Autism Awareness in the Classroom

I began working with students identified as having Autism Spectrum Disorder as a Teacher of Speech and Language Impaired 46 years ago.  This disorder is as much a mystery today as it was in the 70’s.  Back then the number of children identified with ASD was said to be 1 in 2000.  Today statistics show that approximately 1 in 150 children have this disorder.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder and what is a spectrum disorder?  ASD is a developmental disability that can affect behavioral development and social communication.  As a spectrum disorder it means each child is affected differently and has unique strengths, challenges and needs. It is a lifelong disorder, usually beginning before the age of 3, in which symptoms may improve over time.  Many have speculated on the cause for ASD but there has been no definitive answer.  Speculations for causes include, but are not limited to, genetic factors, use of medications, nutritional deficiencies, age of parents, complications at or shortly after birth, maternal infections and exposure to chemical pollutants.

Signs of social difficulties often include the appearance of disinterest in other people and the environment,  avoiding eye contact, doesn’t like to be touched, rigidity in routines, and lack of sharing.  Speech/Language difficulties include speaking in an abnormal tone (flat) or pitch, repetition of words or phrases (echolalia), difficulty understanding simple directions and difficulty expressing wants and needs.  Common restrictive and repetitive behaviors include hand flapping, rocking, spinning in a circle, head banging, snapping fingers, scratching, lining up toys, and fear of loud noises amongst many other signs.

Here are a few techniques that have been successful in teaching children with Autism:

  • Begin teaching language with nouns which are the easiest words to learn.  
  • Action words should be demonstrated.
  • Avoid long strings of verbal instructions. 
  • Encourage drawing, art and computer programming. 
  • The best way to deal with fixations is to use them to motivate school work.
  • Use concrete visual methods to teach number concepts.
  • Children with lots of echolalia will often learn best if flash cards and picture books are used so that the whole words are associated with pictures. It is important to have the picture and the printed word on the same side of the card.
  • Hyperactive autistic children who fidget all the time will often be calmer if they are given a padded weighted vest to wear.
  • Children with autism need to be protected from sounds that hurt their ears such as school bells, PA systems, and the sound of chairs scraping on the floor.

Since my arrival at Cornerstone 6 years ago the number of ASD eligible students has gone from 0 to18 students as enrollment increased.  The severity of the disabilities vary.  As a child friendly school we will continue to be child-focused and child-centered.  We will continue to promote inclusion and help children learn what they need to learn, while teaching them how to learn.  We will continue to help them reach their fullest potential in a clean and safe environment.

For  more information on Autism Spectrum Disorder contact the Autism Society of Michigan

Kathy Johnson, Board President at 2178 Commons Parkway, Okemos, MI 48864 or call l517-882-2800 or 800-223-6722.

Ernestine Saunders
Ernestine Saunders
Ernestine is the Director of Specialized Student Services at Cornerstone Schools.  She has worked as a Teacher of Speech and Language Impaired and Assistant Principal.  She retired as a Principal and again as the Head Start Supervisor for Special Education Services for DPS/DHS.  Her focus is on student inclusion.