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Home Blog Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders: Insights for Educators and Interventionists

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders: Insights for Educators and Interventionists

July 5, 2024

Contributing Author: Alley Bardon

9 mins read

According to data from Autism Speaks, approximately 1 in 36 children in the United States have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a condition that can affect how a person communicates, learns, and interacts with others. Fortunately, with early diagnosis and intervention, many people with ASD can go on to lead relatively independent and normal lives—with an estimated 73.6% of autistic high school students graduating with a diploma. 

If you're in education and looking to better serve students with autism and sensory impairments, it may be time to further your education with a master's degree in early intervention. In this kind of comprehensive and specialized program, you can build the foundational skills and knowledge needed to work with special needs students. 

Defining Autism Spectrum Disorders

To better understand the autism spectrum disorder educational strategies that are most effective for special needs students, it is key to first understand what ASD entails and how it falls on a wide spectrum. 

Definition and Diagnostic Criteria

WebMD defines autism spectrum disorder as "a complicated, lifelong condition that includes problems with communication and behavior." Symptoms of ASD often, though not always, emerge at an early age (usually by age two or three) and may include: 

  • A lack of eye contact 
  • Repetitive actions or phrases 
  • Sensitivity to sounds and other stimuli 
  • Difficulty adapting to changes in routine 

Understanding the Spectrum: Range of Symptoms and Characteristics Associated With ASD

It is also crucial to understand that autism falls on a spectrum, which means that not all people who have it will have the same severity of symptoms. Some people with ASD may show very few outward symptoms, performing well in school and living with a high level of independence. Others, alternatively, may struggle in school and need more assistance. Because ASD is a spectrum disorder, it affects everybody a little differently. 

Impact of ASD on Learning and Development

ASD can have significant impacts on a person's ability to learn, communicate, and develop normally. Many of these struggles manifest the most clearly in an educational setting, which is why so many children with ASD are diagnosed when they first start school. 

Effect on Learning, Communication, Social Skills, and Behavior in Educational Settings

People with ASD often have a tough time learning in a "traditional" classroom setting. Depending on the severity of their symptoms, they may struggle with processing information and following instructions from teachers. In many cases, people with ASD also have trouble communicating and developing general language skills. As a result, they may find it more difficult to make friends and build meaningful relationships with their peers. 

In addition, behavioral problems are common among people with ASD. They may struggle with aggression toward others and even self-injurious activity, which can create additional challenges in a school setting. 

Strengths and Challenges of Individuals With ASD

Despite the various challenges students with ASD can face, they also possess several unique strengths that, when cultivated by educators, can set them up for greater success in school and life. Some examples of common strengths those with ASD may possess include: 

  • Visual sensitivity and attention to detail 
  • Ability to perceive colors with greater intensity 
  • Acute hearing and auditory capacity 
  • Powerful memory 
  • Excellent problem-solving and decision-making skills 
  • Pattern recognition 

While not every person with ASD will have these so-called "super-strengths," educators are encouraged to familiarize themselves with these and find ways to foster them in the classroom. 

Effective Strategies for Supporting Individuals With ASD

So, what can educators do to create more inclusive and supportive learning environments for students with ASD? There are several evidence-based practices, interventions, and practical strategies worth keeping in mind. 

Evidence-Based Practices and Interventions in Educational Settings

Some examples of evidence-based interventions (EBIs) that educators can apply in their classrooms may include: 

  • Applied behavior analysis 
  • Technology-aided instruction and intervention 
  • Augmentative and alternative communication 
  • Occupational and speech therapy 

Ultimately, no single intervention will be a universal solution for students struggling with ASD in the classroom; instead, educators need to assess and understand the unique needs and challenges of each student to determine the proper autism spectrum disorder education interventions. 

Practical Strategies for Creating Inclusive Classrooms

Creating inclusive classrooms for students with ASD is critical to helping them feel a sense of belonging and thus have a better chance at succeeding. There are many small steps educators can take to make a major impact on the classroom experience for ASD students, such as: 

  • Following a clear and consistent routine 
  • Offering tools to support different learning styles (such as noise-canceling headphones) 
  • Giving plenty of notice ahead of any changes in the classroom 
  • Avoiding sensory overload 
  • Building regular breaks into the classroom schedule 
  • Fostering collaboration and understanding among all students

Promoting Social-Emotional Learning for Students on the Spectrum

Educators also face the essential task of promoting social-emotional learning for students with ASD. There are numerous ways teachers can go about helping ASD students build upon social-emotional learning skills, such as by teaching self-awareness and sound decision-making. Taking the time to model common social interactions in the classroom can be effective as well. 

Building Positive Relationships and Communication

Because people with ASD often struggle with reading social cues and understanding the emotions of others, they may have a tough time building relationships. This is where educators can really go out of their way to promote healthy relationships not just with ASD students, but also with their families. 

Importance of Positive Relationships with Those with ASD and Their Families

When educators establish positive relationships with ASD students and their families, it is possible to create a support network that can be highly beneficial to the student. This can be done by keeping the lines of communication open, providing feedback, and being responsive to feedback from families as well. 

Effective Communication Strategies

What are some of the most useful strategies educators can use when communicating with ASD students? Some examples include: 

  • Teaching with visual aids to support a wide range of learning styles 
  • Utilizing social stories (or narrative examples of social norms and situations) to help ASD students better understand and connect with social cues 
  • Following structured routines to keep students focused and on-task 

Understanding Sensory Sensitivities

Many individuals with ASD suffer from sensory sensitivities that may range from mild to severe—and from auditory to visual sensitivities. 

Sensitivities Commonly Experienced by Individuals With ASD

People with autism typically have sensitivities to external factors like sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and touch. Stimuli that may seem perfectly "normal" to a neurotypical person may be extremely overwhelming or upsetting to somebody with ASD, which is why educators need to be aware of students' sensitivities and find ways to accommodate them when possible. 

Strategies for Accommodating Sensory Needs in Educational Settings

The good news? There are plenty of slight changes educators can make to accommodate those with special sensory needs, such as: 

  • Providing noise-canceling headphones or earbuds during times of higher classroom noise levels 
  • Avoiding the use of bright lighting (like fluorescent lights) in the classroom 
  • Providing quiet spaces or "calm down" areas where students can remove themselves from overwhelming situations 
  • Incorporating sensory aids, such as fidget toys, where appropriate 

Promoting Inclusion and Acceptance

Even as awareness of ASD evolves, there is still no overstating the importance of promoting inclusion and acceptance of those with ASD in school communities. In many ways, educators have an obligation to create inclusive and supportive classrooms for special needs students. 

Strategies for Fostering Empathy, Understanding, and Peer Support Among Students

Taking the time to educate students on ASD and its symptoms can make all the difference in building a better sense of empathy and understanding among student populations. All too often, neurotypical students fail to empathize with special needs students simply due to a lack of understanding. With the proper education, ASD students can be celebrated, included, and supported among their peers. 

Supporting Transitions and Independence

Because people with ASD tend to be very routine-oriented, transitioning to new phases of life or adjusting to changes can be challenging. This is especially true when it comes to making transitions between grade levels or from school to a post-secondary institution or employment. 

This is where the efforts of educators can really shine, especially when ASD students receive the support and guidance they need to advocate for themselves and find their own sense of independence. 

Ways to Promote Independence and Self-Advocacy Skills

Educators can help to promote independence and self-advocacy skills in ASD students using such methods and tools as: 

  • To-do lists and visual schedules 
  • Hands-on instruction 
  • Strengthening communication 
  • Teaching basic community safety skills 
  • Exploring vocational interests 

Addressing Challenging Behaviors

Educators working with special needs students must also be prepared to handle challenging behaviors in their classrooms. This can be easier done when you understand the underlying reasons for some of these behaviors in ASD students, along with the best support and de-escalation strategies to leverage. 

Common Challenging Behaviors Exhibited and Underlying Causes

ASD students may exhibit numerous challenging, yet common behaviors in the classroom, such as: 

  • Fidgeting or stimming 
  • Not listening to directions 
  • Repeating words or phrases 
  • Aggression or self-injurious actions 

It is important for educators to understand that all these behaviors stem from issues like sensory sensitivities, a lack of social skills, and attempts to process information. They are not a reflection of a student's intent to disrupt the class. 

Positive Behavior Support Strategies and De-Escalation Techniques

With this understanding in place, educators can find effective ways to de-escalate unwanted behaviors in the classroom, while providing much-needed support to students with ASD. 

Taking the time to reinforce positive behavior can go a long way with ASD students, which may in turn encourage them to engage more in positive behaviors than challenging behaviors. Meanwhile, educators are encouraged to set realistic expectations for ASD students in the classroom while providing choices to struggling students whenever possible. 

Staying in regular contact with ASD students' families and support systems about classroom behaviors is also critical. Oftentimes, parents or guardians may offer helpful suggestions to mitigate unwanted behaviors in a classroom setting. 

Elevate Your Education with an Advanced Degree

Even though our understanding of ASD has grown significantly over the past few decades, there is still much work to be done regarding autism spectrum disorder and education. The work now falls on educators (and future educators) to truly support these students in the way they deserve. 

If you're interested in learning more about working with ASD students, it may be time to explore Lindenwood University Online's master's in early intervention in autism and sensory impairments program. This degree program is offered 100% online and designed to be completed in as little as 24 months. Get in touch to learn more or start your online application today.  

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