In an effort to provide the least restrictive learning environment for students with special needs, and to provide them with access to the grade level curriculum and to their typically developing peers, more and more of these students are spending at least some of their days in general education classes.
- Use visuals. Many students with special needs, particularly those with autism, have stronger visual processing skills than auditory. Research shows that students with autism predominantly use vision as their strongest processing mode. Use of visual representations to illustrate vocabulary words is a well-known strategy for learning and reinforcing new vocabulary in any student. For students with autism, this use of visual representations can make the difference between understanding and frustration. Use of visual cues for steps of a task, sequences of actions, and listing of story elements are just a few of the possibilities for incorporating visuals into classroom activities. It is legal to make a copy of a book that has been purchased for a student who has difficulty with accessing print. Copying illustrations, timelines, and scientific cycles for students to refer to during discussions or to use on their own can be very helpful.
- While we’re talking about visual cues, we should also remember that students with autism respond best when expectations and requirements are consistent, structured, and – you got it – visually presented. Using First-Then schedules and similar visual representations of expectations can be invaluable. Macro-schedules will organize the larger events in a time period, while micro-schedules organize the smaller steps or activities of a shorter period of time or routine. In addition to improving a student’s understanding of what is happening and expected in the classroom, visual cues also reduce the child’s anxiety level, which can have a negative impact on their learning.
- And to continue on a theme, students with autism are often drawn to visually-oriented materials, such as computers, tablet devices, and other activities that provide visual-spatial orientation and construction components. Maximize these students’ time spent on computer-based learning.
- Look at alternative assignments. For students with autism, working in cooperative groups or creating effective written reports can be very difficult. Provide a way that these students can show what they know using art, role-playing or acting, diorama, or other representations that minimize the use of language. Look for other creative ways for students to demonstrate what they’ve learned that takes the pressure off of their weaknesses and allows them to demonstrate their strengths. I’ve had students with autism who have had a specific area of interest about which they were focused almost to the exclusion of everything else, who were able to use that special interest area to demonstrate research and/or writing skills much more fully than if they had been made to write about any other topic. Think about what the purpose of the activity is and what your learning objectives are, and see if you can find a way for your student to demonstrate their learning in a unique way.
- Adapting educational materials is probably the most time-consuming way to accommodate these students in your classroom but the most successful. Adaptations can, in general, be made to the amount of work/number of items to be completed, the time allowed for completion, the level of difficulty, the level of support, the input and output modalities used, and use of alternate curriculum materials. Changes to input and output modalities for these students often leads us back to the use of visual cues. Using visuals to help students understand and providing visuals through which they can demonstrate comprehension are, again, the strongest changes you can make to instruction for students with autism. For those who are nonverbal, talk to your school speech-language pathologist to make sure that you have access to communication symbols for the topic you are teaching and that the student has access to a functioning augmentative communication system.
- Provide word banks. Recalling words that they know can be difficult, especially under time constraints during classroom activities or tests. By providing word banks from which students find the needed word to answer the question, match to the definition, or complete a writing task, we alleviate that struggle to retrieve the word and allow them to demonstrate knowledge by recognizing it and using it appropriately. And – you guessed it – provide picture symbol word banks for students who need assistance with literacy or decoding skills.
- Reduce the noise of assignments. Keep worksheets or tests well organized, clean, and clear. These are students who can be distracted by cute graphics and totally confused by items that float around the page in random locations.