Classrooms are diverse places where we encounter many different kinds of people. Every child comes in with a different perspective and a different set of needs. Young learners with autism spectrum disorders may struggle with the transition to a new environment. A new classroom can feel strange and uncomfortable to them, and the noise and movement of other children can be overwhelming. That is why teachers must prepare young children with autism for the classroom, and prepare the classroom for children with autism.
So what can teachers do to aid this complicated transition? The first step is to understand how children with autism learn, and then to help accommodate their needs. Clarissa Willis teaches just that in her book Teaching Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. This helpful resource guide provides caregivers with insights on how to best help autistic children learn. From providing sensory stimulation, aiding in communication, and helping establish a firm routine, the book provides teachers and caregivers with hundreds of small ways to make learning easier. Here are a few tips for preparing the transition from home to school:
Before School Starts
If you know that a child with autism will be coming to your classroom, set up a meeting with the parents and the child. Make sure the classroom is empty at that time so the child is not overstimulated. Let the child explore the classroom and grow somewhat accustomed to the environment. At the same time, discuss with the parents the child’s needs. A simple checklist includes:
- What does the child like or dislike in terms of food? Are there certain foods he won’t eat or that will make him react negatively?
- Does he have an attachment to a particular object at home? Is there an activity he does to calm himself?
- How does he communicate with others?
- What are some things that may cause him to be upset?
- What are some of his strengths? What are some challenges?
- Is he used to being around other children (siblings, neighbors, etc.)?
- How does the family handle negative outbursts?
If there is time and you feel it would be beneficial, schedule additional visits to the classroom to help the child adapt to the environment. Also make sure to research the child’s particular autism spectrum disorder; look up recent research on how children with this disorder learn and read stories about how parents, teachers, and children adapt to it.
Setting Up the Classroom
Referring to your list from the parents, make sure your classroom has centers for activities you know the child will enjoy. Also provide a quiet area full of pillows and comfortable blankets for if the child gets overwhelmed. When developing your lesson plans, start each day with the same routine. Patterns and steady routines are comforting to young learners with autism, and may help them move from home to school easier. Set aside a time to say “Good morning” to the child and show them the schedule for the day. If the child has difficulty reading, place a picture of him on his belongings in the classroom (cubby, pencil box, coat hook, etc.)
To make the classroom feel a bit more homey, have each child’s family send in pictures of the children doing things that can be displayed on the board. This shows each child’s uniqueness while also making them feel they belong in the classroom. Seeing themselves up on the bulletin board can be especially powerful for children with autism. Simple things that remind children of home are calming and help make the classroom feel more comfortable and nurturing.