The Complete Teacher


9 Facts You Should Know About Teaching Students on the Autism Spectrum

Posted by Caroline Smith on 13 January 2021 2:55 PM CAT
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Teaching students on the Austism spectrum is not easy for the educator or the student. Here are some of our tips for engaging learners who are not neurotypical. 

1)    If I don’t see it, I don’t hear it 

Most students with autism are processing language as pictures. When they are required to convert language to pictures in their heads, they can easily misunderstand what you are saying. If you find yourself repeating something, you probably need to write it out, create a concept map, or draw it out. 


2)    Perspective-taking is difficult 

Autism is not just a communication disorder, but a perspective deficit. Stick figures with speech bubbles or writing out cause-and-effect type diagrams can be helpful to teach perspectives. 


3)    Forest for the trees

These students are not sure what is important in each environment, and so they pay attention to everything. They are usually better at analyzing and evaluating than they are at synthesizing. They will see the individual parts and pull things apart but struggle to see the larger whole. 


4)    Reading nonverbal and paraverbal language

Students on the spectrum struggle to read the nonverbal language and tone of voice of others. As a result, they miss the cues that tell us when the listener no longer wants to hear what we are talking about, when we have said something that has upset the other person, when someone is using sarcasm, or the need to wait for the person to finish their conversation before we interrupt. 

Teaching students to read your non-verbal and tone of voice communication will help. Start by pointing out what is happening with your eyes and eyebrows when you are concerned, happy or disappointed. Students can learn to cue in to these elements. 


5)    Predictability is key 

Not being able to read peers and social situations creates a world where they are being constantly surprised and startled. To reduce anxiety, increase predictability. Having an agenda for each lesson, referring back to it as you complete one activity, checking it off, and showing you are moving on to the next item will greatly reduce anxiety. Creating routines for activities and sticking to them also helps. Cueing upcoming transitions and using the clock or a countdown times adds visual support. 


6)    Reading comprehension 

Most of these students learn to read by matching words or objects or pictures. This gives them a very literal interpretation of the written word. This strategy works well for nouns and verbs and objects, but it hampers description like adjectives and adverbs. What does a “very” look like? What does a question mark do to a picture? 

These students will often score two to four grade levels below their peers on reading comprehension even though they are reading material at high school level. 

Start by teaching reading comprehension strategies using non-fiction and work towards fiction. Perspective taking is a deficit so understanding a text that uses a narrator will be difficult. 


7)    This is a communication disorder 

Students in your class may seem to be communicating well based on how they speak. It is not uncommon for these students to be using phrases that they have learned in one setting and applying it to yours. 

If they do not the response they have gotten with a phrase when they have used it before, they may become frustrated. 


8)    Literal processing 

Students who convert language to images make language very concrete. They will interpret what others say very literally. It helps when we teach idioms and figures of speech. 


9)    Executive function 

These students struggle with keeping things organized and monitoring their progress on goals. Creating checklists, teaching them to reference the rubric, labelling where items go in drawers or on shelves, and teaching routines help. 

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