It can be said that when you’ve met an Autistic person, you’ve done simply that—met one individual with Autism. As a speech-language pathologist or other type of school-based therapist job working with both verbal and non-verbal students, you know that every child is different. Their interests, abilities, stress levels and learning styles vary across a very wide spectrum. By the same token, each of your students possesses the inherent desire to be understood, connect and be accepted.
When it comes to unlocking what works for the individuals you serve, there are many strategies that help ease communication, learning and behavioral issues. What works for some, may not work for others. But the time and patience you put in working to discover the keys to harnessing potential are never wasted—even if results take years to become apparent. To help you along your journey, here are some tried and true strategies for SLPs and pediatric therapists working in classroom and clinical settings.
- Don’t talk too much
Long strings of verbal instructions are hard for Autistic children to grasp. Keep them simple. Avoid lengthy verbal directions and break tasks and instructions into clearly defined steps. Wait for the child to complete the first step before moving on to the next one. For those who can read, it is most helpful to clearly write down what needs to be accomplished. Explaining a sequence with pictures that can be mimicked may also be helpful for students who cannot read.
- Capitalize on Strong Interests
For students who simply cannot get enough of one subject—trains, maps, dinosaurs, etc.—their favorite theme can be a great motivator. If you have a client who loves dinosaurs, read a book about dinosaurs and do math problems with dinosaurs. If you have students who love bugs, you can incorporate bugs into your lesson plan or therapy session. In addition to learning and attention, using a favorite subject is a great way to encourage acceptance of new sensory experiences. Searching for bugs outside just might be the perfect reason to explore previously avoided textures like grass, sand or water.
- Tap into Technology
These days, neat handwriting doesn’t have to count! If motor control presents a struggle for children in your group, allow them to type when possible. It sounds simple, but it’s a great way to increase enjoyment for writing while reducing frustration. Some Autistic students prefer to communicate through written or typed language instead of verbal. Embrace technology when possible—including television, CDs, and computers. Software programs, such as Mayer-Johnson’s Boardmaker, are great to incorporate as well!
- Be Sensitive About Sound
Loud sounds can be jarring and downright painful to some with Autism. Common offenders are school bells, PA systems, scoreboard buzzers and chairs scraping on the floor. Whenever possible, try muffling bells and buzzers by stuffing them with tissue or duct tape. If carpet is not an option, you can place slit tennis balls on the ends of chair legs to silence them. If one of your students regularly covers his or her ears or refuses to enter a room, there may be a sound he or she is afraid of. Once you’re able to determine what’s bothering the child, you may try recording the sound on a tape. With control over playback, children can work at becoming desensitized to the bothersome noise.
- Dim Distractions
Many Autistic people are bothered by visual distractions such as fluorescent lights. With this in mind, it’s best to place desks near the window or simply use natural light whenever possible. There’s a good chance your students can see the flicker of the 60-cycle electricity. So, get the newest bulbs you can for your classroom or healthcare setting. They flicker less. You can also reduce the flickering of fluorescent lights by putting a lamp with an old-fashioned incandescent light bulb next to the child’s desk.
- Keep it Concrete
Children with autism can have difficulty understanding figurative language, so avoid it when possible. Stick to concrete terms and make your expectations simple and clear. And as always, reinforce ideas with pictures or modeling when appropriate.
- Revel in Routine
Sticking to a routine while providing school-based therapy promotes security—something essential to facilitate learning and reduce stress. Even the slightest schedule disruption can cause regression or tantrums. Daily planners with photos and other visual aids are essential tools for many teachers. Collaborate with parents to see what can be borrowed from successful home strategies. And remember to prepare children in advance for changes to the schedule.
- Model It
Modeling is one of the most effective tools you can use to improve socialization. Reading and processing social cues is challenging, so your students are relying on you to teach them how to act and respond in social situations. If you’re hoping to teach members of your class to shake hands following an introduction, you must shake hands in front of them when meeting new people. Remember to alert children to the behavior as you do it, so that they can become clued in.
- Share Success to Encourage More
When you establish effective strategies, share those ideas with others who play a role in the child’s life. While some tips are well suited for the classroom and others are more effective when used at home, remember that much of what works can be adapted for use in any setting. When parents, teachers, and therapists work together, everyone benefits.
- Don’t give up!
On days when it seems that nothing is working, remember that tomorrow is another day to try something new. In a world where your clients and students may be overlooked, you are there to help them break through barriers and enact progress.
And as always…please share what has worked for you.
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