Autistic students often learn and develop in different ways than their neurotypical peers. Students on the spectrum have unique strengths and challenges that need to be considered in whatever type of learning environment they participate in.

Students with autism typically struggle with social skills and communication. It can be hard for them to maintain focus in an overstimulating environment and to grasp the big picture of what they are learning.

By utilizing specific autistic teaching strategies, you can optimize learning for your students with special needs. Enhance the learning experience for students with autism by: 

  • Reducing unnecessary environmental stimuli. 

  • Pairing autistic students with positive peer role models. 

  • Maintaining structure and routine. 

  • Encouraging a calm and positive environment in the classroom.

Teaching Autistic Students

Teaching autistic students requires a special skillset, whether you are a teacher or a homeschooling parent. When you equip yourself with some autistic teaching strategies, it can help you and your autistic student to feel more comfortable and successful in the educational environment.

As the rate of autism in the United States steadily increases, the number of students needing specialized teaching strategies does too. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 44 children in the U.S. has a diagnosis of autism. This number has nearly tripled since 2000, when 1 in 150 children was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

All racial and socioeconomic groups are impacted by autism, and diagnostic rates continue to rise each year. Whether you work as a therapist or educator, or are a parent to an autistic child, understanding the specific educational needs of an autistic student can make the educational experience more successful and enjoyable for everyone involved.

How Autism Impacts Learning

Children with autism function on a wide spectrum. Some people with mild autism symptoms may be able to communicate relatively well but struggle in social situations, while people with severe autism symptoms often struggle to verbalize their thoughts. This wide spectrum means that how autism affects learning will vary greatly according to the individual and the severity of their disorder.

Children with ASD experience the world in a different way than neurotypical children. There are many factors that impact an autistic child’s ability to successfully access educational curriculum. 

Autism impacts learning in these ways:

  • Children with autism spectrum disorder develop at different rates and develop skills in different orders than neurotypical children.

  • Language development is often delayed in autistic children.

  • Babies and young children with autism do not always pay as much attention to those around them as neurotypical children do. 

  • Children with autism may not instinctively engage in shared or joint attention, making the development of language and communication skills challenging.

  • Children with ASD may have a difficult time with perspective. They may struggle to understand how other people’s beliefs can vary from their own.

  • Autism can make it hard to understand and predict other people’s behavior as well as how the child’s own behavior impacts others.

  • Children with autism can struggle with skills that are essential for the classroom, such as focus, attention, transition management, organization, memory, time management, emotional control, and frustration.

  • ASD can make it difficult for children to see the “big picture” in real-life situations as well as in stories or books. The overall message of a story may be lost due to extreme focus on the details in pictures.

Top Strategies for Teaching Autistic Students

Teaching autistic students can be a challenging and rewarding experience. These students possess unique skills that should be highlighted in order to encourage educational development.

Teach for America compiled a list of tips for teaching students with autism. While each student presents with a unique situation and strengths, the following tips can serve as a general guide in the classroom:

  • Avoid sensory overload. Students with autism can be distracted by unexpected things in their environment, such as bright lights, smells, and sounds. Reduce the sensory stimuli in your classroom by using calm colors and not putting too much up on the walls. This can help to boost concentration abilities for autistic students.

  • Use visuals. Visuals serve as quick and clear reminders about items in the classroom, such as rules, where things go, and resources. 

  • Be predictable. An established routine on a set schedule helps autistic students feel less anxious in the classroom. Unpredictable events can be used as teaching moments for how to appropriately handle unexpected changes.

  • Use concrete language. Figurative language is often difficult for children with autism to understand. Autistic students tend to interpret language in concrete terms, so they will benefit from clear and concrete instruction in the classroom. 

  • Teach social skills directly. Hidden curriculum ideas that develop social skills may be too complex for children with autism to grasp. Teach social skills directly by modeling and discussing appropriate behavior in easy-to-understand ways. 

  • Treat students as individuals. Each student on the spectrum is affected differently by ASD. Some accommodations will work well for some students and not as well for others. Focus on each student’s strengths and successes as you model patience and respect in the classroom.

The above tips can be incorporated into your classroom routine to encourage the academic and social development of children with autism. Ultimately, autistic teaching strategies help students with autism feel more comfortable in the classroom and better able to access the curriculum.

Factoring in Autism Severity Level

Since autism exists on a spectrum, some people are more severely impacted by the disorder than others. In a learning environment, the severity level of autism greatly affects the approach to education and appropriate accommodations that should be made.

When the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) was published in 2013, autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome (AS), pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD) were combined into one diagnosis: autism spectrum disorder.

The four previously separate diagnoses each contained similar symptoms, just with varying levels of severity. ASD recognizes these shared symptoms as being characterized by a person’s challenges in the areas of social communication, social skills, and restricted or repetitive behaviors.

The challenges associated with ASD are then classified by level. The levels of ASD are used to describe the severity of the individual’s social skills and problematic behaviors. They are:

  • Level 1, requiring support. A student with Level 1 ASD has what some might call mild autism symptoms. They may struggle with social circumstances and some obstructive or recurring behaviors, but they can likely communicate verbally.

    Someone with Level 1 ASD may still struggle to maintain conversations and friendships. They may require minimal support to complete their daily tasks. They respond well to set routines and are put off by unexpected changes.

  • Level 2, requiring substantial support. Level 2 ASD students are in the central range of the spectrum. They need more assistance than students with Level 1 ASD. They typically have more problems with maintaining appropriate social interactions, and their unusual behaviors are more likely to be noticed by their peers.

    Students with Level 2 ASD may or may not be verbal. If they are verbal, conversations remain short and specific without the help of extensive social support.

  • Level 3, requiring very substantial support. Level 3 ASD is at the severe end of the spectrum. These students have significant challenges with social skills and communication. Restrictive and repetitive behaviors usually prohibit these students from functioning independently.

    Many students with Level 3 ASD are nonverbal, though some can use a few words. Unexpected events are particularly challenging for people with severe autism. They also exhibit more severe behaviors, such as echolalia and rocking. Students with this level of autism require considerable support to get through the day.

By understanding the level of autism that your student is dealing with, you will be better prepared to establish a positive classroom environment. The most appropriate autistic teaching strategies will vary greatly between a student with Level 1 autism versus one with Level 3 autism.

Creating the Optimal Learning Environment

The optimal learning environment for a child with autism is different than that of general education students. 

The typical classroom is bright and structured in a way to stimulate and excite the students. But these bright and often cluttered visuals don’t work well for students with autism. Students with special needs require environments that are designed with their specific needs in mind.

When designing learning environments for students with special needs, ranging from individual classrooms to entire schools, there are program, methodological, and environmental factors that should be taken into consideration.

  • Colors and patterns should be subtle and used minimally, only for directional purposes.

  • Hallways should be wider to allow for necessary movement.

  • Classrooms should be staggered to reduce the potential for conflicts.

  • Programs should reinforce students’ strengths and abilities. 

  • Classrooms should be equipped to teach basic life skills.

  • Settings should reinforce repetition of daily tasks.

Practical factors can reduce stimuli in the learning environment.

  • Have extensive closed storage so materials and equipment that are not being used will not be a distraction.

  • Orient the classroom away from potential distractions, such as outside windows. 

  • Address sensory issues by controlling the lighting, ventilation, temperature, and sound in the classroom.

  • Provide each student with enough floor area, much more than neurotypical students need.

  • Niches or quiet zones should be clearly identified for students who need to take a break.

  • Provide multiple areas for socializing in various group sizes. These areas should be based on the students’ abilities and encourage the development of communication and social skills.

One of the key components for creating the optimal learning environment for children on the autism spectrum is to be flexible. It is important to be able to adapt your classroom to meet the specific needs of your students, and these needs may change throughout the school year.

By considering what kind of environment your autistic students are learning in, you optimize their development as well as the use of your own autistic teaching strategies.

Expert-Recommended Tips for Teaching ASD Students

Whether you are a teacher or homeschooling parent, adding specific autistic teaching strategies to your educator toolkit will help you work more positively with your autistic student or child. 

Here are some tips to help you successfully work with students on the spectrum:

  • Be calm and positive.
  • Model appropriate behavior.
  • Be aware of the typical characteristics of autism.
  • Promote a positive and welcoming environment.
  • Create opportunities for all students to practice their social skills.
  • Teach understanding and acceptance.
  • Pair students on the spectrum with peers who are good role models, whether they are autistic peers or neurotypical peers. Neurotypical students also benefit from being paired with autistic students.
  • Create time for pair and small group work.
  • Pay attention to the level of socialization for autistic students. They are at risk of becoming isolated. Create opportunities for them to interact with other students.
  • If a student with ASD behaves or reacts inappropriately to a situation, consider their social and communication challenges before placing blame or judgment on the student.
  • Ensure that appropriate classroom accommodations are in place. Remember that autistic students have different needs than their neurotypical peers.
  • Notify an autistic student ahead of time of any changes to the daily routine, such as staff or scheduling changes.
  • Stay tuned in to your student’s sensory issues and make environmental adjustments as needed.
  • Use descriptive praise to reinforce the development of positive behaviors.

Making a Big Difference

If you are teaching students on the autism spectrum in any capacity, you can see more positive results with a bit of planning.

Be clear, empathetic, and consistent. These are valuable qualities to have in any teaching environment, but they are particularly important when working with students on the autism spectrum.

Adapt your classroom to provide the optimal learning environment for students with special needs. Small changes can make a big difference.

Finally, utilize autistic teaching strategies to foster a positive and productive learning experience for everyone involved.

While teaching autistic students isn’t often as straightforward as teaching neurotypical students, the growth you’ll see will be well worth the effort.