Some Ideas about Teaching
Teaching Autistic Pupils
I do not pretend even to
begin to be an expert, but you may find the following – based on my own
experience and a surf of the net – provides starter information.
The first thing to understand
is that not all Autistic pupils are like Rainman, though most autistic
children are boys.
The second thing to understand
is that Autism is not one problem – it has many variations and related
syndromes, the most common of which is Asperger Syndrome. Each autistic
child may differ profoundly from other children labelled ‘autistic’.
The third thing to realise
is that many autistic children are referred by their parents through their
GP, not through schools and the education services, and I am not convinced
that the diagnosis is always reliable. So a child listed on your class EP as
‘autistic’ is not necessarily so.
Children on the autistic spectrum may exhibit some or all of the
Problems in understanding social relationships
This is the most obvious and
the one most people expect. Children with autism often find it hard to form
meaningful friendships. Connected to this, there may be a problem with lack
of imaginative play and an inability to interact with other children. They
may not use eye contact in social interactions and seem to ‘live in a world
of their own’. They can lack empathy, and therefore continually be surprised
by the reaction of other people to the things they do – autistic children
have to work out cognitively what most of us feel intuitively. They are
therefore frequently the object of bullying or hostility.
Obsessive or ritualistic behaviour
A person with autism may
perform repetitive body movements, such as rocking. They also often display
repetition-behaviours, insisting on the same schedules and routines
everyday. Autistic children cannot endure inconsistency, and if changes
occur in these routines, they may become upset. Lacking intuitive
flexibility, many autistic children live by reducing life to a sequence of
rules. They sometimes therefore find it very difficult to understand why
other children break the ‘rules’ – for instance, why they walk on the wrong
side of the corridor – and they can confront and antagonise other pupils as
a result. Note that some autistic children find making choices very
Problems with language and communication development
Language is slow to develop
and usually includes peculiar speech patterns or the use of words without
attaching them to their normal meaning. They may find it hard to understand
metaphor, hyperbole etc. This is an essential element in their problems
understanding social relationships, but also in their functioning in the
classroom. Many autistic children cannot catch the cues we use by body
language, tone of voice, sarcasm etc. They miss the warnings and glares that
other children pick up. Therefore they are often genuinely surprised to find
that they had annoyed the teacher!
Problems with sensory responses
Autistic children often
respond atypically to sensory information. They may one time fail to respond
to words and sounds as though deaf; yet at another time be distressed by
everyday noises such as a vacuum cleaner or dog barking. The child may show
insensitivity to pain or cold or heat, or they may be unable to bear a
certain jumper or socks.
Uneven patterns of intellectual functioning
Although many people with
autism have some degree of mental retardation, 25% of people with autism
have average or above average intelligence. Many have a particular problem
with abstract ideas. Many have an uneven distribution of ‘peak skills’
(certain things done quite well in relation to overall functioning) such as
drawing, math, music, or memorization of facts.
Autism is often co-morbid with other problems
– such as dyspraxia
Autism encompasses such a wide range of symptoms that the key is to abandon
any thought of labels and ‘off the shelf’ strategies, to see your autistic
pupil as a very special individual, and to devise a differentiated strategy
JUST FOR HIM.
‘Its the rule’
Use your empathetic skills to see the world the autistic child sees it – as
a set of rules. And teach the lesson to him in that way – ‘these are the
rules for answering questions’/ ‘these are the rules for writing an essay’
etc. This is especially so as regards social behaviour – you will need to
explain that it is a rule in your classroom that when someone is talking,
other people (including him) listen to them – and that this means that, when
he is talking you will make the other pupils listen to him. Typical autistic
behaviour is to sit apparently uninterested for long periods, then to want
to talk for hours about an unrelated issue; if this happens, interrupt (you
can, being the teacher) and explain that you are going to give him 2 minutes
to speak on this. Then all the class listens. When the time is up, find a
way to give what he has been saying relevance. And then the rule is that he
must listen to others.
Remember that he may become distressed if you then don’t follow the ‘rules’
you have set – many autistic children cope better in ‘old-fashioned’
classrooms where the procedures are clearly defined and the opportunities
for self-determination limited.
And – when I am giving advice to an autistic or Asperger pupil after an
incident – I often reinforce my instructions with the words: ‘this is the
rule in my classroom’.
Structure and choices
Connected to this, most lists of advice on how to teach autistic spectrum
pupils agree that structure is critical.
They NEED to know what’s coming next. They need to sit always in the same
seat, surrounded by the same children. Make sure that they are familiar with
existing procedures and timetables, and that they have completed their
organiser. Explain exactly what is going to happen in the lesson, and write
it on the board. Arrange timetables and activities so the child knows
exactly what is going on and when, avoiding unnecessary change. If a change
of routine is unavoidable, then warn the child before it happens. If
something unexpected happens, take time to explain to the Autistic child
individually what is going on and why.
Some autistic children may find it virtually impossible to make personal
choices. Be aware of this when you set differentiated work which involves a
number of different possibilities – you will need to give some time to help
the autistic pupil make the choice. But you mustn’t, however, make the
choice for him – he knows that pupils were allowed to make a choice; that
was the rule and you broke it by depriving him of his choice. At the worst,
where he is unable to make a choice, explain that you are going to set a
rule; if he doesn’t make the choice in the next minute, you will do so for
him. Far better, however, would be to guide him through the process of
listing advantages, weighing and deciding.
Note how very different all this is to what inspires most pupils – choice,
change and surprise! You will need to differentiate for this in your lesson
Interest and Distractions
Figure out what motivates your autistic pupil. This will be different for
every autistic child. Link subjects to the child's interests, otherwise he
may find them irrelevant. Find the rewards which motivate him, which may be
completely different to those of other children. Use consistent, repetitive
rewards for desired behaviour.
Be sure that the material is at that pupil's instructional level so he is
not getting frustrated if it is too hard, or bored if it is too easy. To
begin with, choose tasks the child can do, then build upon that success.
Use visual or kinaesthetic aids when teaching a subject that requires
Check if the pupil has any sensory issues. It may take some time observe the
pupil and try to work out what factors in the environment are
Allow the child extra time to complete tasks if they need it, since they may
find it hard working to a time limit. This is particularly true in the rigid
timetables of secondary school.
Avoid sarcastic language, metaphorical speech or exaggeration, both when you
are speaking to the child and to the class as a whole. Always be aware of
what you are saying and how it might be misunderstood by the child. Expect
to be taken literally. Avoid rhetorical questions, and certainly don’t get
annoyed if he then attempts to answer them. If you are angry, say: ‘I am
angry with you’.
Continually check the child is listening and understanding and don't be
afraid to repeat what you have said, if you don't think they have understood
the first time. When giving instructions for work, when you have set the
class working, go over to him and go through it all again – if necessary,
giving him a written list of instructions or a visual flow-diagram.
When you are talking to a group, make sure you have the child's attention.
He may not understand that he is included, so you may need to address him by
name or talk first to him alone, then to the whole class.
INSIST ON EYE-CONTACT and focussed attention.
I found this on the web, and I think it is spot on:
grow best if you are Responsive! Be alert for opportunities to reinforce
communication. Much of it may be non-verbal or very subtle. Respond. Use
simple language. Use proximity, body language, reflective listening to
communicate and reinforce language and behavior. Reflective listening may
take the form of watching communicative behavior, interpreting it and
putting it into simple words. Ex: A child takes your hand and leads you to
an object. You say: "You want________."’
Remember that communication is two-way. Just as the autistic child may not
understand your body language, be aware that you may need to work hard to
interpret the child’s approaches, body language and nuances. When you are
speaking to the child, make social adjustments yourself to meet his social
needs. Don’t ‘cut him off’ or finish his sentences for him. And when you
have to go, explain clearly why you are terminating the discussion.
Help the child to mix with others
Lists of web-advice all agree that part of the teacher’s brief in a lesson
including an autistic child MUST be to plan to develop the child’s social
skills and relationships: ‘Nurture the child's motivation to play with
peers’. ‘Give direct instruction on social skills through things like
"social stories"’ (see
Sit them next to a sympathetic, socially-able partner or a group. Make sure
they are included in all class activities. Emphasise the social as well as
the academic aspects of an activity (e.g., if you are splitting the class
into groups to prepare something, spend time explaining how they must
interact as well as what they must produce).
Keep an eye on the child at break times and lunchtimes, when they might
spend a lot of time on their own. Watch out for bullying or loneliness – if
necessary find a teacher or pupil mentor they can talk to. It will often be
useful to structure breaktimes.
If things are going wrong, and particularly in cases of conflict which are
not malicious, I sometimes explain to the other pupils about autism. You
need to do this very sensitively, and preferably with parental consent – I
had one child whose parents did not want the school to talk about his autism
to others. However, other pupils frequently find an autistic pupil’s
behaviour inexplicable and annoying, and their hostility is natural, not
prejudiced: ‘He came over to me and told me he didn’t like my hair. I warned
him to shut up, but he said it again – so I hit him’. Children with any sort
of social conscience to appeal to are often helped if you explain that N.
often doesn’t understand the effects the things he is saying and doing will
have, and that he doesn’t respond to normal warnings and put-downs. Perhaps,
if this would be inappropriate on an individual level, autism awareness
could be addressed at a whole-school level.
There is a significant website on this issue at:
Give continual encouragement and don't blame them if they fail
DO HAVE EXPECTATIONS!
Be aware that sometimes autistic children are naughty, and they need to be
told off as any other child! But be aware also that sometimes, although they
are behaving in a way that appears naughty to others, they are not being
naughty (just inappropriate). KNOW YOU CHILD! To get this wrong can be very
The Last word
I will give the last word to the learning support assistant of an autistic
child who contributed to a web-forum on how to teach autistic children:
‘PICK YOUR BATTLES’.
You might like to check out
Posted on: Apr 3 2004,