Thinking back on my experience as a teacher in a Texas charter school, I cringe at the lack of knowledge I had about autism. It wasn’t covered in my certification program, it was never brought up during our professional development meetings, and I never knew a single person who identified as autistic.
Now that I have more knowledge about autism, it’s hard to think about my time as an educator without feeling immense guilt. While I was constantly praised for being a great teacher, the truth is that I should have done so much more to support students who were on the spectrum.
Looking back, I wish I had done my own research about neurodiversity. I wish I had sought out autistic adults and learned what helped them or hurt them when they were in school. I wish I had scheduled more meetings with my autistic students and their parents to learn about their needs. And I wish I had NOT enforced school rules that were both pointless and ableist.
Overall, I wish I had known more about how to support my students with autism because it was my responsibility as a teacher to do so.
My hope is that you learn from my mistakes and do better for your students.
Here are six ways to support the autistic students in your classroom:
1. Follow Their IEP or 504 Plan
Take a deep dive into the IEPs or 504 plans of your students (if they have them) and really internalize them:
What challenges do they face? What accommodations or modifications are they required to receive? What training or support do you need in order to meet their needs?
If you are confused or overwhelmed by what is required, try seeking out a veteran teacher or administrator for advice. Teachers are required by law to follow IEPs, so it’s essential that you know how to do so.
Even though I hardly knew anything about autism back then, I’m thankful that I knew how to provide accommodations and modifications for students with an IEP or 504 plan.
2. Create Routines
I’m the type of person who LOVES routines, so this is one area that I did well in without even knowing it.
Routines are often important to autistic kids because they help them feel secure and in control of their environment. Not knowing what to expect from day to day can make autistic kids feel stressed and anxious, which can lead to changes in their behavior, focus, and academic achievement.
In addition to being beneficial to kids on the spectrum, routines are also the secret to successful classroom management. I remember being late for class one day and running down the hall to get to my room. There were other adults in the hallway, but none of them knew to step in and cover for me because they couldn’t tell that I wasn’t there. My students, who were infamous for being rowdy in their other classes, came in quietly and began working on their own because of the routines that I had put in place on the first day of school.
If you want to support your autistic students and help your entire class run smoother, create routines for the things that students will do every day. You can create routines for:
- How to enter the room (is talking allowed? Should students immediately go to their seats? What should kids do first?)
- How to distribute handouts
- How to transition to new activities
- How to take notes
- How to do group work
3. Stop Cold-Calling
Let’s be real: Cold-calling is about control and punishment. Teachers use cold-calling to force students to hang on to every word that comes out of their mouths. Teachers punish students for not listening or understanding by calling on and subsequently embarrassing them in front of the entire class if you don’t know an answer. That’s not an acceptable way to treat any student, but it is especially egregious if the student is autistic.
Children with autism often need more time than neurotypical children (children without autism) to process a question and respond with an answer. When you cold-call a student with autism, you unfairly put them on the spot and punish them for how their brains work. This is not okay.
Try warm-calling instead if you would like to encourage an autistic student to participate in class. Discreetly approach them at the beginning of class and let them know that you would like to ask them a question later on during class. If they give you permission to ask them a question, tell them what the question is so that they can have time to process the question and think of an answer.
4. Stop Enforcing Ableist Rules
Ableism is the unjust treatment of people with disabilities. Whether intentional or not, certain school rules punish kids for having autistic traits.
For example, many autistic students have sensory issues that make them extremely sensitive to light and loud sounds. School rules that prohibit them from wearing sunglasses or headphones to protect themselves are unfair and ableist.
Similarly, some autistic students are sensitive to certain textures, which can affect their ability to wear a uniform. In this situation, punishing them for not following the school dress code is wrong because they literally can’t comply because of their sensory issues.
In the classroom, teachers often require students to do things like read aloud or participate in group discussions and projects. Assignments like these are not always suitable for autistic kids who struggle with verbal communication or social interactions. Teachers shouldn’t punish autistic students for choosing not to participate in them.
Autistic kids also stim, which can violate school rules that require students to be still and quiet. Instead of punishing autistic kids for stimming, they should be allowed to stim freely and use stim toys.
When autistic kids are overwhelmed or overstimulated, they may also have meltdowns that seem similar to temper tantrums (they are very different). Again, punishment is NOT the answer. Treat them with kindness and empathy while giving them time and space to calm down.
5. Believe Them
If an autistic student tells you that they need something or can’t do something without specific accommodations, believe them. Even if it doesn’t make sense to you or it isn’t spelled out in their IEP, you still need to believe them. If you need more information about their needs from their parents or doctors first, don’t be afraid to ask.
6. Follow Autistic Adults on Social Media
There is a massive community of autistic adults on Instagram and Twitter who share their experiences under the hashtag #actuallyautistic. Even though I’ve only been following accounts like this one for a short amount of time, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about autism and how to support neurodivergent people.
While information from doctors, therapists, and parents of autistic children may certainly be helpful, learning from autistic people themselves is by far the BEST way to learn about autism.
If you want to support the autistic kids in your classroom, following #actuallyautistic on social media is a must.
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably wishing that you could go back in time with this newfound knowledge about autism and fix all your mistakes. However, moving forward is the best way to support your autistic students. With awareness, empathy, and small changes to your craft, you can completely transform their educational experiences for the better.
Victoria Jones is an educator and the founder of Curriculum & Culture. She is passionate about sharing her love of books with students and inspiring them to develop an authentic love of reading.
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