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According to the Council for Exceptional Children, autism is a “spectrum disorder within a group of developmental disabilities defined by significant impairments in social interaction and communication, and by the presence of unusual behaviors and interests,” such as repetitive and stereotypic patterns of behaviors, interests, and activities. The thinking and learning abilities of people with autism can vary greatly from very gifted to severely challenged. Autism is a complex neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain. It is a spectrum disorder, which means the symptoms can present a variety or combination of symptoms and can range from mild to severe. It is typically diagnosed by a physician or clinical psychologist with expertise in the area. It is diagnosed by the presence or absence of certain behaviors, characteristic symptoms and developmental delays. The onset of symptoms typically occurs before the age of 3 and in many cases lasts throughout a person’s life. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism occurs in 1 out of every 88 children. An increase in the number of children diagnosed each year with autism can be partly explained by improved diagnosis and awareness. It is more common for boys to have autism than girls.

Temple Grandin
Dr. Temple Grandin is one of the world’s foremost authorities on livestock handling designs. She is a prolific author and speaker on autism issues.

When a child is diagnosed with autism, early intervention can help children gain self-care, social, and communication skills. There is no known cure for autism, but students can work to overcome certain setbacks and become more independent. Each child is different and has a set of symptoms regarding autism, therefore each child will need the curriculum and teaching methods tailored to meet their individual needs.

Teaching Students with Autism

Research has shown most individuals with autism have problems with communication, language, social, and cognitive skills. Individuals with this disorder may learn better through the use of visual aids, imitation, and structured environments that offer various sensory inputs and routines. Since most students with autism do better with specific routines, a structured learning environment can make the child feel more secure and open to learning.

Effective Strategies

(Adapted from and other websites)

  • Environmental Considerations: Many students are sensitive to auditory input so workstations should be placed away from excessive auditory stimulation and away from unnecessary movement.
  • Visual Schedules, Aids, and Symbols: Children with autism do better when their schedules are predictable and are given plenty of notice in changes and expectations. This helps make transitions easier when they can see the changes going to take place. Visual aids and symbols can range in complexity from simple and concrete to abstract. Using visual supports better enables students to focus on the message. Uses may include:
    • organize student activity
    • provide directions or instructions to assist students in understanding the organization of the environment, labeling of objects (containers, signs, charts, lists)
    • support appropriate behavior: posted rules and representations to signal steps of routines
    • teach social skills: social stories
    • teach self-control: use pictographs which provide cues for behavior expectations
    • teach functional self-help skills
  • Visual Structures: Marking a student’s work station with tape, for example, can help a student maintain boundaries. This allows students to clearly see what needs to be done, how much work they have, what they need to do to be finished and what’s next. Activities should be designed with strong visual cues so less auditory directions are needed.
  • Visual Communication Supports: The Picture Exchange Communication System ( is an effective strategy for encouraging communication in autistic students. It starts with a teaching a student to exchange a picture of a desired item with another partner such as a teacher, who honors the request. After the student learns how to request specific items, they learn how to construct simple sentences with the pictures. Students can learn to be more specific by using advanced language concepts such as size, shape, color, number, etc… This system can still be used for students with verbal communication skills to have as a backup when they are having trouble expressing their needs and wants.
  • Direct Instruction of Social Skills: Most autistic students need to learn social interaction skills in much the same way as they learn academic skills. They may need direct instruction of how to react in certain social situations. Social stories written about specific social situations, how others may respond, and how the student may respond has proven to be beneficial in helping students with autism learn to react in social interactions. Teachers must target specific skills for explicit instruction and to provide support for using the skills in social situations.
  • Consistency: Students with autism do better when a program is consistent with clear learning goals and expectations. If changes in the schedule are to take place, then letting the student know ahead of time will help make transitions easier.
  • Sensory Opportunities: Many students have sensory needs and may find deep pressure techniques very relaxing. By allowing multiple sensory opportunities throughout the day, a student can stay more focused.
  • Functional Curriculum: Some students with autism need support to become independent in daily life. To help these students function in day-to-day life their curriculum should include daily living skills, community skills, recreation, and employment skills.
  • Take advantage of a student’s strengths and interests: Many students with autism have particular strengths and interests. A teacher can tailor the lessons to fit the interests of the student to increase engagement in the lesson. For example, if a student likes dogs, reading and writing lessons could focus on breeds of dogs, using dogs as service animals, assisting in search and rescue dogs, or in law enforcement.  Information learned through reading could be used in mathematical lessons for graphing, population studies, or even basic arithmetic problems.
  • Task Analysis: Sometimes pre-requisite skills for more complex tasks will need to be taught first.
  • Discrete Trial Teaching: If students are able to handle tasks involving several steps, then teachers can employ small units called trials. Each trial consists of an instruction, prompt, response from student, and a consequence or feedback.
  • Video Modeling: The use of video recording and display equipment to provide a visual model of targeted behavior or skill can be utilized when the need for repetition is likely. If scenarios are recorded on devices accessible to the students, such as iPads or smartphones, students can play the modeling videos whenever they feel the need. Types include basic video modeling, point-of-view video modeling, and video prompting. An example could be an episode of direct social skill instruction as outlined in number four or an academic topic such as showing a video of safety practices in use for the science lab.
  • Keep language simple and concrete: use as few words as possible to get the point across.
  • Give fewer choices: The more choices there are, the more confused a child with autism may become.


Asperger’s Syndrome - Fred Volkmar

Asperger’s Syndrome - Karen Williams

Association of Science in Autism Treatment

Autism Internet Modules

Autism Research Institute

Autism Society of America

Autism Treatment Services of Canada

Centre for the Study of Autism

Child Autism Parent Cafe

Families for Effective Autism Treatment


National Autism Center

National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder

Picture Exchange Communication System

TEACCH - Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children

Temple Grandin

Tony Attwood

Visual Strategies

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