Forging a Connection: 10 Ways Teachers and Friends Can Support Children with Autism


Children with autism want and need the same things children without a disability want: understanding, patience, and love. At times, giving a child with special needs everything they need and want can be stressful.

Teachers, parents and friends can work together to insure a child with autism is always safe and learning what they need at their own pace. 

Although it is not always easy, children with autism can thrive and not merely survive day to day. Here is a list of 10 ways teachers and friends can support children with autism.

1. Parents as Resources

If you are a teacher, you already know that talking with your student's parents is the best way to get to know them. This is especially true for children with autism.

Not all children are going to be open and forthcoming with what they need or want. They may not be able to verbalize what it is they need, or perhaps they just don't have the correct vocabulary. This is where a parent can be helpful. After all, they are the ones who spend the most time with this child.

Set up a meeting with your student's parents before school starts if possible. The more you know about their child, the better prepared you will be helping him or her learn and integrate into a normal school day.

2. Stick to a Routine

Having a set routine will not only cut down on confusion, it will help keep a student's anxiety from appearing. When a child knows exactly what to expect and when, there is less chance for disagreement and set the student up to succeed.

At the beginning of the school year, go over what a typical day will be like. If there are different activities on different days, such a physical education, art, and music, make sure these different classes are posted and the days clearly marked.

Go over a daily schedule with the special needs child should be done each week. Weekends tend to “erase” some of an autistic child's memory. The more prepared they are, the better they will learn. A routine is the best way to remain prepared.

3. Choose Your Words Carefully

When dealing with a child with autism, be sure to choose your words carefully. Do not be vague with instruction, but at the same time, do not give too many instructions at one time.

By giving two choices, like “do you want to read, or do you want to draw?”, limits a child's need to obsess over what to do. Given more choices, or an open “what do you want to do?”, can be overwhelming for some autistic children. Limiting what their “free time” can be used for is helpful and can cut back on anxiety.

Be direct in your directions. You may need to help the student understand what the word “finish” means. You could also use the word “Stop”, which all children should know.

4. Learn How Your Student Learns Best

All children learn differently. Some learn visually, some oral, some learn by physically doing or by having a new activity modeled for them.

Ask their parents and other caregivers if they know how this child learns new activities and tasks. They will be a tremendous resource when you need to teach their child something new.

Use peer modeling when appropriate. When a student with limitations sees that their classmate and friend can do something, they will be more apt to try it.

It is best to stick to the same method of learning for a child with autism; however, if something is not working, don't be afraid to suggest trying something new. Some children change their learning behavior and you will need to notice and keep up with these types of changes.

5. Watch Out for Over Stimulation

It is best to avoid overstimulation for children with autism. Try to remove and/or minimize distractions. This may include colorful displays on the walls or loud noise.

Set up a special, separate area, out of the way of these stimulations, for this student. They will appreciate the opportunity to regroup and settle themselves when necessary.

6.  Use Your Student's Name

Sometimes a special needs student may not realize you mean for them to do the same activity as the rest of the class. It may be necessary for you to address them personally, and sometimes separately, to insure they receive and understand the instructions for a new task.

When using their name, do not change your tone as if you were “calling” them out. Use their name as if it was part of what you are talking about but say something like “I need you to listen carefully to these instructions”. You could also use several students' names as to not make the autistic child feel different.

7. Ask for Help

Don't be afraid to ask for help from other teachers, counselors, or your principal. You may have too many students and need an assistant, so you can give an autistic student more individual care.

If there are no resources for assistants, think about getting a shadow from the local high school. The guidance counselors will know which students are interested in becoming teachers. If they can't work for pay, a personal reference letter and the experience will help immensely on any college application.

8. Prepare a Behavior Plan

Some students can quickly become overwhelmed with sensory overload. It is important to know the signs of this possible behavior change and act accordingly. Having a plan already in place when a child is about to have or is having a meltdown can save everyone's anxiety and hurt feelings.

9. Know Your Student's Strengths

Create and keep a copy of a special page of this student's strengths. No matter how big or small, always remember, every child is unique and can do one or more things really well. You may not be the only one who needs to be reminded of this.

10. Take a Break

Dealing with a student with autism can be challenging. It is important for you to take a break to keep your sanity. Schedule a mental health day, regroup, do something fun, and remind yourself why you became a teacher in the first place.

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