Ten Tips for Teaching Young Children With Autism

By Clarissa Willis, PhD

Autism Spectrum Disorder, often referred to simply as autism, is actually a collection of characteristics that continues to confound both teachers and parents. No two children with autism behave in the same manner, interact with others in the same way, or process information in exactly the same way.

April is Autism Awareness Month. The definition of autism is being revised, and with the newest statistics showing that 1 in 88 children in the United States will be diagnosed with autism, perhaps it is time to revisit the Ten Tips for Teachers I first presented in Teaching Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, which I wrote as a resource to help teachers learn ways to include young children with autism in routine activities:

1. Remember that autism is a spectrum disorder. Children with autism display a range of behaviors and abilities, and they exhibit symptoms that range from very mild to quite severe. The word autism can describe a child who fits anywhere within that range.

2. Always use child-first language when describing the child. The child with autism who is in your classroom is just that—a child with autism, not an “autistic child.” Child-first language helps others see that you view the child first and the disability second.

3. Focus on the child’s interests. When trying to encourage a child with autism to play, focus on the interests of the child and make interactions with others as natural as possible.

4. Remember that novel situations can be overwhelming. Recognize that children with autism may have difficulty adjusting to new play situations and new play materials.

5. Recognize that the environment is important. Children with autism need a special place in the room where they can go without distraction and without all the sensory input they receive elsewhere.

6. Begin social-skills training early. Learning how to respond in social situations should begin as early as possible. It is a critical skill for children to possess and enables them to interact with others more easily.

7. View parents as partners. Parents often agree that the one thing a teacher can do to understand their perspective is to be respectful of their opinions and treat them as valued contributors.

8. Value the uniqueness of each child. Each child is unique, and while she may have characteristics typical of other children with autism, she will have other characteristics that are not.

9. Remember that there is no one single method that works. There is no magic pill or specific program that can “cure” or “fix” autism. While many programs and methods have been tried and are successful with some children, they may not be successful with others. Look for methods with a solid research base.

10. Consider that learning about autism is a process. Learning about autism is not about a product; it is about a process of gathering information and making informed choices, based on the needs of the individual child.

This post was contributed by Clarissa Willis, PhD. Clarissa has worked for the past 20 years on behalf of children with autism spectrum disorder and their families. She is the author of five books including the award-winning titles Teaching Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Inclusive Literacy Lessons. Her articles on child development and early childhood special education have been published both nationally and internationally.

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