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Supporting Students with Autism: Notes from a School Psychologist

As a school psychologist, I have observed dozens of students with autism (also known as autism spectrum disorder) in their classrooms. Often, well-intentioned teachers give a correction or directive to the student that 1) might not be a realistic request given their unique condition; and 2) could be approached in another way for better outcomes.

As the number of students with autism continues to rise, teachers throughout the country can expect to welcome some of these students into their regular ed classrooms.   Most teachers are aware that for students with autism, a typical school day can be fraught with challenges. Not only do many ‘misunderstand’ the motivations and intentions of others, but all too often, their intended communications and actions are misinterpreted as well. Add this to challenges with feeling over-stimulated or struggling with poor attention, and school can seem like an unhappy place for these students.

While there are a number of sub-optimal interactions I see among teachers and ASD students, The top two challenges I have witnessed--- poor eye contact and trouble understanding vague, abstract directives--- are mutually uncomfortable for the student as well as the teacher who tries to communicate with him. Below, I address these two issues, provide some insight about these challenges, as well as make a suggestion for a better approach.

Avoid Continuous Requests for good eye contact. I have found that while these students may indeed be interested, curious and otherwise engaged in a conversation, their eye contact may nonetheless not show this.

And this can be confusing to teachers and peers. However, I suggest that the teachers  (and classmates) avoid interpreting poor eye contact as a sign of disrespect, lack of interest, bad mood or any other particular negative reason.

A better way to understand the poor eye contact is as follows: some ASD children find faces intimidating or overwhelming (at the extreme), or simply distracting and not useful to them (at the very least). Continually pestering the student with, “look in [your classmate’s] eyes,” Or, “Look at [My] eyes when I am talking to you,” is not only irritating to the ASD student but need not be a requirement when interacting with him or her. That is, the autistic student may well be absorbing or hearing important information, they just are not showing it in a typical fashion. Given the inordinate challenges they face, this, in my opinion, is not a battle worth fighting for.

What to do instead of insisting on good eye contact? Some teachers have success with asking for a high five as follows, “[student’s name] if that makes sense and you understood what I said, can I get a high give?” (A fist pump or thumbs up works too!)

Find other ways to communicate with him that avoids sarcasm, idiomatic speech or abstract directives.  Nothing is more sad than seeing a student with ASD be reprimanded and simply “not get it.” I have seen a teacher lightly scold a student; the student then does not respond as the teacher was anticipating, the teacher’s irritation escalates and then, boom! The student is aggressively reprimanded.

The important thing to understand is that children with autism are often not able to interpret subtle idioms or sayings that a typical student would understand. In the situation mentioned earlier, the teacher said, “I would not do that if I were you…” when she saw that the boy was poking holes in his paper. When the boy, likely told himself (well, she is not me, so this does not apply) and did not stop, the teacher became overly exasperated, lashing out at him much to the dismay of the boy.

How could this misunderstanding best be avoided? The teacher would have had a better outcome with the autistic boy, if she had simply said, “[his name], please stop poking holes in the paper. Students are not allowed to do that with their papers. Thank you,” then the boy would have been more likely to understand what was upsetting his teacher, and then to stop the behavior.

Another tip is to avoid trying to communicate to such children through the use of “looks” or body language. That is, while a typical student might well stop an undesirable behavior simply by getting a disapproving or scary “look” from the teacher, a student with autism may very well miss the cue altogether!

Ultimately, teachers and students with autism must engage in a dance throughout the day – communicating, listening and learning together and with others. Understanding that inconsistent, poor eye contact and trouble making sense of comments that are not concrete and straightforward are common with ASD is key. When both teacher and student feel understood (and respected), the day can, hopefully, be a lot smoother.

Written by Mandy Stern

Mandy Stern is a board-certified, licensed Educational Psychologist, with national certification in school psychology.