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Techniques for Teaching Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Children work with blocks as a teacher looks on.When teaching students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a number of different approaches can be employed that have been proven to yield positive results, and while it must always be remembered that every student and his or her needs are unique, there's no need to reinvent the wheel every time you work with a different child.

Whether you've been in the field working with students with ASD for decades, or you're just beginning to consider a career teaching students with autism or autism spectrum disorders, here are a handful of techniques that range from entire systems to common sense tricks that will help you, and the students with whom you work, be more successful.

1. Use Simple, Concrete Language

Simple, concrete language, especially when the words used are visual in nature and accompanied by visual supports, is easier for students on the spectrum to interpret than abstract or metaphorical language is. While it may be in your nature to expound on the reasons behind an activity or task, to the student with ASD, such exposition and abstraction can be confusing and frustrating.

Unadorned, straightforward, literal language is more readily understood — something you'll learn and have reinforced in the Master of Science in Special Education program — which is why it's also best to avoid using idioms, sarcasm, and long sentences.

2. Give Limited, Clear Choices

For many students with ASD, choosing can become nearly impossible when given a wide range of options to consider. Likewise, choices that have nuances can provide an unwelcome and unwinnable challenge. Because of this reality, it's important that the choices presented to students are both clear and limited in scope. This rule should be applied to both assignments and personal decisions.

For instance, if working with a child on identifying which shape is called a "triangle," only give him or her two or three options from which to choose. Likewise, when helping a student make a decision about something — say what to eat for lunch — avoid giving a myriad of options or no options at all. Instead, give the student a few, clear choices — "Would you like spaghetti or a sandwich?"

3. Be Gentle in Criticism

Like all children and adolescents, autistic students need honesty, guidance, and feedback regarding when they are doing tasks correctly and when they are not, but it's important to always be gentle in tone and word when offering correction or critique. Tone of voice, because of the shifts in meaning it can convey, causes considerable difficulty for anyone on the spectrum.

Even in non-tonal languages, elements of speech like pitch, pace, and inflection can all transform a sentence's meaning. Therefore, when offering criticism, it's essential that a gentle, regular tone of voice be used. An angry or loud tone will cloud meaning, because the heightened volume and energy will often obfuscate what you're saying entirely.

4. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

ABA is a systematic approach that assesses and evaluates a student's behavior and applies interventions to try and alter behavior. From understanding a behavior's function to controlling the student's environment, ABA has been shown to be successful in shaping students' behavior. Elements of Applied Behavior Analysis include:

  • Intervention designed by a trained behavior analyst
  • Development of treatment goals that emphasize achieving greater independence for the student both now and in the future
  • Training for parents and caregivers so ABA can be continued in the home
  • Abundant positive reinforcement for desired behaviors
  • An absence of reinforcement for behaviors that impede learning or may lead to harm

A child draws with colored pencils and chats with her parents sitting next to her. 5. Solve Sensory Problems

Behavior troubles in students with ASD often come after an experience of sensory discomfort that can include the range of senses. From the hum and pulse of fluorescent lighting to the whispering that takes place at times among other children in the room, students on the spectrum can struggle with sensory experiences that then impede them from participating in a classroom's objectives, behaving as desired, and learning. When a child with ASD undergoes a marked behavior change, look for a sensory source of the problem first.

6. Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT)

Also known as the Lovaas Model, DTT uses positive reinforcement to focus on changing skills and behaviors by breaking each one down into smaller steps that are taught along with prompts until the student masters the steps required to perform a particular skill or behavior. Based on the research and wisdom in Applied Behavior Analysis, DTT makes use of five primary techniques:

  • Identification of the component parts of a particular skill or behavior
  • Instructing the student in those component parts until each individual part is mastered
  • Intensive training sessions
  • The use of prompts early on in the intervention and the decreasing use of prompts as the student learns
  • Utilization of positive reinforcement to increase retention of component parts and skills

As research into ASD continues, how the world looks for these students will become clearer. Based on what is known of that world so far, these systems and techniques work for both teachers and the children and adolescents they're teaching. The Austism Spectrum Disorder’s Endorsement we offer at SJU can help you have a positive impact on your students with ASD. Contact us for more information on earning an advanced degree to teach students with ASD, or apply online.