How To Help Autistic Students Focus At School

by | Nov 12, 2019

These ideas are brought to you by your everyday teacher. I am grateful to have worked with such knowledgeable and compassionate educators. They have taught me a lot over the 30 years. I’ve had the fun of working in schools as an occupational and physical therapist. Hope the following ideas help:

  1. If your student with autism is acting irrationally –

Observe your student like a detective would and see if there are patterns to her or his actions.  Some things may seem to trigger negative behaviors and other things seem to trigger positive, calm and coherent behaviors.  Don’t be surprised to discover that a child’s odd behavior is actually the child attempting to calm themselves.  Some unique learners on the autism spectrum need to flap their hands or spin their body to calm themselves. Try not to assume that it is always due to bad behavior.

  1. If your child or student with autism appears to move a lot, either physically moving from their seat to roam around the room, tapping feet or pencils, wiggling, shifting, or other continuous movement, this indicates that the child’s brain needs their body to move in order to stay alert –

Provide a fidget for the child.  Fidgets are any small device, like a toy or resistive putty that provides stimulation through the tactile sense and is enjoyed by the student. The fidget helps modulate the continuous need to move.  The combination of the tactile interaction together with the highly preferred activity gives the child a break and allows their brain to “refresh”.

  1. If your child or student has become too wound up and is unable to get back to the task at hand –

Study the child’s behavior and set predesignated break times.  For example, if a child can attend to an activity at home or in the classroom for 30 – 40 minutes before a meltdown, set a predesignated break roughly every 30 minutes.  Your child may need to move to a special and safe environment where they can move as they wish for a short period of time.  Some children need to run, walk, swing, summersault, or role in order to better engage their brain and body learning readiness. Others may need heavy resistance to activate their muscles and joints for proper posture. Examples of heavy resistance include performing heavy jobs such as carrying a jug of milk or a heavy container.  In addition, kicking over stacked materials such as shoe boxes or empty tennis ball containers also activates the sensory system and can help a child who needs movement and the feeling of resistance in order to wake up their brain.

  1. If your child or student becomes irritated or distracted by excessive noise –

Provide him or her with noise cancellation headphones.

  1. If your child or student seems to think everything belongs to them, they grab and possess everything in their path and they may even walk right into furniture or other children –

Then they need to learn the parameters of their own body so they can sort out what is self and what is not self.  This process of individuating themselves from the world that surrounds them needs your help.  Try compression exercises.

Compression exercises are performed on the arms and legs, and even the head, by using both of your hands to squeeze your child’s extremity along its entire length.  This squeeze is about the same pressure that you might use to squeeze the water from a large sponge with both hands.  The head hugs are performed by placing a hand on either side of the head and applying a gentle compression. Eventually, your student can do these re-focus body awareness exercises by themselves. Try teaching him or her palm acupuncture.

For more ideas on educating unique learners, consider purchasing my book Unique Learner Solutions. Each chapter concludes with a “Strategies to Try” section that can be immediately implemented based on your observation of your student’s learning behavior. Unique Learner Solutions is available through this website.


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