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Reaching and Teaching Autistic Students

Autism Spectrum Disorders are the fastest growing diagnosis of childhood disabilities in the U.S. During National Autism Awareness Month, the NEA is highlighting some of its teacher and parent resources for reaching and teaching students with autism. Included: A resource guide for identifying and teaching students with ASDs.

Teachers who havent already had at least one student with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in their class soon could be in the minority. Once viewed as a rare condition, autism now affects one in every 150 American children. For boys, that number jumps to almost one in 94, according to information from the National Education Association (NEA). ASDs include a range of autistic behaviors, from some mild impairment of social skills to more severe conditions where children show little awareness of the outside world.

The estimated annual cost of educating and caring for individuals with ASDs is about $90 billion, noted the NEA. Early diagnosis and intervention have shown the potential to reduce treatment costs by two-thirds.

Inclusion policies are bringing more children with ASDs to mainstream classrooms, requiring more adjustments by teachers.

The NEA marks National Autism Awareness Month by publicizing its ASD resources for teachers and families, including The Puzzle of Autism, a guide to assist educators, inform parents, offer ways to help identify the typical characteristics of ASDs, and provide ideas for ways to work successfully with children who have the disability.

Patti Ralabate, senior policy analyst-special education from NEAs Education Policy and Practice Department, talked with Education World about strategies for identifying children with ASDs and meeting their needs in the classroom.

Patti Ralabate

Education World: Have children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) increased in numbers in the past decade or so or have specialists become better at identifying autism?

Patti Ralabate: Both of these situations are true. Over the last 10-to-15 years, education diagnosticians and physicians have become more aware of the characteristics and diagnostic criteria for identifying individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). Plus, there does seem to be a growing number of young children exhibiting these characteristics. ASD is noted as the fastest growing diagnosis of childhood disabilities.

EW: What are some of the key elements of working with students with autism that all educators should know?

Ralabate: First, educators need to know that not all students with ASD are the same. Even though there are some common characteristics, such as difficulties with communication and social skills, restricted interests, and sensory integration issues, students with ASD have varying individual strengths and needs.

Educators also need to be familiar with the key deficits associated with the disorders and strategies that they can use in the classroom. NEAs Puzzle of Autism guide provides clear suggestions to educators and parents about how to address these deficits in a general education classroom.

EW: How has the inclusion of children with autism in regular classrooms affected classroom teachers and curriculum?

Ralabate: In many cases, the specific needs of children with ASD can be met in general education classrooms with appropriate supports. Classroom teachers report that techniques are easier to implement if they receive needed professional development and regular consultation time with special education teachers, school psychologists, and autism specialists. A team approach is crucial. Some children with ASD also have significant behavior difficulties that can be disruptive in general education classrooms. Behavior assessments and behavior intervention plans developed in collaboration with classroom teachers help to make the inclusion of children with disruptive behaviors possible.

EW: What kinds of insights have educators gained from working with autistic children that can be applied to all students?

"Interestingly, educators find that many of the techniques they use with children with ASD help to make the classroom more organized."

Ralabate: Interestingly, educators find that many of the techniques they use with children with ASD help to make the classroom more organized. Consistent classroom routines, visual instructions and schedules, preparation for transition times, clear behavior expectations, menus of assignments, and structured formats for assignments can be applied to help all students.

EW: What can teachers say to other students who might not understand why a student with autism might be allowed to leave the room or do something separate from the rest of the class?

Ralabate: Generally, students understand that everyone needs time to work on special or individual projects. Using this explanation will satisfy younger children. Older students are often far more tolerant of the needs of other students than we might realize. If classrooms are flexible, offering all students a variety of choices to demonstrate what they have learned, the fact that a student is allowed to do something separate or different is less noticeable.

EW: What are some other resources for teachers who want to learn more about working with students with ASDs?

Ralabate: The NEA IDEA Special Education Resource Cadre provides an excellent professional development session based on The Puzzle of Autism. To make arrangements for a presentation, educators and parents need to work with their local and state NEA affiliates. In addition, many school districts and national organizations, such as the National Association of School Psychologists and the American Speech-Hearing-Language Association, offer professional development resources addressing the needs of students with ASD. There also are some colleges that offer courses for area educators.

This e-interview with Patti Ralabate is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
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Last updated 08/06/2012