As autism spectrum disorders (ASD) receive more attention during Autism Awareness Month, it’s a great time to help your school staff learn more about ASD. While many classroom teachers and paraeducators may be aware of whether a particular student has been diagnosed with ASD, they may be less aware of how the student’s learning is affected or what instructional strategies are most effective.
ASD manifests differently in each child, but it is beneficial for educators to understand some of the characteristic differences in cognition, sensory processing, and communication styles of students with ASD.
Some characteristics that affect learning for students with ASD include:
“Single-Pointed” Attention Style – No matter the level of their intellectual ability, students with ASD naturally focus on one thing at a time. This narrow focus can make it difficult for students to multi-task, to generalize what they’ve learned, and to understand different perspectives.
Sensory Processing – Everyday noises and social demands can easily become overwhelming. Dealing with sensory input can require a tremendous amount of energy, not leaving much for new learning in the classroom or for making sense of social interactions. The use of written or visual schedules, checklists, and other ways to organize thinking can help students prepare for and manage changes throughout the day.
Central Coherence and Executive Functioning – Keen attention to detail and single-focus make it challenging for students with ASD to easily see the “big picture” or to understand more abstract concepts. Students may also have difficulty in the area of executive functioning, which often shows up as a lack of organizational skills. Organizational systems such as calendars and checklists are important, as well as tools that support organization of thinking, such as graphic organizers and outlines.
Communication Style – Students with ASD rely specifically and literally on the words they hear and read. Precision, accuracy, and clarity of language are necessary. Ambiguity and implied or hidden meanings can create confusion and misunderstanding, while heightening anxiety. Written explanations paired with visual information can help.
Social Behavior – Mainstream expected social behavior can be elusive and challenging for student with ASD. Strategies such as Social Stories™ can help students develop self-knowledge. It is also important to educate faculty, staff, and classmates about differences among their peers and to teach tolerance and acceptance.