As of 2014, one out of every 59 children will receive an autism diagnosis. As these children grow and reach the age when they need to start school, teachers have to come up with new and inventive ways to engage these neurodivergent children. Every child deserves an education, but many won’t or can’t learn by following a standard curriculum. With that in mind, here are some innovative ways teachers and parents can encourage learning in children with autism.
1. Understand How They Learn
Even among neurotypical children, not everyone learns the same way. There are visual learners who understand the subject best when it’s taught with pictures. There are auditory learners who comprehend best when exposed to sound and music. Verbal learners will prefer to talk to you about a subject, while kinesthetic learners prefer to be hands-on in their education. You’ve got social learners, who learn best in a group, and solitary learners, who perform best on their own.
No one learns the same. This tip can be applied to everyone in a classroom, regardless of the presence or lack of a diagnosis. Take a little bit of time to learn how each of your students learns so you can provide the experience they need to be successful. Children with autism are often brilliant. They may not be able to give you the answer to a math problem you’ve written on the board, but if you explain the same question differently, they can solve it quickly and easily.
2. Create a Sensory Room
Schools — or anywhere you have a large group of children — are inherently noisy places. For a child with autism, this noise can be overwhelming. Sensory overload is a common meltdown trigger, meaning the child will not be able to function in a traditional classroom setting. Meltdowns are disruptive for everyone. A sensory room gives these children a place to retreat to when the hustle and bustle of a regular school day become too much.
A sensory room can be elaborate, with places to sit, lighting and music options, or it can be as simple as a vinyl tent that is sequestered in a quiet corner. Just giving these students somewhere to calm down and gain a modicum of control can be enough to help them get through the day.
3. Acquire Allies
For a teacher that isn’t trained to instruct students with autism, having one added to your class roster can be a challenge. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or seek allies that can provide extra support as you’re learning the best way to help these students learn and be successful.
Your greatest ally is the child’s parents. They’ve been teaching him or her since day one, determining the best way to get through to them when they’re having a meltdown or to make them understand and comprehend a new concept. Work with the parents to come up with a plan of attack to make sure you’re doing the best you can by these students.
School-related resources can also be valuable if they’re available. If not, work with your local superintendent to have these services added to your school or district.
4. Focus on Their Strengths
Everyone has strengths, even if they aren’t the same as those of the person next to them. For autistic students, who might struggle with concepts that other children their age have already mastered, don’t focus on what they’re missing. Focus on their strengths instead. Make a list of them to help you remember. That way, instead of getting stuck on the lessons they’re struggling in or getting frustrated with, you can redirect them to their strengths. From there, you can figure out how to use those strengths to help them comprehend the current lesson.
If you’re having trouble seeing the student’s strengths, turn to your allies. They may see something you’ve missed after having them in your classroom every day.
Teaching an autistic child can be challenging, but it’s only tricky if you expect them to learn like everyone else. There’s a vast difference between not being able to learn and not being able to learn like everyone else. Don’t worry about having an autistic student in your class — just be prepared to change your teaching style a little bit if they start having trouble. Modern public school is designed to teach students as much information as possible in a short timeframe. If one of your students can’t learn at that pace, it’s up to you to adjust your teaching strategies.
Every student, regardless of their ability, deserves an education. It’s not their job to change for us. It’s our job to change for them, so they have the same chance of success as every other student in the classroom.