Autism Teachers – How Is Autism Treated In Schools?


Teachers I know who have inclusive classrooms, tell me they can relate to the following story:

The children streamed into the classroom while laughing and talking in loud voices. Bright artwork made by the 2nd grade students covered the walls. In fact, what wall space wasn’t covered with art was filled with posters illustrating the 2nd grade curriculum. The students themselves were a jumble of color and movement as they hung up their jackets and made their way to their seats. Silence began to creep across the room as the students observed their teacher on her knees peering under one of the worktables. Their new classmate was under the table, keeping out of reach of the teacher as she tried in vain to snag his clothing to pull him out.

Ms. Hall raised her head from under the table and directed the students to sit down and begin reading. To the adult helper in the back of the classroom, her frustration was evident. The students opened their books, but kept peeking with curiosity at the scene in the middle of the classroom. The silence was punctuated with occasional outbursts of yelling from the new student and reassurance from the teacher. “It’s okay, David. I know. Everything is so new to you, I know.”

Finally, the teacher told the new student she was going to go to the phone to call his mother and moved away from the table. This brought little David out from under the table where he tried to pull the phone from the teacher’s hand.

This type of scene plays out in schools across the country with students on the autism spectrum, their parents, and teachers struggle daily with routines and activities that for other students offer not even the slightest difficulty. Because children with autism appear normal in every way except behavior, the culture surrounding them has expectations that are difficult for them to navigate. These students appear similar to their peers and are mistakenly assumed to function and behave just like those around them.

Parents, teachers and school administrators often feel at odds with one another over how to best meet the needs of the individual student, the classroom, and the school as a whole. This challenge is exponentially increased with a student with ASD.

The treatment of autism in schools is often dependent on the educator’s background with previous unique learners.  Students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often learn within a different rhythm than their neuro-typical same age peers. Teachers whom have already spent time with these individuals, see the change in rhythm. The excessive slowness in responding or the opposite problem of speaking too quickly, both behaviors can interrupt the rhythm of the full classroom body without an adept and compassionate educator.

Teachers have become expert at role modeling appropriate communication skills for the unique learner that functions at a different rhythm.  For example, several sources have been advising that students with autism spectrum disorder may need a delay of up to 11 seconds before providing a direct response.  Usually, it’s worth the wait because the individual may have a very in-depth understanding of the topic. Other students are made aware of how intelligent their classmate is, when teachers allow students with ASD to engage in the discussions.

Often, it is the supporting staff, including classroom instructional aides as well as resource personnel and volunteer adults that make the program successful. Each of these individuals are able to support the teacher and to support the child with autism in a respectful manner to help them participate in class.

Different styles of classroom exist with varying levels of expert training and additional education in teaching children with special needs.

An Independent Education Plan [IEP] is developed for those students requiring a variety of educationally related services.  The team develops goals based on assessments, then educational services and accommodations are considered by the team.  The plan is implemented and reviewed at least 1 time per year.

When it comes to autism, most educators understand that it takes a village to raise a child. They share wisdom amongst themselves regarding best educational practices and strategies for students with ASD. Recently, school administrators are telling me, “We’ve got this, now.” Meaning they truly understand the educational needs of the autistic student and are prepared to make the necessary accommodations for classroom success.

How is autism treated in schools? Well.


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a disorder that has a huge range of characteristics. Doctors will sometimes refer to these individuals as “on the spectrum”. The doctors mean that the child has a variety of behaviors that fall within a cluster of concerns.

Children and adults on the autism spectrum differ from the more typical population by how they relate to people and to things. They may have difficulty providing eye contact and may have very poor speaking skills. Sometimes an object or a toy is not used in a typical manner and is instead thrown, spun, flicked at, or disassembled rather than used in the expressed purpose of the toy.

When you think of autism, it’s helpful to picture what a color spectrum looks like. Think of the light spectrum. There’s so many variations in light rays. There are also many, many variations when it comes to autism spectrum disorder. Try not to have a set idea about autism. Autism looks like a beautiful spectrum.

The term autism is derived from a Greek word that means “self”. The name suggests the most obvious feature of autism: withdrawal from social interaction. Boys and girls on the autism spectrum may have difficulty relating to people and things.

Their rate of development may be skewed and they may have difficulty moving in a balanced, functional, and typical fashion. Hand flapping, like air drying wet hands, can also be associated with ASD.

Boys and girls with autism may have difficulty communicating as well as their ability to process sensations and to perceive and understand events. The chief signs of autism are a tendency toward social isolation, reduced eye contact, poor language skills, and difficulty understanding another person’s perspective.

Sometimes these attributes can be helpful. Many great thinkers have contributed to our society with the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. The individual with ASD tends to view problems from a different perspective. A different way of looking at the same problem can sometimes be the key to its resolution. Tolerating difference is essential to parenting and educating the individual with ASD.

We want to guide the child and student with autism spectrum disorder to develop an effective way to learn about the world around them. That’s what we want for all our youth. We can’t anticipate the problems the next generation will face, but we can teach them how to learn and to progress their ideas. Typical learners and autistic learners, both deserve this opportunity. Thank-you educators for all you do.


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 –

Then 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.

2. 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 –

Then 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”.

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

Then 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, somersault, or roll 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.

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

Then provide him or her with noise cancellation headphones.

5. 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 acupressure.

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 to purchase by clicking HERE.


Over the course of the school year, students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) become aware that the curriculum demands on them increases. There is a greater expectation for the student to be independent in the classroom as time goes by. Students are needing to blend what they have already learned with new academic concepts. Not all students with ASD progress in the same linear fashion when it comes to subtle accumulation of knowledge.

A student with ASD can have more difficulty with their ability to process the varied and complex incoming data as compared to other typical peers. What seems easy to others can become more difficult and effortful for the student with autism. As the effort needed to focus increases, they can become very fatigued. For some, the fatigue can cause reduced ability to participate in the learning activity. Some students become overwhelmed and their behavior becomes increasingly erratic.

Teachers are surprised to discover that classroom habits established earlier in the year are forgotten. The student with ASD will replace what seems to be a less imperative skill, like how to line-up properly, with double digit math computations.

One of the turning points in a student’s success can occur when their teacher adopts a break schedule. For those ASD students struggling with the increased academic demands, breaks need to be predesignated and scheduled into the classroom curriculum, for example on a three times per day basis.

In addition to these three scheduled breaks the teacher, the student and other school personnel in the classroom should became attuned to any early warning signs of disruptive behavior. Should the student with ASD become less productive and more chaotic in their behavior, an additional break should be added.

Initially, the breaks needed to be conducted outside of the classroom to not interrupt others. Students on the autism spectrum must also be taught how to reenter the classroom in a quiet and non-interruptive fashion. Breaks to refresh while in the classroom involve directing your student toward preferred activities, such as the use of play dough or age-appropriate resistive putty and desk-top fidgets. Eventually, the use of a timer can be employed to identify work cycles and the need for a break.

Consider this story of a student you may know or relate to:

Kerry made immediate progress. After just two weeks of her predesignated break schedule, only three scheduled breaks each day were needed. Kerry continued to require adult assistance during these breaks to maximize positive learning behaviors. In other words, Kerry was not yet at the stage that she could identify when she needed a break. Nor was she able to use the break time efficiently without adult help.

The intrinsic belief behind this work/break cycle strategy was that, over time and as Kerry matured, she would be able to recognize her need for a break and take one. Individuals with ASD process information differently. In today’s world where different is unappreciated, the adult with ASD must learn to advocate for themselves when a break is required.

Kerry became more tolerant of learning in a big class environment. She was also being taught the life skill of recognizing when she required a break and what to do about it in a respectful manner. In addition to double digit math, reading and writing, this learning skill of identifying her own work/break rhythm was profound in also creating self-asuredness. What a difference great teachers make in the lives of all of us!

You can read my blogs to get more information regarding ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) or purchase a copy of my book, Unique Learner Solutions by clicking HERE!




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