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June 7, 2024

Behavior as Communication: Supporting Autistic Students in the Classroom

Since mid-May, the hummingbird feeder outside my home office window has been very busy, attracting my annual hummingbird visitor. Usually, I find them fascinating, but their quick zipping into and away from the feeder feels frenetic, even though I know they’re probably not stressed. Geez, I think, you must be anxious all the time. What I am observing is purely my interpretation: the hummingbird is freaked out and racing away from predators.

However, despite my presumptions, the hummingbird is flapping its wings so quickly…because it can.

It has huge pectoral muscles to help it flap its wings fast. That’s a fact. I just looked it up. Earlier I assumed the bird must be stressed; in reality, it was just doing what a hummingbird should do. There is no reason for alarm.

At times, we respond to students with a misinterpretation, just like I did with the hummingbird. When they demonstrate undesirable behavior, we might assume students misbehave because they are “bad kids,” or worse yet, on purpose: to show off or to retaliate. More often than not, misbehavior represents a lack of something or an unmet need. This can be true for most students, but especially with autistic students.

What might they be communicating?

Every student has unique needs, which is especially true for autistic students. The research focused on students with autism have some common traits, resulting in some typical reasons:

  • They may feel over- or under-sensitivity to light, sound, touch, taste, or smell.
  • Because of the common need for rigidity and structure, some autistic students can struggle to transition between activities or environments.
  • Autistic students often engage in repetitive movements or actions to fill a sensory need, which can be distracting for other learners.
  • When struggling with communicating, they may express needs and emotions verbally or non-verbally.
  • Many autistic students have difficulty understanding social cues and interacting with others.

Good news! Below there are 5 ways to offer support for students who are struggling with self-regulation:

  1. Visual Supports: Use visual schedules, social stories, and other visual aids to enhance communication and understanding.
  2. Sensory Strategies: Provide sensory breaks, sensory tools, and a calm-down space to help manage sensory sensitivities.
  3. Create a predictable and structured environment: Consistency and routine can help reduce anxiety and challenging behaviors.
  4. Use clear and concise language: Avoid figurative language and provide specific instructions.
  5. Celebrate successes: Recognize and reinforce positive behaviors.

These tips are just the beginning of what you can do to support autistic students’ positive behavior! Understanding the message behind the behavior is key to supporting students with autism.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, check out course 5311: Behavior Support for Students with Autism. Through the use of case studies and expert resources, this course breaks down the basics of common ASD behaviors for general educators and support staff to assist autistic students. Explore how visual supports, social stories, video modeling, and an understanding of sensory function can assist autistic students with communication and social skills.


About the Author

Betsy Butler (she/her) is a Professional Learning Specialist at Teaching Channel. She holds a B.A. in English, a Master’s in Education, and has been teaching since 1992. Betsy uses her three decades of teaching experience to write and revise our courses while selecting the perfect accompanying texts. Her specialty areas include ELA, special education topics, behavior management, and mental health.

Fun Fact: Betsy’s daily conquest is solving the New York Times crossword puzzle!

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