Teaching Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the General Education Classroom

What most people think of as Autism is not really one condition. Two children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may exhibit different symptoms, and require unique accommodations in the general education classroom. Even for experienced teachers, teaching students with ASDs can be a monumental challenge. 

The goal of this article is to introduce new teachers to ASDs, and describe best practices in working with these students and their parents. 

ASDs: A Brief Introduction

ASDs are a series of neurological disorders that first appear in early childhood. Some of the symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Lack of social interaction
  • Limited verbal skills
  • Self-injurious behaviors
  • Enhanced sensitivity to loud noises or bright light

If a student with an ASD is in the general education classroom, it is likely that he or she has High Functioning Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. Until recently, Asperger’s Syndrome was considered to be a separate disorder. Neurologists and Developmental Psychologists now understand that Asperger’s Syndrome is now part of the Autism spectrum. In addition to the symptoms associated with ASDs, some of the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome include, but are not limited to:

  • Intense interest in (and encyclopedic-level knowledge about) a single subject
  • Clumsiness
  • Atypical speech patterns (Yet language development happens normally compared to other ASDs.)

ASDs are often comorbid with other neurological conditions. However, ASDs rarely affect the physical development or health of developing children. Even so, as difficulty to communicate affects many children with ASDs, teachers should be aware that if a student with an ASD is in physical pain, he or she may have difficulty verbalizing what is wrong.   

In the Classroom: Instruction

If a student has an ASD, it is likely that he or she has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504. Reading the student’s IEP/504, a teacher should pay close attention to the following information:

  • Medical notes
    • Check for comorbid conditions
  • Accommodations to instruction and assessment
  • Academic goals

In my experience, consistently applying accommodations is the most important part of working with a student with an ASD. Many students with ASDs learn best when there are no changes or surprises in their routines. Even small, unintentional changes can have a big impact on their ability to learn.

As many symptoms of ASDs are visible to other students, you may receive questions or comments about what is ‘wrong’ with the student with an ASD. If this should happen, simply say that you cannot say anything (legally, you cannot). What you can say is if he or she wants to better understand the student with an ASD, maybe making friends would be a good idea.

In the Classroom: Assessment

When it comes to assessing students with ASDs, your first stop for guidance is once again the IEP/504. About a week before your assessment, check to see if the IEP/504 contains any of the following accommodations:

  • Small-group testing
  • Private testing

If these accommodations are present, make sure to contact your school’s special education teacher to request assistance in small-group or private testing.  

In fact, it is always good to keep the special education teacher in the loop about your students with ASDs, even if these students do not spend any time in a special education setting. The first reason is that special education teachers have a wealth of knowledge about ASDs. They can give sound advice when the need arises. Also, be sure to save the emails between you and the special education teacher. These communications are a valuable tool in IEP meetings; you can show parents the extra work you have put in to helping their child learn.

Working with Parents

In my experience, parents of children with an ASD are some of the most involved parents a teacher will ever encounter. On one hand, these parents are likely to volunteer their time or resources to help teachers improve their classroom environment. On the other hand, these parents are just as likely to micromanage a teacher’s classroom. In some cases, a teacher can feel that making even the smallest slip up will lead to an official reprimand (or worse).

The best remedy against agitated parents is following their child’s IEP/504 to the letter. If you should make a mistake (and you will), let the parents know what happened right away and discuss your plan to fix the problem.

Even if you have no conflicts with parents of students with ASDs, it always helps to invite their input. For example, ask them to visit your classroom so they can offer suggestions about how to make a better learning environment for their child. Doing this will help build a positive rapport and sense of trust.

Final Thoughts

Teaching students with ASDs in the general education classroom is an involved, sometimes stressful process. Even so, it is the teacher’s responsibility to help every student reach his or her academic potential. If you follow the IEP/504, use your school’s special education teacher as a guide, and establish a positive relationship with parents, you are sure to succeed.

Thomas Broderick lives in Northern California. After teaching at an alternative high school for four years, he now works full-time as a freelance writer in the educational field.

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