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January 7, 2018

Teaching Students on the Autism Spectrum

Autism spectrum disorder, otherwise known as ASD, affects communication and behavior. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, autism is categorized as a developmental disorder because symptoms often appear in the first two years of life.

People with ASD often have a range of conditions characterized by challenges with communication and interaction with others, restricted interests, repetitive behaviors and unique strengths and differences.

Autism is known as a spectrum because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience.

Prior to 2013, there were four distinct diagnoses associated with autism, however, the American Psychiatric Association merged diagnoses to create an umbrella diagnosis of ASD to cover a range of symptoms. Currently, statistics show that 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with ASD each year. ASD is more prevalent among males, with 1 in 42 boys being diagnosed as opposed to 1 in 189 girls in recent years. These rates continue to grow which has increased the need for all educators to become well-versed in the needs of these unique learners.

Classroom Implications and Strategies

Students with ASD will present a wide range of challenges in the classroom and no two students on the spectrum are exactly alike. There is a learning curve for teachers to discover what strategies will prove to be beneficial for each student. It is important to use a team-based approach when considering strategies to try. Enlist the help of your student’s service providers, parents, and former teachers to select new strategies that may be beneficial or to find out what has worked previously.

Clear Language

Many students on the autism spectrum struggle with language. About one-third of people diagnosed with ASD are non-verbal and will remain so throughout their life. Conversely, others will have a large vocabulary but will have difficulty understanding the pragmatics of language. In either case, there are specific strategies you can utilize to help students build upon both their receptive and expressive language skills. For non-verbal students, using a speech-output device or conversation board can be a wonderful way to allow students to express their wants and needs. Other students with ASD may struggle with abstract language, so keeping language concrete is a great way to help them.

For example, some students with ASD may not understand what you mean if you said, “It’s raining cats and dogs outside!” If you rephrase your thought and say, “It is raining a lot outside!” your students would most likely understand your point. Using a word wall or visual cue cards can also help give students with ASD a way to express themselves.

Sensory Differences

Sensory needs should also be considered for students with ASD. Some may find loud noises such as fire alarms or school bells to be overwhelming, while others may be uncomfortable with overhead lighting or bright light from windows. If students can identify their needs try to meet them as best you can. A student’s family is a great source of information if a student cannot identify his or her sensory needs. For students who have an aversion to sound, noise-canceling headphones are a great tool to provide comfort. If a student has difficulty with bright light, use reading lamps or seat the student away from windows. Sensory boxes can also be a wonderful addition to many classrooms. Depending on the age of your students, these boxes can be tailored to fit the need for sensory output. In early elementary classrooms these boxes can have kinetic sand, magnets, Playdoh, etc. In middle or high school classrooms a box could contain fidget spinners, stress balls, or small Rubik’s cubes. These boxes can be used to calm or focus students when they are feeling anxious, overwhelmed, or upset.


Practical and predictable routines have proven to be beneficial to many students on the spectrum. Using visual schedules that detail a day’s events helps minimize anxiety and can also be used to teach flexibility over time. Once a student can come to rely on the schedule and daily routine, changes to familiar patterns can teach them that a sequence can continue even if one part of it changes temporarily. Changes to a routine or schedule may be upsetting to a student at first, but with support and assurance, many students can work through their feelings and learn that change isn’t always a bad thing! Whenever possible, it’s helpful to prepare students for major changes in the daily routine (such as a fire drill or school assembly), and practice the student’s expected behaviors using role play. Creating a video of the student engaging in expected behaviors for the student to watch can also be beneficial.

Social Skills

Direct instruction of social skills can be a great way to help students with ASD interact with their peers. Students may have this is as an area of service delivery if they have an IEP, but there are many ways in which classroom teachers can support this work. During group work or whole class activities, try to facilitate appropriate social interactions until a student can do so independently. Also, try to find ways to bring students into conversations when appropriate. Some students with ASD are reluctant to join group conversations because they don’t know how. There are many ways to get a student involved, like asking a question that you are certain he or she can answer or choosing topic that he or she is interested in. As with changes in routine, role play provides students with ASD the opportunity to practice social interactions in a structured environment. Social stories are an effective tool that teachers can use to facilitate these practice sessions.

About the Author 

Karen Mercado is a teacher, mentor, writer, and editor with experience in the classroom, designing curriculum, and supporting colleagues and new teachers. She earned her MPS in Adolescent and Secondary Special Education and Social Studies from Manhattanville College and a B.S. in Childhood Education from SUNY College at Oneonta. In addition to her time in the classroom, Karen has had her work on historical artifacts and archeology published in NYTeacher as well as for the New York City Department of Education.


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