How do I handle a child with autism in my classroom with no help?
Teaching a large class of children is challenging no matter what the class composition is. Increasingly, teachers are being asked to deal with larger populations of students with special needs, students who are language learners, as well as “grade-level” learners all in one class. This task is incredibly difficult and requires concerted effort at differentiation and the key tool of all teachers: amazing patience.
This is especially true if a teacher has a child with autism in her class. Children with autism are capable of learning and participating in class, but frequently have difficulties with social aspects of learning and classwork, as well as the organization that comes with being a successful student. Additionally, children with autism may be oversensitive to physical stimuli or may have emotional triggers that cause him or her to act out in the classroom. This presents a dilemma for the teacher who needs to manage the behavior and learning of over twenty students and can’t fully stop class to deal with the needs of any one.
The first step when dealing with students with autism is to clearly label classroom spaces, materials, and schedules. It’s important to be explicitly clear with children with autism because they often feel more comfortable if they understand what is coming next and where they need to be. A large schedule in a visible area in the classroom allows a student with autism to check what is coming next. In addition, different areas of the classroom should be labeled according to function. Be sure to seat your student in an area that will provide the fewest distractions for him or her. This includes finding an area that has fewer objects or
Students with autism might not be able to remember complex instructions as well as other students. Take time out between giving instructions and monitoring an activity to check in with your student and re-clarify expectations for the coming activity. As time progresses and the activity continues, continually look in on the progress of your student and give him or her any reminders he may need. Be sure to openly and vocally observe positive behavior.
Additionally, students with autism can become upset and display outbursts when confronted with situations that are non-threatening for most other children. It’s important to learn what triggers this behavior in an autistic child and try to circumvent it whenever possible. A key way to do this is to stay in constant communication with your student’s parents. They probably know the triggers that set off their child and can help you minimize them. They also probably know what will calm him or her down and get him or her back on track.
While many schools and districts are underfunded and understaffed, there always is some sort of support for students with special needs. If you feel that your student needs these services, it’s important that you’re able to make a strong case for additional help (like a para in the classroom or occupational therapy for the student). In order to provide proof of the child’s need, you need to vigilantly document the child’s behavior. Make note of when and how the student experiences outbursts, behaves abnormally, and is on or off task. Have dates and descriptions ready and know about how often outbursts and other behavior occur. You need to have clear documentation in order to get the school to act on the child’s behalf.
Finally, students with autism experience the world in a different way. They often exhibit behaviors which are abnormal, but are symptomatic of the illness and not misbehavior. This includes “stimming,” or repetitive motions that could seem to a teacher like acting out. However, this is a regular symptom of autism and shouldn’t be punished. Stay in contact with parents and make sure you understand when the student is acting out purposefully and when the student is simply expressing symptoms.