Supporting students on the autism spectrum (ASD) in your classroom?
Consider whole-class strategies that will not only help your students with ASD, but all of your learners!
Here are 5 tips for the fall and beyond:
1) Minimize unnecessary visual clutter.
Trash those kitty cat posters encouraging the kids to “just hang in there!” Your students on the spectrum have acute visual systems and you want to help them focus on the important information in your room- not be distracted by clutter.
- Use calming, consistent colors across your bulletin boards (soft blues, greens, and purples; avoid harsh reds and oranges as well as text-heavy or reflective border paper).
- Display only immediately relevant charts and visuals – store your charts from previous units where students can access them, but so that are not always visible (hangers for pants are a great trick!).
- Consider your students’ points-of-view, and make sure important visuals like the daily schedule are visible from each of the student’s seats as well as from the rug.
2) Soften the sensory environment
Could you write an important report in the middle of an amusement park? Overwhelming sensory environments can be distracting and anxiety-producing for students on the spectrum. Luckily, they are also preventable!
- Use natural light and soft lamps instead of overhead fluorescents whose buzzing and flickering are perceptible to many students on the spectrum. If you have to rely on fluorescent lighting, consider softening them with these.
- Put tennis balls on the bottom of classroom chairs to dampen endless screeching and scratching across the floor.
- Offer headphones and fidgets (koosh balls, silly putty, or resistance bands) to students who would benefit from sensory tools. Get great recommendations like these from the occupational therapists (OTs) at your school.
- (For an amazing description of the sensory differences of and the beauty seen by one autistic adult, THIS is a must-read)
3) Create a break area
Sometimes we all just need a place to retreat, relax, and recharge. Teachers might get to squeeze in a quick coffee break, but we ask students to be “on” all day! Students with autism are constantly juggling schoolwork, negotiating overwhelming sensory environments, and navigating the social world. Sometimes they just need a break. Create a set-off space in your classroom, and remember:
- Make the space inviting. Create a small cozy corner with a beanbag, some pillows, and some relaxing picture books. Koosh balls, rubic’s cubes, and sand timers can make great fidgets. Get inspired here!
- Choosing to take a break is not a punishment! Student always have the option to chill out in this space (ALL students- not just those with autism!), and they are never sent there as punishment.
- Teach a break routine to the whole class: Establish an agreed-upon signal, teach the students to set a timer for their break (Time timers® make great break area tools!), introduce break area tools and how to use them, and practice with the whole class both how to both move to the break area and how to come back.
4) Use a whole class positive behavior system
Throw away that old classroom behavior traffic light! Research shows that these arcane systems neither motivate students nor lead to lasting positive behavior change. Instead, put a system in place where students’ positive behaviors are highlighted, celebrated, and rewarded. Here are some tips for creating a powerful positive classwide system:
- Keep it clear - What exactly are you are looking for your students to do, and when will the students be reinforced? Are you looking for students beginning their work after a lesson? Transitioning quickly and quietly to their desks? Helping classmates during a math investigation? Clarify the specific behaviors you are looking for and stay away from nebulous expectations like “be responsible” or “be respectful”- the goals behind these expectations are excellent, but the clarity is not.
- Keep it consistent - use your system frequently throughout the day. For younger students in grades Kg-2, especially in the fall, the system should be referenced multiple times every period! For older students, at leastonce every period is crucial.
- Keep it celebratory - Set high expectations in your classroom, and celebrate each time your students meet them! This reinforcement can come in many different forms: earning a star, a silent cheer from the whole class, or earning special job in the classroom. If you want students to work towards improving their behavior, help motivate them to do this hard work and acknowledge their success!
5) Build a supportive classroom community
Many of us do this in September, and some us do this throughout the fall, but few of us really commit to building a supportive classroom community throughout the year, and it starts to show. We all want classrooms where students feel comfortable, competent, and connected to their community. These three basic needs are fundamental to human motivation. Want your student to want to learn, help her classmate, and see both his own strengths and challenges? Then help every student see him/herself both as an individual and as part of a classroom team.
- In your environment: Go a step further than just displaying student class work. Put photos of fun class experiences on bulletin boards and have strudels write captions to share their memories of the event. Hang spontaneous artwork a student created during his recess just to show him how proud you are and to share his talent with the rest of the class. Add a photo of a student’s favorite character to a lesson chart or handout so she knows that you value her individual interests.
- In your language: As teachers, we talk all day: teaching new content, giving and repeating endless directions, and restating rules and expectations. Save a little of your breath to remind the students that you’re all on this together. You’re a team, so highlight this teamwork: “Okay, seems like team 3-413 had a great time at recess! Now let’s all turn our attention to math.” or “Jeremiah’s really helping the team by reading so quietly at his desk- that helps us all be able to focus.”
- In your classroom morning meetings: Use this time to cover more than just the days’ logistics. Highlight someone who really pushed through a hard time yesterday: “Yesterday Sakena was really struggling when she was revising her story, but she found a revision strategy that worked for her and now her piece is event better!” Share a student’s individual strengths: “I don’t know if you guys all know this, but I found out that Angelique is an orange belt in tae kwon do!” And take a few minutes to play a quick community building game to help the students develop connections with their classmates (looking for some creative ideas for your morning meeting? Check out this great article!).
These 5 tips can help you build a classroom community that supports not only your students on the spectrum, but all of your learners! Whether you’re doing this thinking in August and planning for a new school year, or considering changes to make in February, after the year is well underway, it’s never too late to add thoughtful, whole-class supports into your classroom.
Want more help incorporating these strategies into your classroom, school, or district? Contact Square Peg Labs for school consultations or professional development workshops!
Find more ideas for supporting students with ASD in the resources below: