In April, educators, parents and advocates across the country will help raise awareness about autism, highlight inspiring stories of families and hopefully explain the progress we have made in the classroom. Thanks to advancements in research, we are becoming increasingly aware of what makes our educators more effective in helping children with autism reach their highest potential. Perhaps the most exciting development is the discovery that students with autism can thrive in general-education classrooms.
Research shows that when students with intellectual and development disabilities are educated in mainstream education classrooms with their peers, they do better both academically and socially.
For educators who have worked with students with autism, you know the rewards are great. But for teachers who haven’t worked with students with autism, the challenges and unknown can seem daunting.
So how can educators make their classroom a welcoming and productive environment for all students?
- Location, location, location. Seat students in the “action zone” of your classroom, a place that is front and center, near the teacher and away from distractions. This helps your students stay focused and allows you to be nearby when you are prompting them.
- All eyes on me. Capture your students’ attention before giving instructions. Call students by name and make strong eye contact to engage them. Whenever you’re giving directions, use short, direct sentences and visual support. Take the time to check for comprehension. This will be valuable for all students in your classroom.
- Start with the hard stuff. Schedule more challenging classroom tasks and academic lessons for earlier in the day, when students are at their peak attention time.
- Break it up. Vary your classroom activities through the day, and give students a break to help them refocus their attention. By arranging a mix of activities — desk time, physical activity, hands-on tasks — you stimulate the brain in a number of ways. Additionally, providing regular, brief breaks can decrease disruptive behavior and increase attention for next task.
- Use peer models. Identify opportunities for peers to model appropriate behavior. Arranging for students to have a “buddy” during certain times of day can improve social skills and potentially benefit the peer’s confidence as well.
Research suggests that early intervention is still key. The earlier we can identify and begin providing specialized instruction based on the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA), the better. With that said, it is still important to recognize that all students with autism can make meaningful progress with the right supports. So never assume that just because students did not receive early intervention, that they cannot learn important skills to make them more independent and successful at home, school and in their communities.
Jamie Pagliaro was the first executive director of the New York Center for Autism Charter School, the first charter school for children with autism spectrum disorders in New York. He currently serves as chief learning officer of Rethink, a learning company that offers parents and professionals access to effective and affordable applied behavior analysis-based treatment tools for the growing population affected by autism spectrum disorders.