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Support Students on the Autism Spectrum

Communicator
April 2016, Volume 39, Issue 8

April is National Autism Awareness Month, and with 1 in 68 children diagnosed with the disorder, it’s more important than ever for school leaders to understand how to educate students on the autism spectrum.

Principal magazine’s five-part “Unlocking Autism” series arms principals with tools to support learners on the autism spectrum. Here are five nuggets of wisdom from the series to consider when supporting students on the autism spectrum at your school:

1. Never underestimate children with autism.
If children on the autism spectrum are given the opportunity to try, along with the needed support, you will be amazed at what they can accomplish. In addition, don’t talk to children on the spectrum like babies or allow adults and children to do this. There is a real person with intelligence behind the façade that we see. Treat them as people with promise and you will be pleased with the results.

—From “What Parents Want Principals to Know About Autism” by Melanie Bloom

2. Develop a positive relationship.
Students’ positive relationships with their teachers influence competent behavior with peers and future teachers, in addition to creating a bond that encourages academic risk-taking and task engagement. Strategies for developing positive relationships include making eye contact and smiling, presenting a neutral stance, making personal inquiries, delivering a minimum of four positive remarks to each negative remark, and maintaining a calm voice and demeanor when correcting student behavior.

—From “Positive Behavior Supports for Students With Autism” by Janet Fisher

3. Provide consistent staffing.
Students on the spectrum learn best with predictability in staffing, schedules, and events, and do not thrive if teaching staff change quickly. Too often, this is the largest cause for disruptive behaviors. Visual schedules, task lists, and rehearsal strategies can help to lessen distress if changes must occur. Students will also need the appropriate supports identified in the individualized education plan (paraprofessional time, behavior plans, visual supports, academic modifications, etc.), which must be implemented consistently throughout the day and school term.

—From “A Guide to Making the Autism Puzzle Fit” by Sheila Wagner

4. Make it a team effort.
It is essential to create a schedule to give staff time to reflect on how they are educating students on the spectrum. Having colleagues discuss their practices makes a big difference in validating the overall work. Also, proactively set transition plans each spring to build in professional training and preparation for new grade levels and new classroom settings. Developing this framework and support for the new classroom teachers who will be working with these students gives them time to prepare and create a classroom environment that will be successful.

—From “An Inclusionary Model of Support” by Darren Schlepp

5. Use alternative tools.
Students on the autism spectrum often process language more slowly than typically developing students, which can cause confusion and anxiety. AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) strategies help by supporting students in expressing thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas. Students with communication challenges can use AAC to supplement their existing speech or replace speech that is not functional. Examples of common AAC strategies include sign language, picture communication boards, and voice-output communication devices.

—From “Finding a Voice” by Shannon Stuart

You can find more resources, such as books for students, guidance on the legal issues, and helping kids understand autism disorders on NAESP’s Autism resource page.

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