Six ways to support learners with autism

In the latest instalment of her fortnightly Sendco column, Gemma Corby tells us her best strategies for teaching students with autism

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My last blog hopefully dispelled a few myths about autism spectrum condition (ASC), and in this post I would like to offer some of my top strategies to support learners with autism. They are simple changes that do not require a huge amount of work, but may pay dividends in the long run. Although I am a Sendco and teacher in a secondary school, all of these strategies are relevant in primary settings as well.

1. Give clear instructions

Be direct and literal. Break down the tasks into steps, and support what you are saying with something visual – eg, a PowerPoint slide. Consider your phrasing; rather than saying "if you could write a list..." say "write a list". Another handy tip I picked up from recent training was to say "thank you" when giving an instruction rather than "please". That way you are still being polite, but the expectation that you want the task to be completed is clear.

2. Prompt engagement

Many teachers feel exasperated when students with autism just stare blankly into space after being given instructions. This could be a result of the young person processing what has just been said or they may be fixating on the detail of a particular topic or problem, it is hard to know. But it can lead to teachers feeling that they are being ignored. Get the young person's attention by using their name (you may need to do this more than you would with a student without a diagnosis) and ask them to tell you what they need to do. Avoid asking them if they "understand", as they may just say they do when they don't.

3. Provide checklists

The provision of simple checklists can be helpful. There could be a generic laminated one for the start of all lessons, including directions such as "get out your pencil case and book", "write the title and date and underline them". For each lesson you could also provide a list of tasks that you want the student to complete. This does not have to be anything fancy, literally just a list. It is often the case that students with ASC like to cross off what they have done, as it gives them a feeling of accomplishment and control.

4. Always offer visuals

Support all verbal instructions with visuals, which could be as simple as writing the task on the board or supporting key words with images. For longer, more involved projects, it could benefit students with ASC if they can see an exemplar or a model of the end product. You can achieve this by showing them other/former students' work. This will give them an idea of what the bigger picture is and what is expected of them.

5. Signpost change

Ensure that students with a diagnosis of ASC are aware of any forthcoming changes to the usual routine. It could be that you are doing group work, that there is to be a change in seating plan or that you will not be there next lesson and there will be a cover teacher. Have a contingency plan if you know a student cannot cope with cover lessons. For example, they could work in an office with another member of staff keeping an eye on them.

6. Don't take offence 

Some pupils with autism are operating under huge amounts of stress and may sometimes act in a way that can be perceived as rude. This is not a direct attack on you or your ability to teach, but is about them not being able to cope at that particular moment in time. First of all, don't be offended. It may be helpful to issue a young person who finds regulating their emotions challenging with a time-out card or to provide them with an alternative space where they can calm down. Be mindful of your body language and do not appear too aggressive by squaring up to the student. Pretty much all teachers have the habit of saying "look at me when I am talking to you", but this should be avoided as eye contact could prove too much when the young person is experiencing the primeval feeling of fight or flight.

Hopefully these simple tips will be of use to you in your classroom. The next part of this blog, to be published in a fortnight's time, will look at strategies pertaining to seating plans, group work and homework.

Gemma Corby is Sendco at Hobart High School, Norfolk. Her Sendco column for Tes runs every second Tuesday in term-time. To read Gemma's back catalogue, click here.

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