6 STEPS TO SUCCESS FOR AUTISM
Your classroom is already a diverse place. With the rising inclusion of students with autism in general education settings, the challenges associated with managing a classroom will grow. This section outlines a simple and highly flexible six-step plan you and your teaching team can use to prepare for the inclusion of a child with autism in your classroom.
Step 1: Educate Yourself
You must have a working understanding of autism and what that means for your students. Sometimes children with autism may behave in inappropriate or disruptive ways, but their behaviors are more related to their autism than they are deliberate, disrespectful acts. Learning about autism and about how it specifically affects your student is the first step to success.
Your education about autism will evolve as your relationship with your student and their family develops; your knowledge about the disorder and skills in dealing with its impact on the classroom will also continue to grow. Maintaining an open attitude to learning and working closely with the parents and school team will help you (and your student) succeed in the long term.
Step 2: Reach Out to the Parents
Parents are your first and best source of information about their child. Step two is all about establishing a working partnership with the families of the students you serve. Not only will you meet before the school year begins, but it is critical to establish methods and patterns of communication for which there is mutual agreement.
Building trust with parents is essential. Communication with families about the progress of the student should be ongoing. While the information you exchange may often focus on current classroom challenges, strategies employed, and ideas for alternative solutions, do not forget to include positive feedback about accomplishments and milestones reached.
Step 3: Prepare the Classroom
There are ways you can accommodate some of the needs of students with autism in your classroom that will enhance their opportunity to learn without sacrificing your plans for rest of the class. Of course, there are practical limitations on how much you can modify the physical characteristics of your classroom, but even a few modifications to support a child with autism can have remarkable results for everyone. The Educator’s Guide to Autismprovides a visual representation of the “ideal” classroom for a child with autism.
Step 4: Educate Peers and Promote Social Goals
You must make every effort to promote acceptance of a student with autism as a full member and integral part of the class, even if that student only attends class for a few hours each week. As a teacher, you must create a social environment that encourages positive interactions between the student with autism and his or her typically developing peers throughout the day. Children with autism, by definition, have difficulties with social skill development and understanding language and social cues. With appropriate assistance, however, children with autism can engage with peers and establish mutually enjoyable and lasting interpersonal relationships.
Research shows that typically developing children have more positive attitudes, increased understanding, and greater acceptance of their peers with autism when provided with clear, accurate, and straightforward information about the disorder. Assuming there are no restrictions on disclosing that your student has autism, educating your class about autism and how it can affect their classmate can be an effective way to increase positive, social interactions between the child with autism and his classroom peers.
Remember that many social interactions occur in settings outside the classroom. Without prior planning and extra help, students with autism may end up isolated during these unstructured times. You may want to create a “circle of friends,” or a rotating group of responsible peer buddies for the student with autism; they will not abandon him or her, serve as a model of appropriate social behavior, and protect against teasing or bullying. This strategy should also be considered for use outside of school.
Step 5: Collaborate on the Implementation of an Educational Plan
Since your student with autism has special needs beyond academics, his or her educational plan is defined by an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP is a blueprint for everything that will happen to a child in the next school year. As the principal observer and teacher of the child, you play a key role in the development, implementation, and evaluation of a student’s IEP. You will be responsible for reporting back to the IEP team on the student’s progress toward meeting specific academic, social, and behavioral goals and objectives in the IEP. You will also be asked for input about developing new goals for the student in subsequent IEP meetings.
IEPs are created by a multidisciplinary team of education professionals, along with the child’s parents, and are tailored to the needs of each individual student. Special and general education teachers, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, school psychologists, and families form the IEP team and meet regularly to discuss student progress toward IEP goals.
Before the IEP team meets, an assessment team gathers information about the student through a formal evaluation. One person on the evaluation team coordinates all the information, and the team meets to make recommendations. The IEP team then meets to write the IEP based on the evaluation and suggestions from team members.
IEPs always include annual goals, short-term objectives, special education services that the student requires, and a yearly evaluation to see if the goals were met. Annual goals must explain measurable behaviors so that it is clear what progress should have been made by the end of the year. The short-term objectives should contain incremental and sequential steps toward meeting each annual goal. For some tips on writing objectives and developing measurable IEP goals for students with autism, please see the Educator's Guide to Autism. You can also read more about Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) on our Web site.
Step 6: Manage Behavioral Challenges
For students with autism, problem behaviors may be triggered for a variety of reasons. Such behaviors may include temper tantrums, running about the room, loud vocalizations, self-injurious activities, or other disruptive or distracting behaviors. Because children with autism often have difficulties communicating in socially acceptable ways, they may act out when they are confused or fearful about something.
Your first challenge is to decipher the cause, or function, of a particular behavior. Look for patterns in these behaviors such as when they do, or do not, consistently occur. Communicating with families and other team members, and observing the behavior in the context in which it occurs, will be an essential part of learning the function of a specific behavior.
It’s important to use consistent, positive behavioral reinforcement techniques to promote pro-social behaviors for children with autism. This process involves providing reasonable alternatives to undesirable behaviors. The student’s IEP should contain concrete and explicit behavioral goals, as well as a wide range of methods for promoting success achieving them. The student’s parents and IEP team may be able to suggest visual recognition techniques and incentive systems that you can use to reinforce positive behaviors.
Teachers may choose to ignore other negative behaviors or give predetermined consequences. The key is to be consistent with how you react to the behaviors over time, and to use as many positive strategies as possible to promote more desirable behaviors.
As you follow these steps and learn more about children with autism, you will become a mentor to other educators when they face similar challenges for the first time. Your curiosity will fuel your education about autism, and your communication skills will help you create a meaningful alliance with parents. Most of all, you will be able to effectively collaborate with a team that will support a child with autism throughout the course of the school year. Your patience, kindness, and professionalism will make a difference in the lives of all your students.