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Strategies to Support Students with Autism

New lunchboxes, clean tennis shoes, and crayons that are still pointy – these are the things that so many families are thinking about as they head back to school. However, for a parent of a student with autism, the experience may be vastly different.

Instead of being consumed with thoughts of back-to-school shopping and preparing the most amazing Bento box that has ever been pinned on Pinterest, your thoughts may sound more like this:

Will my son tolerate the noise in the cafeteria?

What if my daughter is bullied on the playground?

Will my child have an adult help them transition from the bus to the classroom?

How will the teacher handle 22 other children while still meeting my child’s needs?


School Strategies

Here are a few basic strategies that educators can use to optimize their students’ success. Parents, please consider sharing these ideas with your children’s teachers or asking that they be incorporated into your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Get to know your student!

In addition to reviewing the IEP, behavior support plan, 504 Plan, or other relevant documents, try to find time to communicate with those closest to the student: parents, previous educators, behavior analysts, and paraprofessionals, etc. More often than not, they can provide the most useful information. More importantly, carefully observe the student. Familiarize yourself with their likes and dislikes, take note of nonverbal cues that may indicate their needs, and allow them to get to know you in return.

Provide opportunities for breaks.

Provide ample opportunities for an individual with autism to take a break. Depending on the student, they may need a movement break, or alternatively, a quiet break to regroup. First, identify locations where the student can take breaks. Perhaps you have a quiet corner of the classroom where the child can sit on a beanbag and use headphones. Maybe they can go to the OT room or special education room as needed for some quiet time. If a movement break is needed, the student could take supervised walks around the hallway, be allowed to stand or walk about in the back of the room, sit on a physioball during instruction, bounce their legs on a therapy band tied to the legs of their chair, or fidget with fine-motor toys such as stress balls or putty.

Use visual supports.

Visual supports can take many forms. Some of the most common visual supports used in school include a daily schedule, a calendar, a list of rules and expectations, behavior charts, hand signals from the teacher, tape on the floor indicating where to line up before transitions, graphic organizers, alphabet strips, and number lines. While these supports are useful for all learners, they may need to be modified to meet the needs of an individual with autism. For example, the student may require a daily schedule made of pictures rather than words, or have a list of rules that reflect their own individualized behavior expectations.

Plan with the student’s strengths in mind.

The school routines of students with autism can vary significantly depending on their individual needs. When designing the student’s daily schedule, consider their strengths and weaknesses before making any decisions. For example, if the student demonstrates a strength in structured, predictable lessons, but engages in challenging behavior during unstructured activities, you may consider scheduling inclusion opportunities during math or reading blocks rather than during recess or physical education. Or, if the student communicates a dislike for a particular activity, you might consider only requiring them to attend for a short amount of time.

Aid transitions.

Any effective teacher keeps a close eye on the clock throughout the school day. However, if there is a student with autism in your class, you might want to begin preparing for transitions a bit earlier than usual. Provide verbal warnings leading up to the end of an activity, for example at 10 minutes, 5 minutes, 2 minutes, etc. Purchase a visual timer for the classroom. Communicate a concrete end to an activity, for example: “First we’ll do 10 math problems, and then lunch.” If transitioning between environments during loud, busy periods such as lunch or dismissal causes your student to escalate, allow them to transition before or after everyone else to lessen the likelihood of challenging behavior.

Preferential seating

Be thoughtful about where to seat the student. This may be a process of trial and error. Is the student highly distractible? Seat them facing away from the window, or away from the door where they may be distracted by other students walking by. Does your student need frequent movement breaks or exhibit challenging behavior? Seat them where the door is easily accessible. Is your student independent in such a way that they do not require 1:1 support? Seat them close to the teacher for quick and easy redirection.

Collaborate! Collaborate! Collaborate!

Collaboration and communication are key! Try to meet regularly with your colleagues and the student’s family to share observations and ideas, discuss challenges, and make sure everyone is on the same page. Create a system of communicating with the family; this may take the form of a brief phone call, email, or a daily log that travels to and from school.

Though returning to school can be stressful, the good news is that with a little planning and thoughtfulness, a successful transition can be achieved!

For more tips to help your child succeed in school, please see our website.


Amanda Stred, M.S.Ed., BCBA, is a member of ASNC’s Clinical Department in the Wilmington Region and can be reached at astred@autismsociety-nc.org.

ASNC’s Clinical Department staff is composed of PhD and master’s-level licensed psychologists, Board Certified Behavior Analysts, and former special education teachers. We provide individualized intensive consultation using evidence-based practices to support children and adults across the spectrum in home, school, employment, residential and other community-based contexts. We also deliver workshops to professionals on a wide range of topics including but not limited to, strategies to prevent and respond to challenging behaviors, best practices in early intervention, functional communication training, and evidence-based practices in instruction for K-12 students with autism.

To find out more, contact us at 919-390-7242 or clinical@autismsociety-nc.org.

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