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What Is ASD and How Can I Help ASD Students in my Classroom?

27/03/18

Ray has classroom and personal experience with autistic children. During this year's World Autism Awareness Week Ray decided to share his brief explanation of ASD and some important classroom techniques.

‘If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism’

- Professor Stephen Shore

ASD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, has many common characteristics but can manifest in different ways in each individual; some may be more prominent in others whilst subtle in others. Therefore, how do we meet each student’s needs?

The consensus is that there are three main areas of difficulty for Autistic people:

1) social communication

From a social communication angle this can be due to having difficulty processing verbal information and difficulty understanding the social environment around them, for example, literal interpretation, body language, jokes etc.

2) social interaction

Alongside this, social interaction difficulties may mean that students can appear unresponsive to communication attempts, find it difficult to interact with peers and even teachers.

3) flexibility of mind

Struggles with flexibility of mind can also create issues within the education setting. Many autistic students will strive for routine and structure. Therefore, any timetable changes or changes of teaching staff can be difficult for them.

How these difficulties may present themselves in students can vary. Some may appear withdrawn or aloof whilst others may portray challenging behaviour. 
Although, not included in the diagnostic criteria, it is now recognised that sensory difficulties are also a common feature of ASD. Sensory needs can be hyper or hypo in each autistic individual, therefore some may find touch or certain pressures painful whilst others may need deep pressure to regulate their frustration. On the topic on regulation some ASD individuals may do something called ‘stimming’. In simple terms it refers to repetitive behaviours such as physical or noises such as rocking or humming to regulate sensory input. 

What strategies can be implemented in the classroom for ASD students?

Recognition and acceptance

By recognising and accepting that an individual’s behaviour doesn’t mean they are being ‘naughty’ or purposefully challenging is the main starting point.
A frequent feature of ASD is anxiety because of the feeling of uncertainty of the environment around the individual. There is often a need for ‘control’ in order to feel safe. It is key to remember that ‘unstructured’ times, such as free time or break times, can be highly challenging for them due to their need for routine.

Quiet space

To lessen anxiety, it is beneficial to dedicate a quiet space where pupils can rest in the case of overstimulation.

Visuals

Where choices cannot be given visuals are extremely effective. This includes the use of timetables, pictures of staff and ‘now and next’ planners to show what is going to follow. Visuals that depict the student’s emotions are often effective in the classroom setting. It is important that these are personalised. For example, if a student is feeling angry/anxious they may wish to have 5 minutes time out.

Extra processing time

Students with ASD also benefit from extra processing time. This can include reiterating information that has already been given, giving information on one to one basis and simplifying language whilst also breaking down a task.

Modified environment

If a student is known to have specific sensory issues the environment around them should be modified. For example, ear defenders can be worn to deal with hypersensitivity to noise. If a certain part of the classroom has strong smells consider placing that student away from them. Quite often classrooms can be a hub of displays, including information and colours. If possible, place the student in a calmer space that is less stimulating.

These are just a few strategies that can aid an ASD student in the classroom setting. It is also paramount to maintain good communication with the students’ parents or carers. After all, these are the people that know them best. They may have tried and tested specific techniques. When dealing with the parents remember to use an empathetic approach. Quite often students cope differently in different setting. The student may seem to be coping at school, but they mask their extreme discomfort in the school setting.

The 'coke bottle' theory

The ‘coke bottle’ theory looks at how a pupil will ‘bottle’ up the over stimulation of a day. Each stimulation during the day is acting like a shake of a bottle which is then released when they get to their safe place’, being most likely their home. This can be upsetting for the parents but also incredibly frustrating when trying to figure out what is best for their child in a different place of care.

Believe the parent

It is also important to believe the parent. I have seen many parents who were accused of ‘making it up’ or ‘not looking after their child’ properly.

In conclusion, it all relies on knowing and understanding the student. If you are a supply teacher, try and take the lead in finding out what works best for them, give them that choice, that extra two minutes explanation. These small gestures can have a massive impact on the pupil’s learning and well-being.

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