Academic supports are never one-size-fits all. Teachers can best support autistic students when they have a range of strategies to choose from. As a general principle, interventions that provide predictability, support, and empowerment, while also reducing anxiety and building on strengths, are effective. When applied in the classroom, such interventions enable autistic students to best demonstrate what they know. These eight strategies put this principle into practice. For teachers who will be working with autistic students this fall, read on to learn more about these approaches and find a handy infographic to use as a guide!
Priming is a method of preparing autistic students for an activity that they will be expected to complete by allowing them to preview the activity beforehand. Priming sets the student up for success by providing them predictability, which also reduces anxiety. During priming, the student previews the materials that will be used in an upcoming activity, such as a worksheet, outline for a project, or schedule of events that will occur. Priming is not a time for teaching or reviewing the content of an activity or having the student actually complete the activity. Priming should occur in short, concise time periods in an environment that is relaxing for the autistic student, and it should be led by a person who is patient and supportive. When priming is effective, it reduces barriers for the student and enables them to fully engage in the activity when the time comes.
2. Making accommodations and modifications
Many autistic students require assignment accommodations and modifications in order to be successful at school. Modifying assignments can be accomplished easily without drawing undue attention to the student. The particular modifications may differ based on individual students’ strengths and needs, but some examples of modifications include:
- Reformatting assignments to distinguish relevant details from irrelevant details
- Grouping like questions together on quizzes and tests
- Allowing additional time for the student to complete tasks
- Allowing the student to use alternative methods to demonstrate understanding (oral vs. written report, creating a pamphlet or PowerPoint presentation, etc.)
- Shortening tasks or reducing the number of tasks the student is expected to complete
- Outlining precisely what information the student is expected to learn from reading
- Providing graphic organizers and concrete strategies for assignments
- Giving the student a model to follow of what is expected on assignments
- Providing pre-highlighted texts and/or study guides
- Identifying the information that the student will be responsible for on upcoming tests
- Sharing a model of what is expected on assignments or a list of grading criteria
Modifications and accommodations like these do not excuse the autistic student from completing their work or diminish the academic rigor. Rather, they are designed to give the student access to the content and/or skill at the center of the assignments.
3. Visual supports
Visual supports help autistic students focus on the task at hand by providing clarity, supporting focus, and providing predictability. Some visual supports include image-based information. Other visual supports provide written versions of information that is otherwise either implied or conveyed through speech only. Depending on the type of support, visual supports can help autistic students understand “hidden” school rules and expectations as well as supporting those who experience challenges with auditory processing or executive function. Using additional visual strategies, such as color-coding, can help make the information even more clear. Some examples of visual supports include:
- Map of school outlining the student’s classes
- List of classes, room numbers, books, and other supplies needed
- List of teacher’s expectations and routines for each class
- Schedule of activities within the class
- Sample models of assignments, with important requirements demarcated
- List of test reminders
- List of schedule changes
- List of homework assignments
4. Home base
A home base is a place where an autistic student can go to plan or review daily events, regain control and calm after a meltdown, and/or escape the stress of the current environment. It can be located at home or at school. It is important that the student perceives home base as a positive and reassuring environment. For some students, it may be necessary to schedule the use of home base as a regular part of the day. For example, at the beginning of the day, home base can serve to preview the day’s schedule, introduce and get familiar with changes in the typical routine, ensure that materials are organized, or prime the student for specific subjects. Home base is also effective when scheduled after a particularly stressful activity or task. Home base may contain items determined to help facilitate self-calming, such as a bean bag chair, weighted blanket or vest, or mini-trampoline. Home base is never to be used as a punishment, a timeout, or an escape from tasks and activities.
5. Handwriting modifications
Fine motor skills, such as handwriting, are a challenge for many autistic people. Teachers must take this into consideration and make appropriate accommodations for autistic students. Examples of accommodations include:
- Asking a student to only write key words in response to a question, rather than complete sentences. (Some autistic students may not respond well to this accommodation, as it breaks grammatical rules.)
- Modifying assignments and tests to incorporate multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, matching, and/or short-answer questions, rather than essay questions
- Letting the student underline or highlight answers to questions within a reading passage, rather than having to write out the answers
- Allowing the student to use a computer or smart device to type information, rather than writing it by hand
- Permitting the student to verbally express information and tape record it, rather than writing it by hand
- Allowing the student to state information to a scribe, such as a peer, aide, etc.
- Supplying the student with a teacher-made outline of main ideas and key points from readings and/or presentations
Choice-making is a strategy in which small choices and decisions are embedded into daily routines and activities. This strategy allows autistic students to have some control over events in their life. While this is important for everyone, it can be particularly beneficial for autistic students because it provides predictability and agency. Many opportunities are available throughout the day to give autistic students choices. Choice-making does not mean that a student gets to decide if they want to complete an assignment. Rather, it gives student control over other aspects of the learning process. For example, the student could choose what color pen or pencil to use when completing the assignment. However, when providing choices, it is important to keep the individual student in mind. Sometimes, students who usually have the ability to make choices cannot do so under stressful situations or if the choices are not appealing to them. In these cases, offering choices could inadvertently increase stress instead of benefiting the student.
7. Incorporation of special interests
Many autistic individuals have specific topics or subject areas that they are particularly interested in. Autistic students tend to enjoy learning more about their special interests and are motivated by them. Incorporating these special interests into the autistic student’s curriculum is one way of making tasks interesting when they may initially seem overwhelming or meaningless. Of course, based on the curriculum, it is not always possible for teachers to incorporate a student’s special interest in this way. But when it is possible and when it can facilitate a student’s ability to learn a new concept, teachers can consider opportunities to incorporate this strategy into a lesson or activity.
8. Homework considerations
Homework may present major concerns to autistic students. For example:
- Homework often requires handwriting, which can be cognitively and physically challenging for autistic students.
- Many autistic students have to work hard to remain emotionally composed throughout the school day and, therefore, arrive home exhausted. These students may need their afternoons and evenings to relax and recharge without additional demands.
- Autistic students may have additional activities in the afternoons or evenings, such as attending social skills groups.
As a result, homework should be considered on an individual basis for each student, and any decision should incorporate the student, school team and additional service providers, and parents. Teachers can consider whether homework should be assigned, completed during a designated time during the school day, waived, and/or modified. Teachers should also consider how they can make assignments more accessible for the autistic student.
These strategies are adapted from An Educator’s Guide to ASD (Level 1 Supports). This guide and other guides for educators may be downloaded for free from our Resources page. Educators may also order up to two physical copies of each guidebook for free from our Store.