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6 Steps to Success for Autism

Your classroom is already a diverse place. With the increasing inclusion of students with autism, the challenges associated with managing a classroom will grow. This section outlines a simple and highly flexible six-step plan you and your team can use to prepare for the inclusion of a child with autism in your classroom.

STEP 1: EDUCATE YOURSELF

You must have a working understanding of autism and what that means for your particular student(s). Different behaviors are very much a part of autism. Sometimes children with autism may behave in inappropriate or disruptive ways but their behaviors are more related to their autism than they are deliberate, negative acts. Learning about autism and about how it affects your student specifically is the first step to success.

Your education about autism will evolve as your relationship with the family and the student develops and your knowledge about the disorder and skills in dealing with its impact on the classroom grows. Maintaining an open attitude to learning and working closely with the parents and school team will help you succeed in the long term.

STEP 2: REACH OUT TO THE PARENTS

Parents are your first and best source of information about their child. Step 2 is establishing a working partnership with your student’s parents. Ideally, it will begin with meetings before the school year. After that, establishing mutually agreed modes and patterns of communication with the family throughout the school year is critical.

Building trust with the parents is essential. Communication with families about the progress of the student should be ongoing. While the information you exchange may often focus on current classroom challenges, strategies employed, and ideas for alternative solutions, do not forget to include positive feedback on accomplishments and milestones reached.

STEP 3. PREPARE THE CLASSROOM

There are ways you can accommodate some of the needs of children with autism in your classroom that will enhance their opportunity to learn without sacrificing your plans for the class in general. Of course, there are practical limitations on how much you can modify the physical characteristics of your classroom, but even a few accommodations to support a child with autism may have remarkable results. The Educator’s Guide to Autism provides a schematic that offers a visual representation of the “ideal” classroom for a child with autism.

STEP 4: EDUCATE PEERS AND PROMOTE SOCIAL GOALS

You must make every effort to promote acceptance of the child with autism as a full member and integral part of the class, even if that student only attends class for a few hours a week. As the teacher of a child with autism, you must create a social environment that encourages positive interactions between the child with autism and his or her typically developing peers throughout the day. Children with autism, by definition, have difficulties in socialization and in understanding language and social cues. But with appropriate assistance, children with autism can engage with peers and establish mutually enjoyable and lasting interpersonal relationships.

Research shows that typically developing peers have more positive attitudes, increased understanding, and greater acceptance of children with autism when provided with clear, accurate, and straightforward information about the disorder. Assuming there are no restrictions on disclosing that your student has autism, educating your class about autism and its effect on their fellow student can be an effective way to increase positive, social interactions between the child with autism and his classroom peers.

Remember that many social interactions occur in settings outside the classroom. Without prior planning and extra help, students with autism may end up isolated during these unstructured times. You may want to create a “circle of friends,” a rotating group of responsible, peer buddies for the student with autism, who will not abandon him, serve as a model of appropriate social behavior, and protect against teasing or bullying. This tactic can also be encouraged outside of school.

STEP 5. COLLABORATE ON THE IMPLEMENTATION OF AN EDUCATIONAL PLAN

Since your student with autism has special needs beyond academics, his or her educational plan is defined by an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP is a blueprint for everything that will happen to a child in the next school year. As the principal observer and teacher of the child, you play a key role in the development, implementation, and evaluation of the child’s IEP. You will be responsible for reporting back to the IEP team on the student’s progress toward meeting specific academic, social, and behavioral goals and objectives in the IEP. You will also be asked for input about developing new goals for the student in subsequent IEP meetings.

IEPs are created by a multidisciplinary team of education professionals, along with the child’s parents, and are tailored to the needs of the individual student. Special and general education teachers, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, school psychologists, and families form the IEP team and meet regularly to discuss student progress on IEP goals.

Before the IEP team meets, an assessment team gathers information about the student to make an evaluation and recommendation. Then, one person on the evaluation team coordinates all the information, and the team meets to make recommendations. The IEP team then meets to write the IEP based on the evaluation and team member suggestions.

IEPs always include annual goals, short-term objectives, special education services required by the student, and a yearly evaluation to see if the goals were met. Annual goals must explain measurable behaviors so that it is clear what progress should have been made by the end of the year. The short-term objectives should contain incremental and sequential steps toward meeting each annual goal. For some tips on writing objectives and developing measurable IEP goals for learners with autism, please see the EDUCATOR’S GUIDE TO AUTISM.

STEP 6. MANAGE BEHAVIORAL CHALLENGES

For students with autism, problem behaviors may be triggered for a variety of reasons. Such behaviors may include temper tantrums, running about the room, loud vocalizations, self-injurious activities, or other disruptive or distracting behaviors. Because children with autism often have difficulties communicating in socially acceptable ways, they may act out when they are confused or fearful about something.

Your first challenge is to decipher the cause, or function, of the particular behavior. Look for patterns in these behaviors such as when they do, or do not, consistently occur. Communicating with families and other team members and observing the behavior in the context in which it occurs is essential to learning the function of the behavior.

It’s important to use consistent, positive behavioral reinforcement techniques to promote positive and pro-social behaviors for children with autism. The student’s IEP should contain concrete and explicit positive behavioral goals, as well as a wide range of methods for promoting these goals. The student’s parents and IEP team may be able to suggest visual recognition techniques and incentive systems that you can use to reinforce positive behaviors.

Teachers may choose to ignore other negative behaviors or give predetermined consequences. The key is to be consistent with how you react to the behaviors over time and to use as many positive strategies to promote pro-social behaviors as possible.

As you follow these steps and learn more about children with differences, you will become a mentor to other educators when they face similar challenges for the first time. Your curiosity will fuel your education about autism; your communication skills will help you create a meaningful alliance with parents. Most of all, your collaboration skills will help you work as a key part of the team that will support the child with autism throughout the course of the school year, and your patience, kindness, and professionalism will make a difference in the lives of all your students.

Copyright 2010 Organization for Autism Research All Rights Reserved

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