TIPS FOR TEACHING HIGH-FUNCTIONING
PEOPLE WITH AUTISM
Written by Susan Moreno and Carol O'Neal
Maap Services, Incorporated
People with autism have trouble with organizational
skills, regardless of their intelligence and/or age. Even a "straight
A" student with autism who has a photographic memory can be
incapable of remembering to bring a pencil to class or of remembering
a deadline for an assignment. In such cases, aid should be provided
in the least restrictive way possible. Strategies could include
having the student put a picture of a pencil on the cover of his
notebook or maintaining a list of assignments to be completed at
home. Always praise the student when he remembers something he has
previously forgotten. Never denigrate or "harp" at him
when he fails. A lecture on the subject will not only NOT help,
it will often make the problem worse. He may begin to believe he
can not remember to do or bring these things.
These students seem to have either the neatest
or the messiest desks or lockers in the school. The one with the
messiest desk will need your help in frequent cleanups of the desk
or locker so that he can find things. Simply remember that he is
probably not making a conscious choice to be messy. He is most likely
incapable of this organizational task without specific training.
Attempt to train him in organizational skills using small, specific
autism and abstract skills
People with autism have problems with abstract
and conceptual thinking. Some may eventually acquire abstract skills,
but others never will. When abstract concepts must be used, use
visual cues, such as drawings or written words, to augment the abstract
idea. Be as concrete as possible in all your interactions with these
students. Avoid asking vague questions such as, "Why did you
do that?" Instead, say, "I did not like it when you slammed
your book down when I said it was time for gym. Next time put the
book down gently and tell me you are angry. Were you showing me
that you did not want to go to gym, or that you did not want to
stop reading?" Avoid asking essay-type questions. Be as concrete
as possible in all your interactions with these students.
autism and stress in the classroom
An increase in unusual or difficult behaviors
probably indicates an increase in stress. Sometimes stress is caused
by feeling a loss of control. Many times the stress will only be
alleviated when the student physically removes himself from the
stressful event or situation. If this occurs, a program should be
set up to assist the student in re-entering and/or staying in the
stressful situation. When this occurs, a "safe place"
or "safe person" may come in handy.
Do not take misbehavior personally. The high-functioning
person with autism is not a manipulative, scheming person who is
trying to make life difficult. They are seldom, if ever, capable
of being manipulative. Usually misbehavior is the result of efforts
to survive experiences which may be confusing, disorienting, or
frightening. People with autism are, by virtue of their disability,
egocentric. Most have extreme difficulty reading the reactions of
communication issues and autism
Most high-functioning people with autism use and
interpret speech literally. Until you know the capabilities of the
individual, you should avoid:
idioms (e.g., save your breath, jump the gun,
double meanings (most jokes have double meanings)
sarcasm (e.g., saying, "Great!" after
he has just spilled a bottle of ketchup on the table)
"cute" names (e.g., Pal, Buddy, Wise
Remember that facial expressions and other social
cues may not work. Most individuals with autism have difficulty
reading facial expressions and interpreting "body language."
If the student does not seem to be learning a
task, break it down into smaller steps or present the task in several
ways (e.g., visually, verbally, physically).
Avoid verbal overload. Be clear. Use shorter sentences
if you perceive that the student is not fully understanding you.
Although he probably has no hearing problem and may be paying attention,
he may have difficulty understanding your main point and identifying
Prepare the student for all environmental and/or
changes in routine, such as assembly, substitute teacher, and rescheduling.
Use a written or visual schedule to prepare him for change.
Behavior management works, but if incorrectly
used, it can encourage robot-like behavior, provide only a short
term behavior change, or result in some form of aggression. Use
positive and chronologically age- appropriate behavior procedures.
Consistent treatment and expectations from everyone
sensory issues and autism
Be aware that normal levels of auditory and visual
input can be perceived by the student as too much or too little.
For example, the hum of fluorescent lighting is extremely distracting
for some people with autism. Consider environmental changes such
as removing "visual clutter" from the room or seating
changes if the student seems distracted or upset by his classroom
If your high-functioning student with autism uses
repetitive verbal arguments and/or repetitive verbal questions,
you need to interrupt what can become a continuing, repetitive litany.
Continually responding in a logical manner or arguing back seldom
stops this behavior. The subject of the argument or question is
not always the subject which has upset him. More often the individual
is communicating a feeling of loss of control or uncertainty about
someone or something in the environment.
Try requesting that he write down the question
or argumentative statement. Then write down your reply. This usually
begins to calm him down and stops the repetitive activity. If that
does not work, write down his repetitive question or argument and
ask him to write down a logical reply (perhaps one he thinks you
would make). This distracts from the escalating verbal aspect of
the situation and may give him a more socially acceptable way of
expressing his frustration or anxiety. Another alternative is role-
playing the repetitive argument or question with you taking his
part and having him answer you as he thinks you might.
Since these individuals experience various communication
difficulties, do not rely on students with autism to relay important
messages to their parents about school events, assignments, school
rules, etc. unless you try it on an experimental basis with follow-up,
or unless you are already certain that the student has mastered
this skill. Even sending home a note for his parent may not work.
The student may not remember to deliver the note or may lose it
before reaching home. Phone calls to parents work best until the
skill can be developed. Frequent and accurate communication between
the teacher and parent (or primary care-giver) is very important.
pairing with another student
If your class involves pairing off or choosing
partners, either draw numbers or use some other arbitrary means
of pairing. Or ask an especially kind student if he or she would
agree to choose the individual with autism as a partner before the
pairing takes place. The student with autism is most often the individual
left with no partner. This is unfortunate since these students could
benefit most from having a partner.
uneven skills development
Assume nothing when assessing skills. For example,
the individual with autism may be a "math whiz" in Algebra,
but not be able to make simple change at a cash register. Or, he
may have an incredible memory about books he has read, speeches
he has heard, or sports statistics, but still may not be able to
remember to bring a pencil to class. Uneven skills development is
a hallmark of autism.
For more information, contact: MAAP Services,
Inc., C/O Susan J. Moreno, P.O. Box 524, Crown Point, IN 46308;
Reproduction kindly allowed by
Indiana Resource Center Autism. Visit their site for more useful
Click here for the full range of Asperger's
and autism fact sheets and personal stories at www.autism-help.org