ASD is now the largest disability group in Australia, with 1 in 63 school children having a formal autism diagnosis in 2012 (as reported by The National Disability Insurance Scheme, NDIS). The number of ASD specific schools in Australia is growing, both public and private, and the conversation around inclusion is gaining intensity by the day. Mainstream schools offer a multitude of supports from units, hubs or learning enhancement centers. The simple fact is, whilst we know that research tells us inclusive education is the most beneficial environment for students with learning difficulties, it isn’t being provided particularly well.
There are pockets of schools that provide inclusive education and they do this with solid universal strategies that work for all students. There are some simple strategies that provide supports for ASD students that can be used in the classroom and will do no harm to students who are not on the autism spectrum.
Students with ASD can often struggle to process simple instructions. Regardless of how high functioning they present, in a mainstream classroom they can struggle to zone out background noise (movement, visual and sound) and so don’t always get the appropriate information. There are many examples of visual supports that can scaffold instruction for ASD students. Depending on the level of difficulty for the student, a simple ‘First & Then’ schedule can be used…
...visuals can become more complex as your student learns to use them…
...or a daily schedule can be used.
These examples are all from Pinterest boards, take a look.
There is no harm in trial and error, see what works for your whole class. For your ASD student, consider having a smaller visual to stick on their desk to refer to. For students that are older and are not particularly enamoured with the visual schedules, consider use of an application on a digital device.
Don’t expect that your class will know how the visual supports work, to be successful they need to be explicitly taught at the beginning of the year.
Reducing your use of words is going to be immensely beneficial for ASD students. Many people on the autism spectrum, learn best visually so if you have to give an instruction verbally, then make it simple and keep it one step. For example, ‘sit down’, rather than ‘Billy, come over here and sit down in your chair please, it’s time to be quiet and complete your table work’. It’s highly likely that the ASD student heard ‘Billy, come…’ and then zoned out. When giving instructions to students, you need to be clear and concise, it’s not the time to worry about your pleases and thank you’s - that is a separate social lesson - set your ASD student up for success and give them an instruction they a can complete.
Once you have given the instruction, give your ASD student time to process the requirements. Once the instruction has been given, your student will need to analyse the information, make sense of it, decide how to carry out the instruction and then complete the action. The time it takes for this to happen is different for everyone, make sure you know how much time for each student early in the year. This can be determined by careful data collection to determine the baseline skill.
Having unfamiliar teachers in a class can be a time of heightened anxiety for a student with ASD. Different teachers give instructions in a variety of ways, they have a different tone of voice, different facial expressions, different smells. It takes a while for your ASD student to get used to you, getting to know a supply teacher in a day just isn’t going to be possible. There are a few strategies you can try, to protect your ASD students wellbeing. Try giving your student a social story at the beginning of the year to prepare for the eventuality (teachers are sick or attend PD, that’s life but it can be prepared for). In a primary school setting consider moving your ASD student to a preferred class, they may not follow their own class program but they will have a less anxious day and that is invaluable. In a secondary or high school setting, consider allowing the student to take their lessons in the library or other preferred space.
This is a strategy that can support ASD students in the yard or in any unfamiliar situations. The idea is to build and nurture relationships with five familiar people, this can be a combination of teachers and students. Having five familiar people to turn to in moments of insecurity, can prevent your student feeling isolated and reduce the possibility of a meltdown in unfamiliar situations.
I often come across the argument that having too strict a routine for ASD students can be a negative strategy because its not real life - what nonsense! Show me a person and I’ll highlight their routines. Routines are different for everyone (I live by lists!), an ASD student requires a routine that supports their wellbeing. There is so much environmental and social stimuli for an ASD person to process in any given minute of the day, not having to think about daily routines can really relieve the pressure.
It’s a simple, easy strategy to implement. Turn off the lights. Typically schools have awful strip lights that shine a bright unnatural light. They can often emit a low level humming sound that can be extremely distracting for any students that are hyper-sensitive to environmental stimuli.
A quiet reading space in your classroom can benefit all students. Its of particular benefit to ASD students as a space in which they can regulate themselves when feeling overwhelmed because of hypo or hyper-sensitivity. Soft comfortable furnishing, a tent or overhead covering to reduce light, a few books or fidget toys can make all the difference to the smooth running of the classroom day.
Consider the seating plan in your classroom carefully. Where your ASD student is seated can impact their learning. For example, if you have determined that your student has some processing delays you might want to sit them near the front of the classroom where they can see visual displays to support instructions.
We will never really understand how a person on the spectrum perceives the world but here is an interesting look at the perspective of an autistic child...
There are some exceptionally useful resources and organisations that you can draw upon to support your ASD student, often free of charge. Here are just a few...
ASPECT services - https://www.autismspectrum.org.au/
The National Autistic Society - www.autism.org.uk/
Autism Society - www.autism-society.org/