C.M. Corner: Autism

Travis Chapman

If you have worked in both regular education positions and special education positions, it is not hard to see that behavior looks and is managed very differently.  We hear quite frequently that some people don’t want to work in special education because they don’t know what to do or don’t have any experience in the area.  However, if you are flexible, willing to jump in and you care about the students you’re working with, then there is a lot of value you can add to those positions.  In the next few posts, we are going to look at specific areas of special education to help give some tips when working in these classrooms, starting with one of the most common needs you may interact with, Autism Spectrum Disorder. 
According to Autism Speaks, Autism Spectrum Disorder, most commonly abbreviated as ASD, “refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.”  Within ASD, there are several different factors that may be affected, from speech and communication to specific behaviors.  Some of these students can operate very independently and may be “mainstreamed”, going to regular ed classrooms with or without the support of paraprofessionals.  Some require more specific or intensive care.  Again, as each student will be different in behavior and disposition, however, we have put together some basic tips to help manage behavior. 
Students on the spectrum often times have a difficult time with fixed or prolonged eye-contact.  You may notice that their eyes will wander from place to place.  If this happens, allow it to continue.  While it is a cultural norm to make eye contact as a sign of respect and acknowledgement, these students may not be able to sustain that eye contact.  If we force the students to engage that way, then they are spending their mental energy on focusing their eyes and often are not able to process the information spoken to them. Instead, use verbal cues for acknowledgement, asking them if they understand or to repeat some of the instructions. 
Further, stick to the daily schedule as much as possible.  Typically, students with ASD value structure and schedules.  They may become frustrated or escalate if there are changes to that routine.  One tip that we frequently hear is to write the daily schedule on the board and refer to it often.  This will let the students know what to expect and communicates that you know what their day is like.
Lastly, establish the need to be flexible.  Again, as they value structure, they also value consistency and may have a difficult time transitioning to a new person in their classroom.  In your expectations, whether you are a teacher or paraprofessional, let them know that they may need to be flexible that day and you will work to be flexible too.   But let them know that even though some things may be different, you want to have a great day with them.  Establishing this expectation will help them to process those changes quicker and we can refer to that throughout our time with them.
If you have any questions about working with the students in your classrooms, touch base with the full-time classroom staff, ask them questions and seek their guidance.  They know their students best and we want to help those students succeed and have a great day.  If you are looking for more information on Autism Spectrum Disorder, you can check out www.autismspeaks.org