
- Use creative strategies to assist the child in learning more effective social skills.
- Provide frequent positive reinforcement. Find out from parents or guardians what type of motivators work for
- Plan for “fading” prompts to promote more independence.
- Be aware of the child’s sensory needs when developing classroom activities and implementing behavioral
- Do things with instead of for the student when she or he needs assistance. Have high expectations!
- 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).
- Provide an environment that is uncluttered and without distracting noises.
- Whenever possible, use natural lighting; standard fluorescent lighting can cause difficulties for some children
- Consider the physical placement of the child in the classroom and how it relates to his or her unique responses
to environmental stimuli.
- Do not request information from the child when she or he is upset -allow time for coping.
- Treat the student with autism with the same respect you would their fellow classmates.
- Empower the student to be an active participant in all classroom and social activities.
Reprinted with the permission of the Autism Society.