Autism in the Classroom

By Dr. Sharon A. Mitchell
February 15, 2013
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In a March 2012 announcement, the Centers for Disease control released their latest statistics on autism. One in 86 children has an autism spectrum disorder and one in every 54 boys. What does this have to do with you?

Every teacher will have a child with autism in their class. Every coach will meet a child with autism. If autism has not touched your family, it will affect your friends, your colleagues or neighbours.

Teachers have a multitude of demands on their time. There are extensive curriculums to cover, after school activities and a wide range of student skills and abilities to consider. Teachers are asked to make accommodations for the child with attention deficit, accommodations for the student with a learning disability, accommodations for the child who uses a wheelchair and to keep in mind the at risk children in the room. Then the principal announces that you'll have a student with autism joining your class next week.

Autism. When did they mention that in teacher training? You're unprepared. You know nothing about autism. How can you possibly do your best for this new student while meeting the needs of all the other young minds in your classroom?

Well, it is possible and it need not be as difficult as you might think. There are a few things to keep in mind.

First, autism is a spectrum disorder. That means that there are some people with autism who have profound intellectual disabilities while others have intellectual abilities in the average range or considerably above. Some people are so severely affected by autism that they will require complete care all their lives; others will follow a regular high school program, complete a college degree and hold down a professional job. So, you need to know more about your new student.

In an ideal world, you would receive reports and planning assistance before this student crosses your door. Unfortunately, sometimes the paperwork does not arrive before the child and you must plan on your own.

Despite the broadness of the autism spectrum, you can make some assumptions about a student diagnosed with autism. Most people on the spectrum have visual strengths, meaning that they take in information that they see more readily than that which they hear. At the same time, you can also assume that this child will have some degree of auditory processing weakness.

I don't mean that he can't hear. His hearing may be just fine but there is much more to listening than just hearing the words. We take for granted the multiple steps involved in auditory processing - first the message must be heard, and be held in short-term memory long enough for the brain to make sense of the words, and relate them to past learnings. Then the mind must determine how to respond to what was heard. While this happens in a split second for most people, for those with auditory processing difficulties, the steps are often not instantaneous.

This ability to process what is heard becomes harder when there is background noise. Classrooms are not silent places. There is movement. We encourage students to discuss and confer.

Because of these difficulties with auditory processing, visuals are a wonderful tool. How often have you given verbal instructions only to have not one but two or three students ask what they are to do? (Children with autism are not the only ones who can experience auditory processing weaknesses).

What are visuals? Nothing complicated, nothing you haven't seen. Visuals are likely the biggest bang for your buck in terms of the amount work you need to put in compared to the benefits for your students and for you.

Although many students in a room will have internalized the classroom routines and schedules within the first month, this is not true for all children, especially those who may have an autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities, fetal alcohol disorder or attentional issues. For these kids, a visual schedule is crucial - a schedule that lets them see what their day will look like. For some kids a schedule posted clearly on the wall will suffice; for others, that is too far away. Their eyes will become distracted by competing sights and they will do better with a smaller version of that schedule posted on their desk or inside a notebook.

A child with an autism spectrum disorder has strengths as well as challenges. While it can also be challenging to be his teacher, there are rewards as you watch your student grow academically and socially. Once you understand how your student perceives the world, you will be one of his best allies.

Dr. Sharon A. Mitchell has worked as teacher, counselor, psychologist and consultant for several decades. She has a Masters in Educational Leadership and a Ph.D. in Psychology Management, focusing on autism spectrum disorders and helping kids to reach as high a level of independence as possible. Her novel, School Daze - Autism Goes to School is an Amazon bestseller and currently available for free at

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