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The 5 Best Teaching Strategies for Autism

by Shea Brogren, MOT, OTR/L November 05, 2019

5 Best Teaching Strategies for Autism

Children with autism tend to have different learning needs when compared to their peers. They each have their own unique strengths and needs, and it's important to be aware of these so that teaching strategies can be adapted.

In this article, we are going to dive deeper into our top five autism teaching strategies, so that you can better assist children with the learning process. 

Our 5 Best Autism Teaching Strategies

1. Support Routines and Transitions

Most children with autism are sensitive to abrupt changes in routine and will learn best in routine situations. Therefore, whenever possible, it is most effective to maintain a predictable routine when teaching children with autism. This ensures that each child will know what is coming next so that they can anticipate and prepare.

If a change in schedule or routine is necessary, giving an advanced warning is desired. For example, let’s say that a child has an appointment during a time that is typically set aside for independent work in the classroom. In order to prepare the child best and support learning, a visual schedule could be used and presented to the child, noting the change in routine. To further support this, a social story could be used to help the child prepare. A social story is a story that outlines what is to occur in a certain situation and what the social expectations are in that situation. 

Overwhelmed child

If an unexpected change in routine occurs and little to no advanced warning is possible, be sure to be able to provide extra support to any child that might become dysregulated. For example, setting aside some alone or quiet time or giving them access to their sensory tools are ways to help manage unexpected changes. 

For some children with autism, transitions in the daily schedule might be difficult to manage independently. For example, if there is free playtime in the classroom and then it's time to transition to circle time, this may cause a child with autism distress.

To better support learning, tools such as a visual timer and advanced warning should be used. For some children, transition objects such as a stuffed toy or a sensory tool might be necessary to help them switch their mindset from one task to another.

2. Use Visual Cues

The majority of children with autism are visual learners, meaning they learn best when material is presented visually instead of just presented verbally or through another method. Visual cues can be a way to help kids with autism learn and retain skills and to aid with communication. A visual cue might be a picture, a drawing, a list, keywords, etc. Below, we will discuss some specific ways to use visual cues with children with autism. 

First-Then Cues 

Often, children with autism have difficulty focusing or engaging in activities that they don’t prefer. These are called non-preferred activities. In order to motivate and improve learning chances, a first-then cue can be used. This cue will have a picture corresponding to the task that needs to be completed first before engaging in a more preferred activity. For example, a cue could include First (picture of writing) Then (picture of a preferred game). This type of cueing helps children with autism work on following directions and is a way to assist with learning new skills. 

Visual Schedule for Tasks or Routines 

A visual schedule can be used as a way to break down the specific parts of a task or as a way to highlight a routine for children with autism. Children with autism often struggle with following multi-step directions, so a visual schedule can be helpful when teaching new skills. For example, if a child is learning how to prepare a sandwich, a visual schedule could include the specific parts of this task, including obtaining materials, placing ingredients on the sandwich, and eating the sandwich. Depending on the needs of the child, this visual schedule could be very specific and include each part of placing the ingredients or broader by outlining the general steps. 

visual scheduleVisual schedules can also be used to outline a routine for a child with autism. This could be a daily routine and include waking up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, etc. and proceed all the way through the child’s daily activities. Or a visual schedule could highlight a specific routine that a child struggles with. For example, getting on the bus in the morning or putting on pajamas at night. No matter what a visual schedule is being used for, it is important to practice its use and remain consistent, regardless of who is using the visual with the child. This will help promote skill carry-over and learning.


3. Use Special Interests as a Gateway to Teaching Skills

In general, children with autism have special preferences or special interests. This could be anything from a sport to a movie or television character. For some children, it may be appropriate to utilize this special interest as a way to teach other important skills.

Autism and Teaching StrategiesIf a child has a special interest in a character from a movie, this character could be used to teach appropriate social skills. The character could be used in social stories to teach a variety of social norms and skills, and using the character would facilitate trust and also keep the child engaged.

It is important to get to know the children you are working with before implementing this type of strategy, as it could be distracting to some. However, in most situations, it can be a gateway to teaching skills.

4. Incorporate Sensory Tools 

Each individual has certain sensory preferences, and this is certainly no different for children with autism. Children with autism have their own specific sensory needs and an occupational therapist can assist with assessing this and implementing strategies.

Each child will fall on a spectrum of sensory processing, and will have their own sensitivities, avoidance tendencies, and seeking tendencies. There are also likely certain sensory tools that help each individual child feel regulated.

When teaching children with autism, it is important to be aware of these tools and assist with incorporating regulating sensory activities into the daily routine. Again, an occupational therapist will have firsthand knowledge of this and can assist with developing strategies and tools. It is important that all individuals involved in the child’s care have knowledge of their sensory needs.

Here are some examples of sensory tools that a child with autism might utilize: 

Again, each child will find different tools helpful, at different times of the day. If implemented appropriately, these tools should be helpful with assisting the child with feeling regulated and calm.

5. Support social skills practice 

Social skills are often an area that children with autism have difficulty with. In particular, the “unwritten” social norms are often the most difficult. Regardless of the skill or subject being taught, social skill practice for children with autism is critical. Below, we will explore some ways to support social skills for children with autism. 

  • Facilitate the practice of “everyday” social skills, such as greeting others, raising your hand to get the teacher’s attention in class, saying “thank you,” asking permission to use materials, etc. Allow opportunities for these types of skills to be practiced and always model these types of skills to further promote learning. 
  • Support exploration of “unwritten” social rules. Children with autism may need to literally study or explore with a teacher certain “unwritten” social rules. These include areas such as maintaining appropriate eye contact during conversation, taking turns with others, understanding sarcasm, understanding others’ perspectives, etc. For a child with autism, these skills don’t usually come naturally, so learning about them through a variety of methods is beneficial. These methods might include role-play, video modeling, video analysis, social stories, etc. 

Closing Thoughts

Like all individuals, children with autism have their own unique ways of processing information as well as their own individualized learning styles. It is essential to understand these needs for each child, but also understand the broad learning needs of children with autism.

These include the need to support routines and transitions, presenting information visually, and respect for individual sensory, social, and emotional needs. If these areas are each considered and valued, then teaching children with autism can be accomplished more effectively.

We hope this article highlighted actionable ways to facilitate this! 

 

 

References

Ganz, J.B. & Flores, M.M. (2010). Implementing visual cues for young children with autism spectrum disorders and their classmates, Young Children, 65 (3). 

Shea Brogren, MOT, OTR/L
Shea Brogren, MOT, OTR/L

Shea Brogren, MOT, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist with over three years of experience in pediatrics and child/adolescent mental health and has also worked as an adjunct lecturer at the University of North Dakota. Shea has a special interest in program development and developed and implemented occupational therapy programming at a residential treatment center for children. She now practices in an outpatient setting.

Her primary area of interest involves working with children who have experienced developmental trauma. Shea has advanced training in SMART treatment (Sensorimotor Arousal Regulation Treatment), the Zones of Regulation, using sensory-based interventions to address trauma, infant mental health, attachment, and arousal regulation related to trauma disorders.


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