As education continues to evolve, an increasing number of classrooms are adopting an inclusive and integrated approach to supporting students. Educators and school communities are constantly adapting to support the unique needs of the children whom they serve. Within the ever-changing world of education, it is essential that students with autism are supported in their classroom environments. Students with autism present a diverse set of strengths and challenges that can impact their functioning in school. How can we best support these students so that they can not only succeed academically but thrive socially and emotionally in their school communities?
What is autism?
Autism is a neuro-developmental disorder that can cause social, communicative, and behavioral challenges. An estimated 1in 59 children are said to be identified with an autism spectrum disorder, with boys being 4 times more likely to receive a diagnosis. Autism is reported in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups (Center for Disease Control & Prevention, 2018).
What does autism look like?
Autism is characterized by two primary symptoms: persistent deficits in communication and social interaction and restricted and repetitive patterns of interests, behaviors, and activities (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Social and communication challenges can include difficulty understanding and expressing verbal and nonverbal communication, language delays or absence of spoken language, and difficulty understanding social cues (i.e., gestures, facial expressions, the tone of voice). Additionally, students with autism may exhibit difficulty recognizing and understanding emotions, expressing personal emotions, engaging in play, and participating in peer relationships. Restricted and repetitive behaviors include body movements or motions with objects, ritualistic behaviors (i.e., lining up objects), narrow or extreme interests in specific topics, or difficulty with transitions and/or resistance to change (Autism Speaks, 2019). Students with autism are very diverse; it is important to be mindful that behaviors and symptoms present differently from student to student.
How can we support students with autism at school?
When working with students with autism, it is important to recognize that each student presents with a unique set of strengths and challenges. Children with autism learn best in an environment that provides frequent reinforcement and opportunities for explicit and discrete skill instruction. Below are a few tips that can be integrated into classrooms and school communities to promote success with students on the spectrum:
- A, B, C’s: It is important to remember the “Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence” approach to behavior. Identify what happens before and after behaviors occur in order to create meaningful change. The A-B-C contingency can help to create behavior change by analyzing the function of behaviors. This principle can be used to identify and manage environmental triggers, properly reinforce behavior, and teach relevant communication and behavioral replacement skills (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2018).
- Reinforcement: Providing frequent positive reinforcement to students with autism can help to build skills across domains. Make reinforcement specific and meaningful. Instead of saying “good job,” be sure to detail exactly what was right and important about a student’s actions!
- Build Momentum: When teaching new skills, build momentum and confidence by interspersing easy and difficult tasks. A “mix and vary” approach will increase fluency across skills and motivation to learn new skills (Kates-McElroth & Axelrod, 2006).
- Visual Cues: Integrate visual cues and supports throughout activities. Visuals can supplement verbal language, support consistency with routines and transitions, increase communication, improve behavior, and support social-emotional skill development. Some ideas include visual schedules, emotion thermometers, sentence strips, first/then boards, social stories, and more!
- Support Social-Emotional Growth: It is crucial to support the social-emotional development of students with autism. School success is just not about good grades! Model and teach appropriate emotional responses and coping skills. Provide outlets for students to express their emotional needs. Explicitly teach skills necessary for recognizing and expressing emotions (i.e., emotion identification, perspective taking, flexible thinking, etc.). Practice social communication skills daily with adults and children to promote generalization.
Autism Speaks- Social Skills
Social Thinking- Michelle Garcia Winner
Child Guidance Resource Centers- CREATE Program
Kathleen Esposito, Ed.S. is a PA Certified School Psychologist and graduate of Temple University. She works as a school psychologist in CORA’s Nonpublic School Services Department. Prior to working at CORA Services, Kathleen supported students with autism in Philadelphia as an early intervention ABA Therapist. Additionally, Kathleen has experience working with students with autism and emotional disturbance teaching social-emotional learning, providing individual and group counseling, and conducting psycho-educational evaluations.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Autism Speaks. (2019). What is autism? Retrieved from www.autismspeaks.org
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Retrieved from www.cdc.org
Kates-McElrath, K. & Axelrod, S. (2006). Behavioral intervention for autism: A distinction between two behavior analytic approaches. The Behavior Analyst Today, 7(2), 242-252.
Pennsylvania Department of Education. (2018). An introduction to applied behavior analysis. Retrieved from http://pattan.net