Autism in the Classroom: Overcoming Challenges

While every child with autism presents with unique needs and behaviors, it’s important for teachers to understand the general types of concerns they are likely to encounter.

1) Cognitive Processing Delays

  • Processing delays should never be confused with intelligence. Processing delays have little do to with the capacity to incorporate and evaluate observations and ideas. Delays in the ability to process verbal or written language have a neurological basis. For those individuals who suffer delays, facts, ideas, and questions are often delayed or even lost in translation from language to thought and vice-versa.
  • Processing issues are similar — at least in result – to the way we might function when being spoken to in a foreign language with which we have only a rudimentary understanding. While the native speaker chatters on, we are having to translate the words into ones we understand and occupied as such, will miss much of what is said.
  • In a classroom, where children are expected to shoot up their hands in response to questions, processing delays can present a seemingly impossible barrier with both learning and social consequences. When the child with ASD is called on, the untrained teacher, rather than waiting will elevate the child’s stress by repeating the question or expressing impatience, and when the pressure becomes too much, the child will simply check out or respond with an inappropriate behavior. If the child checks out one too many times, it will be a great challenge to reengage him or her.

    Strategies to use:

  • Give the student the time needed to process a fact or a question, before expecting a response. Some students can be taught various methods to buy needed time, including restating of the question, asking for a few seconds, or simply putting up a finger to signify they are thinking.
  • For oral lectures, students can be permitted to use a recording device or given summary notes afterward.

2) Sensory Perception Issues

  • Any of the senses can be involved. A child might be especially sensitive to certain sounds, have a poor sense of balance and lack depth perception, and / or be unable to tolerate certain tastes and textures of foods. Even the scratching of a pencil across a piece of piece might set that child’s nerves on end in the same way that many of us are reduced to quivering when a piece of chalk squeaks on a board.

    What to do:

  • The teacher needs to speak with the student and encourage him or her to tell the teacher without shame about any environmental distractions. By doing this, the teacher and administrators may learn to appreciate and alleviate many problems that can interfere with the student’s ability to learn.

3) Social Skill Deficits

  • Social skill deficits can make a student with autism, the odd child out. Without training and sufficient mindfulness, even well-meaning teachers might slip into intimidating and sometimes even bullying behavior with the child who is always lagging behind and just odd.
  • The schoolroom is the perfect setting to acquire and practice social skills. The conscientious teacher can do much to help promote this and encourage the tolerance and involvement of other students to help the child become socially fluid both in terms of emoting his or her own feeling and state of being as well with interpreting the meaning and feeling implied in the expressions, words, and actions of others.

4) Expression Challenges

  • For those children who possess the intellectual capacity to function in the general class, speech and language skills can still present a number of obstacles.
  • They may have problems expressing their own emotions and feelings as well perceiving and knowing how to respond to those of others. This can be as extreme as lacking the ability to recognize faces and differentiate between different people, or as subtle as lacking the ability to appreciate and make use of nuance and tone of voice when communicating.
  • Overtime with the right and consistent encouragement, they can be taught to moderate their speech and speak in ways that don’t make them stick out from their peers. Rather than abandon certain pedantic speech, they can be placed in situations where it may prove an asset such as in those field of learning like science, math, and engineering where precision of language is critical.

5) Motor Skill Challenges 

  • Motor skill challenges can present as an inability to master handwriting. Forcing a child to do endless handwriting practice is never a good solution, yet this is the most common approach for children with poor handwriting. What typically occurs with forced solo practice is that the child’s bad habits are reinforced. With some children, handwriting issues are best addressed by a trained occupational or behavioral therapist.
  • Students with ASD may also need more encouragement to participate in physical activities where motor coordination is required (PE or recess). In this situation, it is important to reinforce any and all attempts by the child to participate.

Through ABA training, tutors and teachers can learn many of the basic techniques to motivate children and overcome various barriers.
Visit our YouTube Channel for examples of several of behavioral strategies in action. While these strategies are demonstrated with younger children, they can be readily adapted to work with learners of all ages.

Butterfly Effects behavior consultants and occupational therapists can be called in to help schools set up their classrooms to better accommodate children with various challenges. With the recent influx of children diagnosed with ASD, it would save schools a lot of time to proactively make the accommodations that will allow all children to learn in environments that are free of unnecessary challenges. Teachers will encounter enough significant challenges that they could not anticipate; it would be smart of us to take care of those that can be anticipated.