Autism in the classroom: How general education teachers can support students with ASD
One in 36 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism. Increasingly, more are enrolled in general education classrooms in school.
The good news: inclusion has universal benefits. It has been known to improve educational outcomes for all students, overall attitudes towards diversity and even school attendance rates.
The bad news: most general education teachers lack sufficient autism-related instruction. Many teacher-education programs require just one overview class about students with disabilities. On-the-job professional development specific to autism is nearly non-existent and rarely mandatory.
As a result, even the best teachers can be unsure how to properly support their autistic students. Some even struggle to understand autism. Ethan Hirschberg experienced this in high school. The autistic teen was having a hard time keeping up in a well-respected teacher’s class. Frustrated, the teacher asked, “What are you, autistic?” A heartbroken, embarrassed Ethan responded, “yes.”
It is worth noting that the teacher apologized and took the necessary steps to correct the situation to Ethan’s satisfaction. But there is too much at risk for all involved to leave it solely up to teachers to learn about autism on the job.
Here, we provide general education teachers with a crash course in autism to promote awareness and acceptance and to help create an inclusive classroom environment that not only supports autistic students but the entire class.
But the learning does not stop and start with one teacher in one classroom—parents, teachers and school administrators should share this with physical education teachers, art teachers, music teachers and throughout their school.
Autism 101: Facts about autism spectrum disorder
- Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.
- There is not one type of autism, but many. No two autistic students are alike.
- Autism is a disability covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under this law, autistic students are entitled to experience the “least restrictive environment” where they have the greatest possible opportunity to interact and learn with their peers without disabilities and to participate in the general education curriculum.
- Autism is not a learning disability, though it can affect learning.
- Autism does not automatically equate to high IQ or superior mathematical or computational skills.
- Autism does not cause behaviors that present as challenging to the teacher or the class. Behaviors are a method of communication. They can be a response to a biological cause, such as pain or discomfort, or due to a social or sensory cause.
- Anxiety is common for autistic students, but not all anxiety is the same. Neuroscientists have found structural differences in autistic people’s amygdala, the brain’s emotion and fear center, that suggest autism-related anxiety is different from general anxiety. While autistic people can present with both forms, management can be vastly different, and different from non-autistic anxiety management.
- A student’s autism diagnosis is protected by various privacy laws. The decision to disclose a diagnosis is the right of the autistic student and their parents only. If a parent or autistic student shares their diagnosis to school administrators and teachers, it is to be treated as confidential. It is never acceptable to share a student’s diagnosis with anyone, especially not a class or student’s peers.
Autism 102: Tips to create an inclusive classroom environment
- Review the class list for any student with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 plan and read the documents thoroughly. Both are legally binding; adherence is required by law.
- If any accommodations within are unclear or unable to be implemented, notify school administration and parents.
- Neither parent nor teacher can revise these plans without a procedural review and subsequent documentation of changes.
- Accommodations are not privileges. They are rights.
- Learn more in our Guide to Individualized Education Programs, which is now available in an interactive format that allows for easy navigation to sections including “IEP Basics” and “Changing an IEP”.
- Presume competence. Autistic students in a general education classroom are general education students first, regardless of their supports.
- If an autistic student has special education support staff, work with them as a team. The student should be “our” student, not “your” or “my” student. This language matters and conveys a powerful message, especially when used in front of an autistic student and their peers.
- To better learn about your autistic student, seek out people who know them well, including family members and prior teaching staff, as early in the school year as possible. Completing the “About Me” profile worksheet in our School Community Tool Kit with parents is a good start.
- Immediately notify school administrators and parents if an issue arises with an autistic student. Do not first attempt to resolve a concerning issue alone. It is best to err on the side of oversharing with school administration and parents when issues arise.
NOTE: If an autistic student is engaging in behavior that poses a risk to themselves or others at school, seek help immediately. Follow your school’s crisis protocols. Never ignore the signs of a crisis situation. Always take threats of suicide or harm seriously.
- Create a comfortable classroom. Many autistic students have sensory issues that can impact their ability to concentrate. Some simple accommodations can be made which benefit the entire class.
- Sounds/Excessive Noise: Allow for earplugs if a classroom is particularly noisy. Reconsider the use of whistles or buzzers to signify the start/stop of an activity and instead use visual clues. Develop a signal with the student to let them know when a school bell will alarm.
- Lighting: Try dimming or turning off florescent or bright lights.
- Smells: Give enough advance warning if products with strong odors will be used in class. Allow the student to sit near an open window or fan that helps dissipate strong smells. Consider a school policy that limits the use of perfume, cologne and body sprays.
- Discuss preferred seating in the classroom with parents and the autistic student. The student may have a different preferred location depending on which subject they are learning, which classroom they are in, and who their classmates are.
- Be predictable. Change can be more difficult for autistic students than for their peers, especially if it is unplanned. Make it a habit to go over the daily schedule at the start of class. Provide advance notice of any changes to the schedule, including if there will be a substitute teacher.
- Be flexible with participation in the classroom.
- Reconsider grading requirements that award or punish for traditional participation.
- Consider using individual whiteboards or give out washable markers for everyone to write answers on their desk. This tool works to check-in and ensure students of all learning styles and abilities are engaged in class.
- If a presentation is required, consider providing the entire class with multiple options beyond public speaking. Consider multimedia alternatives and tools used by working professionals: PowerPoint, FlipGrid, Zoom, etc.
- Do not consider or communicate alternative forms of participation as a privilege or reserved only for autistic students.
- An autistic student is likely to have anxiety in social situations, particularly with peers. Carefully consider pairings when group work is required. It is best to ask for input from family and past teachers. Do not assume an autistic student and an outgoing student are a good balance, or that an autistic student and an introverted student complement one another. Make sure the autistic student has an appropriate, equitable, defined task within the group.
- Facilitate positive social relationships within the classroom by teaching about inclusion. Use our School Community Tool Kit and refer to our tips for teaching peers about inclusion. It is highly recommended to inform all students and their parents ahead of any discussion on inclusion or disabilities. Do not ask autistic students to explain autism to you or the class. Even when parents disclose to the school, some autistic students still prefer not to disclose or discuss their diagnosis.
- Recognize that students with disabilities are more likely to be bullied. Be prepared to help prevent and correct troublesome situations with our Top 10 Bullying Facts.
- Be aware that free play, recess and other unstructured times are often the most difficult times for autistic students. They often have the desire to interact with others, but do not have the skills to engage appropriately or may be overwhelmed by the process. Look to see if autistic students are eating alone at lunch or wandering outside by themselves at recess. Think about how to provide structure to these students during that time to keep them engaged in school. Forming social groups around special interests or assigning tasks for teachers or school are good options.
- Recognize you may be unaware of every autistic student in your classroom. Some parents do not disclose their child’s autism diagnosis. The decision is theirs alone. Their child is still protected by IDEA. Asking a student if they are autistic, openly speculating whether a student is autistic and openly assigning behavior challenging to you as autistic can all be considered violations of this law.
- If a student is struggling and you are concerned it is due to autism spectrum disorder but have not been made aware of a diagnosis, it is recommended that you document the struggles. Act on what you see, not what you suspect. Present findings free and clear of judgment to the parents and school administration.
Learn more in our School Community Tool Kit. Be sure to share sections dedicated to the following school professionals:
- Bus drivers
- Custodial Staff
- School Nurses
- Lunch aides
- Office Staff
- Athletic Coaches
- Other school staff