Creating an effective educational curriculum for autistic children relies on identifying the unique strengths and challenges of your students. Autistic students are highly capable of learning, but they may need additional supports and accommodations to help them be as successful as possible in the classroom.
By identifying the learning styles of your students with autism, you can customize curriculum to increase students’ interest in the material and encourage better understanding of new concepts. With the right teaching approach, students can better incorporate the learning materials into their lives.
Curriculum for Autistic Children
When developing curriculum for autistic children, there are many social and educational factors that must be considered that neurotypical students do not face. The way autistic students interact, are impacted by their environment, and absorb new information must all be considered.
Three factors that are particularly important to take into consideration when developing curriculum for autistic children are social interaction, communication, and behavior.
Students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience social interaction in different ways. They often have:
- Marked lack of awareness of others’ feelings.
- Atypical methods of seeking comfort.
- Nonconforming imitation.
- Unusual social play.
- Limited ability to connect with peers.
Students with ASD experience communication difficulties, such as:
- Problems correctly interpreting, understanding, and using nonverbal communication.
- Difficulty comprehending language.
- Restricted vocabulary.
- Echolalic, repetitive, and idiosyncratic speech.
- Obsession with certain topics.
- Challenges with pragmatics, or the social use of language.
- Oral language differences.
Students with autism present with distinctive behavior challenges, including:
- Restricted interests in activities.
- Stereotyped and repetitive body movements.
- Persistent preoccupation with or attachment to certain objects.
- Restricted range of interests or a preoccupation with a single interest.
- Challenges with attention and motivation.
- A need to follow routines precisely.
- Distress over changes to the environment or routine.
- Sensitivity or unusual responses to sensory stimuli.
- High levels of anxiety.
The above factors should be considered when developing curriculum for autistic students. They present certain challenges for teaching a group of students with autism, but when taken into consideration and met appropriately, they can be used as unique strengths with which to make learning more enjoyable and successful.
Customizing the Curriculum
In order to establish an appropriate curriculum for students with autism, it is important to identify specific assets and difficulties of your students.
Autistic students often present with learning styles that are different than those of neurotypical children. Primarily, people learn through a combination of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, or hands-on, learning. People often favor two out of the three types of learning and can recognize if they are a strong visual learner or learn best through a hands-on approach.
Autistic students, however, tend to favor one type of learning. By observing the student, you will be able to determine how they learn best. Students who frequently select books, enjoy watching films, or pay close attention to people and objects are likely visual learners. Students who constantly take things apart and put them back together, open and close boxes or drawers, and handle objects to get a better understanding of them are likely kinesthetic learners.
Once you identify what type of learners your autistic students are, you can customize curriculum based on their learning strengths. The Autism Research Institute explains that teaching to the learning style of your students is a great way to make an impact on how well they attend to lessons and absorb new information.
Teacher Supports for Students With ASD
Students with autism can benefit from a variety of teacher supports and accommodations in the classroom. Depending on the level of severity of autism, moderate to more intense supports may be needed to make the classroom experience most effective.
Here are some strategies for classroom success and effective teacher support:
- Provide structure. Keep information accessible, make expectations clear, and have a predictable routine.
- Use priming. Offer students the academic course material prior to instruction so they have the opportunity to become familiar with the information ahead of time. This means they will be more likely to learn and use the key concepts.
- Offer academic modifications. Adapt the content or format of assignments to meet your students’ needs, such as reading directions out loud or providing extended time on tests and assignments.
- Use visual supports. Provide tools, such as pictures, schedules, maps, labels, organization systems, objects, and visual boundaries, to support individuals throughout their day.
- Apply reinforcement. Reinforcement rewards students for productive behavior. This supports their development and the use of positive behaviors.
As a teacher of autistic students, it is important to know that you may also need additional support in your classroom. Schools offer individualized education programs, special education teachers, counselors, and other paraprofessionals to assist teachers who have students with special needs. Do not hesitate to reach out to appropriate school staff members who can help you establish and maintain a supportive classroom environment for all of your students.
Style of Teaching
There is no one-size-fits all style of teaching when it comes to working with children with autism and developmental disabilities. You will always need to recognize the needs and personalities of the students in your classroom to determine what will be the most effective approach. In general, flexibility and patience will go a long way in working with students on the spectrum.
Use these principles when teaching students with autism:
- Be predictable. A predictable routine and teaching style eases your students’ anxieties in the classroom and will help them maintain focus. They will be less concerned about what is going to happen next and better able to focus on the current lesson when they know what to expect.
- Keep it simple. Reduce sensory overload in the classroom by using cool, calm colors and minimizing unnecessary decorations, sounds, and smells. Maintaining a calm teaching style also helps to reduce sensory overload.
- Use concrete language. Figurative language can be difficult for autistic children to understand and interpret correctly. Stick to concrete language to reduce misunderstandings and enhance the acquisition of new information.
- Teach directly. Especially when it comes to learning new social skills, model appropriate skills and have a direct conversation about how behavior impacts one another. Use concrete language to explain social skills in ways that are clear and easy to understand.
One of the most important points of teaching students with autism is to treat each student as an individual. A teaching style that incorporates the needs and unique skills of each student is bound to be more successful than impressing a rigid teaching style onto your students.
Tips for Teaching Autistic Students
Each child with autism presents with strengths and challenges that will impact the classroom in different ways. The needs of each class and student will need to be evaluated and addressed individually, but it can be helpful to have a set of techniques in the back of your mind to use to establish a positive class environment.
Here are some tips for teaching students with autism:
- Stick to an outlined routine.
- Prepare students ahead of time if there are any changes in the routine.
- Utilize visual supports to encourage understanding of the routine and day.
- Simplify communication.
- Allow time for students to process new information.
- Use social stories to develop social understanding.
- Address any bullying right away.
- Teach autism awareness.
- Incorporate autistic students’ intense interests into lessons when possible.
- Utilize behavior diaries and charts.
- Use stress scales to learn about emotions.
- Identify a safe and quiet space within the classroom.
- Incorporate a social skills program into the curriculum.
- Allow timeout cards or the right to pass on participation if needed.
In addition to the above techniques, it is important to maintain open communication between teachers, parents, caregivers, and other professionals working with the students. When everyone is on the same page regarding goals and treatment for an autistic student, the child is likely to make the most progress across all settings and aspects of their life.
For Teachers & Homeschooling Parents
Teachers and homeschooling parents who work with students with autism have a unique opportunity to build on their students’ challenges and turn them into strengths.
Challenges aren’t limited to students with autism. All students present with academic and social strengths and weaknesses. If you understand which factors your students with autism are impacted by the most, it will help you tailor the curriculum to best meet their needs.
More information about students with autism, and ways to promote understanding and acceptance of students with autism at school, is provided in the School Community Tool Kit created by Autism Speaks. The tool kit provides strategies and ideas for increasing learning for everyone in the school environment, including students, teachers, staff members, parents, nurses, and more. Resources for educating and supporting students with autism are also included.
6 Tips for Teaching Students with Autism. (March 2016). Teach for America.
Developing and Implementing Programming for Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder. (2012). Province of Novia Scotia Department of Education.
In the Classroom. (April 2017). National Autistic Society.
Learning Styles & Autism. Autism Research Institute.
Understanding Autism Professional Development Curriculum: Strategies for Classroom Success and Effective Use of Teacher Supports. Organization for Autism Research.