What kinds of teaching strategies are helpful for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder?
As a school psychologist and behavior specialist, I’ve worked with students for over 20 years. I want to share some observations I’ve made about teaching academic concepts to students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Students with ASD, especially those with significant communication challenges, often do best with academic tasks that include:
- visual structure
- a clear beginning and ending
- a reduced amount of visual clutter
- a reduced amount of verbal language
What does the research say about teaching academic concepts to students with ASD?
According to research, building visual structure into tasks effectively addresses the unique learning needs of students with ASD.
How did I tie the research into my experience with my students?
In my first year working as a school psychologist, I worked in a school specifically for students on the autism spectrum.
Most students did not speak, and if they did, they used very little functional language. Many of the students would not participate in academic tasks.
I remember one student, a 15-year-old boy we will call Matthew, who would lie on a mat on the floor for most of the day. His teacher said that he “would not do any work.”
Related Article: 15 Behavior Strategies for Children on the Autism Spectrum
I found some small rainbow-colored bears in the classroom and some colored plates. I took a few of the bears and demonstrated sorting them into matching-colored plates.
Immediately, Matthew picked up on what was needed to complete the task. He independently sorted the rest of the colored bears.
I started applying this concept to teach him and other students (who were not participating in some of the typical classroom activities).
I made dozens of materials from my office in the school. I had access to a laminator, so I laminated the tasks to keep the activities intact.
I did not need to use words to teach these new tasks. The more verbal instructions I used, the more resistant/distant the students became.
I noticed that gestural prompts (pointing when needed) and physical demonstrations were most effective in teaching the tasks.
Sometimes a short verbal prompt, paired with a gestural prompt, such as “put this here,” was also effective. However, lengthy verbal explanations did not help the students learn the concepts.
I also started tying real-life experiences to what I was teaching.
My students seemed to thrive on hands-on/real-life activities with a clear ending. Examples included putting items away, sweeping up an area, or delivering an item.
Sample Learning Activity for Students on the Autism Spectrum
Title: Learning to Read and Making Connections.
Explanation of Activity:
1) The first part of the activity is a reading task. Many students with language/communication difficulties have trouble breaking words into their individual sounds and blending sounds to read words.
However, they often have strong visual memories and learn better through visual memorization than through learning a word’s phonetic components.
In the reading task below, students learn to connect a word to an image or object. They can repeat the activity several times to allow for practice and memorization.
Even if the student cannot say the word, they can learn to connect the printed word to a real-life object.
2) The second part of the activity helps students connect the words and objects they have learned to related items. These connections help them create a deeper meaning of the object. Students are also encouraged to participate in a real experience that utilizes what they learned.
Activity: Learning to Read and Making Connections
Part 1 – Reading/Labeling Activity
- Cut the paper in half at the perforated line.
- Cut out the words.
- Ask the student to put each word under the corresponding image.
Optional: Laminate the words and laminate the right side of the paper (this is beneficial if you want to use the activity more than once).
Put sticky velcro dots on the back of the words and in each box below each image (so the words stay in their spot and don’t slide around).
You can usually get materials laminated in a school building or office supply store. You can also buy a laminator online or at an office supply store.
Part 2-Make Real-World Connections
- Cut the paper in half at the perforated line.
- Cut out all the images on the left to make them individual pictures. Leave the right half intact.
- Ask the student to put the correct image on the corresponding picture (e.g., apple on the plate, car on the road).
- After putting an image on its corresponding picture (e.g., apple on a plate), do a real-life activity to connect the visual to a realistic situation.
Examples of real-world connections:
- After putting the picture of the apple on the plate, get a real apple, and put it on a plate (you can each do this, enjoying an apple together).
- Crack an egg in a frying pan and cook it together.
- Find a flower in a field
For each hands-on activity, have the student/child participate in the steps as much as possible, providing guidance and assistance as needed.
Education and Behavior – Keeping Adults on the Same Page for Kids!
Rachel Wise is the author and founder of Education and Behavior. Rachel created Education and Behavior in 2014 for adults to have an easy way to access research-based information to support children in the areas of learning, behavior, and social-emotional development. As a survivor of abuse, neglect, and bullying, Rachel slipped through the cracks of her school and community. Education and Behavior hopes to play a role in preventing that from happening to other children. Rachel is also the author of Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children: A Guide for Parents and Teachers.
“Children do best when there is consistency within and across settings (i.e., home, school, community). Education and Behavior allows us to maintain that consistency.”