Children with Autism learn differently than other kids. They need more attention and a distinctive teaching approach. These children could, and in many cases actually do, suffer due to ineffective teaching methods. As educators, teachers have a responsibility to ensure that the quality of education their students receive is tailored to their learning capabilities. The best way to help an autistic child learn to the best of their potential is to understand what problems they face at school.

Understanding Autism

Autism is a complex disorder which is related to brain development. It is not a single ailment or condition; rather, it is a complex collection of behaviors which may be exhibited in different degrees. Most individuals start exhibiting signs of Autism around the age of two. This developmental condition can make communication and relating to others a huge problem for children.

Autism is also commonly referred to as ASD or Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines ASD as:

“Developmental disabilities that cause substantial impairments in social interaction and communication and the presence of unusual behaviors and interests. Many people with ASDs also have unusual ways of learning, paying attention, and reacting to different sensations. The thinking and learning abilities of people with ASDs can vary—from gifted to severely challenged. An ASD begins before the age of 3 and lasts throughout a person’s life.”

This means that no two children with autism will have exactly the same symptoms or challenges. It is therefore imperative that children with Autism are taught in such a manner that caters to their specific learning capabilities.

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The Problems Autistic Children Face in School

Since every child with autism has unique needs and exhibits very particular sets of behaviors, it’s important for teachers to understand the general types of problems these students are likely to encounter.

1. Social Interaction

Children with Autism have persistent problems and difficulties with social interactions and communication. They may not properly understand the accepted social rules and etiquettes and this may make socializing difficult for them. Furthermore, the fact that their abilities are starkly different than those of their fellow peers is something that is obvious to them. This in turn makes them conscious and reclusive, because they begin to lose confidence in themselves.

All of this results in autistic children being at a much higher risk of being bullied by other children at school.

How Teachers Can Help:

  • Encourage other students to be tolerant, understanding, patient, and conscientious when interacting with autistic students.
  • Teachers should encourage their students and classrooms to be more inclusive
  • Autistic children can be put in protective peer groups which would encourage social integration and empathy

2. Cognitive Processing Delays

Cognitive processing delays cause an individual’s ability to process verbal or written material. These issues should not be confused with a child’s level of intelligence. As a result of these delays, autistic children are unable to fully grasp questions, facts, and ideas. Their response times may therefore be much slower than the average student. This can pose huge problems and obstacles with social, as well as learning outcomes.

How Teachers Can Help:

  • Allow the student some extra time to process their thoughts and ideas
  • Don’t put them on the spot to answer questions. Instead, encourage them to participate when they are ready and have formulated their thoughts.
  • If they need more time to process the information, allow them to record the lesson

3. Fear of novelty/change

Many children with autism are reluctant towards change and new experiences. Typically, the mere thought of doing something new and unknown may cause feelings of anxiety.

How Teachers Can Help:

  • Establish a routine in the class which the student clearly understands and is familiar with
  • Autistic children find comfort in familiar objects or concepts – try to incorporate them into the lesson plan

4. Sensory Perception Issues

Sensory perception issues may involve all of the senses. Essentially, an autistic child may be sensitive to certain sounds and stimuli which can cause distractions or anxiety. For instance, bright lights or specific sounds may by intolerable for some autistic kids.

This can be particularly crippling because if confronted with these issues in the classroom, the child may have a difficult time paying attention and absorbing the material being taught.

Sensory perception issues also sometimes manifest themselves as poor sense of depth perception and sometimes even balance issues.

How Teachers Can Help:

  • Speak to the child and/or their parents to determine whether they have sensory perception issues (i.e. are they sensitive to certain sounds, etc.)
  • Encourage the child to be able to freely communicate if new issues come up, or if existing issues are causing problems for them
  • Once the issue(s) has been identified, the teacher and the school administration can take steps to eliminate the problems/issues

5. Difficulty Focusing

One of the many symptoms associated with autism is the inability to focus. This can result in autistic students ‘spacing out’ in class, and not understanding or remembering what they were taught. This can make it very difficult for them to successfully complete assignments and prepare for tests.

How Teachers Can Help With This Problem:

  • Reduce the amount of verbal instructions and instead give students written, concise instructions
  • Eliminate, as much as possible, distractions from the classroom
  • Follow a structured learning plan

6. Motor Skill Challenges

Motor skill problems and challenges involve a child not being able to perform tasks which come easily to other students such as holding a pencil and writing properly. Autistic children may also struggle to participate in physical education classes.

How Teachers Can Help:

  • Never make an autistic child write lines thinking this will somehow improve their handwriting. This approach seems more like a punishment and in many cases is counterproductive.
  • Encourage them to work on their handwriting by letting them know it’s okay to work at it at their own pace
  • Consider the use of computers if writing is too big of a problem to overcome
  • If they feel uncomfortable doing an activity which involves motor skills, don’t force them to do it
  • Consider developing a physical education program or schedule which takes into account their problems with motor functions

7. Trouble with the Standard Curriculum

As discussed earlier, each child with autism displays different symptoms and suffers from different setbacks and challenges. In this way, each child with autism is unique, and must be addressed and taught in a manner which benefits them specifically. In many instances, the standard school curriculum – as opposed to an autism school curriculum – developed for students is not suitable for children with autism.

How Teachers Can Help:

  • Pacing is a huge issue – concessions need to be made for autistic students keeping in mind that their rate of learning may be different from their peers
  • Devote extra time, possibly remedial classes, in which one-on-one instruction and aid is given to the child
  • Design specific learning assignments and projects which are tailored to help children learn better, and quicker
  • Understand the student’s particular learning style – for instance, do they respond more to visuals? This will help you in teaching
  • Make a habit of writing down clear, easy to follow instructions

While teaching them in isolation is, and has been practiced before, it is a method with several very real drawbacks. Principally, autistic children would benefit more from being included in a classroom with other students. Nevertheless, these children will face several setbacks along the way and it will fall on parents and teachers alike to help these students succeed. Once you understand what types of problems autistic children typically face in the classroom, you can take steps to help them learn more effectively and integrate with greater ease with their peers.

In certain cases, you might be better off enrolling your child in a special needs school such as the Winston Prep autism schools, NJ. This, along with Winston Prep’s Norwalk CT school are classified as some of the best educational institutes for students with autism. Understanding the struggles your child faces at school and helping them through is all that is needed of you as a parent and as an educator.