By Amy Farmer, Regional Instructional Specialist at SESI

Creating classrooms and schools that foster curiosity, growth, and a sense of security is vital to a student’s ability to access their academics, generalize skills, and become as independent as possible.  Cultivating these environments for students on the autism spectrum can take some special thought and care. Whether students on the spectrum need minimal support or a great deal of individualized attention, there are specific needs to take into consideration. Research is constantly expanding our knowledge on effective methods to teach our students with ASD (autism spectrum disorder). With all these advances, the work of Wing and Gould from 1979 remains a cornerstone of diagnosis and intervention practices. They identified a “triad of impairments” that include areas of difficulty in communication, social interaction, and repetitive/restricted behaviors. These areas continue to be the primary prongs of criteria for autism spectrum disorder in the 5th edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). 

Addressing Repetitive/Restricted Interests in the Classroom 

In building and maintaining an appropriate classroom environment for our students with ASD, each of these areas of difficulty must be addressed. Under the category of repetitive/restricted interest, there is an additional recognition of hyper- or hyposensitivity to stimuli. This can be auditory, visual, olfactory, and tactile sensations, along with other aspects of body awareness. Creating a space physically comfortable for the students is a foundational component of instruction. There are many resources and modifications that can be put into place to meet any sensory needs. Some simple examples are: 

  • Dimmer switches on overhead lights
  • Permission for students to wear caps in the classrooms to address light sensitivity
  • Availability of noise blocking headphones 
  • Availability of scent jars 
  • Access to hand fidgets 
  • Flexible seating, providing options of yoga balls, seat cushions, stools, and more for an appropriate amount and type of sensory input when sitting at workspaces 

A sensory-friendly, hands-on learning space at BEST Academy in Wallingford, CT. 

Repetitive and restricted behaviors also indicate a need for consistency and routine. To allow students to focus on areas of instruction and not need to expend too much attention on changes in the environment or in their daily schedule, organization is key. This means, partially, organization of the physical space. Items should be always stored in the same places and be readily available when needed.  Also, a classroom schedule should be visible and consistently followed. As we all know, change is part of life, and even the most thoroughly planned schedule will face unforeseen events. When this does occur, time needs to be taken to explain the changes, validate student feelings, and pre-teach to any new expectations. These changes should be presented in the manner that the student can most readily process the information. This may be verbally, in writing, and/or visually. 

Difficulty accepting mistakes is another component of restricted/repetitive behaviors that can impact learning. Classic instruction techniques and evaluative assessments through worksheets and written tests may be highly stress-producing and lead to maladaptive behaviors for some of our ASD students.  Be creative in instruction and assessment methods by using manipulatives for learning; displays of knowledge can be more engaging (as well as meet some sensory needs). Also, using white boards or even dry erase markers on desktops or tabletops, if the surfaces are appropriate, can easily allow for the removal of errors and make the lesson more fun and less stressful. Embrace hands-on learning and assessing to get a true understanding of the students’ abilities and knowledge. 

Social Skill Opportunities in the Classroom 

As all students near their adolescent years, peers become their greatest influencers. With the noted social deficits that our students on the spectrum may struggle with, these years can become even more difficult than for the average teen. Needing and wanting relationships is universal; understanding and being able to foster them is not. To support these social skill needs, formal Social Skill curriculum may be accessed in instruction. In addition, visual cues of expected behavior can be placed within the classroom, such as tips on how to have a conversation or respect the personal space of others. Small-group social times should be facilitated by staff, creating a safe space to practice interactions, and staff should be constantly aware of their own actions and the role-modeling they are providing.  Communal or break times, such as recess and lunch, are perfect times to create natural environment opportunities to learn and use both the verbal and non-verbal components of social communication.

Communication Is Key 

Finally, it goes without saying that communication is vital for functioning successfully at all stages of life and in all aspects of daily living. Being aware of communication needs and styles is important to ensure students can not only ask questions and share their knowledge in academic targets, but also in expressing their wants and needs. Communication levels vary widely within our ASD student population. Some students may be non-verbal communicators, others may verbally communicate a great deal but script or repeat only known information, while others may communicate wants and needs but have limited pragmatic awareness. To assist students in focusing on learning within identified content areas, staff communication should be simple, use minimal extraneous words, incorporate AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) devices if required  and include whole body communication as needed (sign and gesture).   

About the author: Amy Farmer is a Licensed Clinical Social worker with a Master’s in Educational Leadership. She is a Regional Instructional Specialist at SESI focusing on implementation of BEST Model programming to allow our students with autism spectrum disorder, along with a variety of other developmental disabilities, reach their greatest academic potential.