Helping Children with Autism Succeed in the Classroom

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Back in October, I had the opportunity to speak at the Utah Head Start Association Conference for the Second year in a row. I always have the BEST time speaking at these events and was so excited and honored to be asked back again this year. I PROMISED I would post my presentation and am just barely getting around to it!! This year I presented on the ever important topic of Helping Children with Autism Succeed in the Classroom. This can be useful for educators, parents, peers and really, anyone who will come in contact with any child with Autism. (Which is pretty much…anyone!)


First, Let’s take a Walk in the Shoes of a Child with Autism…

Check out this video found HERE.


  • How did that video make you feel?  
  • What did you notice as we were walking through the store?

What experiences have your had with Autism? (The good, the bad and the ugly)

Now, from those experiences…what struggles have you faced while working with Autism?

Let’s Talk about how we can help with those struggles…how can we help YOU and the CHILD?

  • What is Autism?
  • Scheduling
  • Classroom Changes
  • Communication

What is Autism? (Autism Spectrum Disorder)


  • Autism is an umbrella term for a group of brain disorders. These disorders interfere with a child’s ability to communicate and interact normally with others (close family members included!) It is distinguished by a wide variation of social, communication and cyclical behaviors that are considered out of the norm for children. The signs if Autism can be very subtle or they can be very noticeable and severe.
  • Approximately 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder before they are eight years old.
  • ASD is more common in boys. 1 in 54 boys are diagnosed with autism compared to 1 in 252 girls.


Are Autism rates increasing?

  • Well, we aren’t 100% sure. But– it is more prevalent then it was a few years ago.
  • In 2006 1 in 110 children were being diagnosed with autism, where now 1 in 88 are being diagnosed.
  • WHY??? There could be a few different reasons. For instance, we know more about the disorder now this allows parents to spot the early signs of autism in toddlers and bringing those concerns to the attention of their pediatrician. The rise in autism could also be due to a wider range of behaviors that are now being labeled as part of the autism spectrum. Environmental factors could also be playing a part. (exposure to pesticides, chemicals and viruses).

Causes of Autism?

  • Again, experts are not positive what causes the Autism.
  • But, experts do think that it is a combination of genetics and exposure to environmental factors or pollutants.
  • BUT!! One thing we DO know for SURE is that Autism is NOT caused by vaccines. (In 1998 a study it was suggested that there was a link between the MMR vaccine and Autism. However, many large-scale, credible, studies have discredited that connection. The Doctor who proposed the link between MMR and Autism was found to have falsified data and all findings and studies were retracted. The doctor also lost his practice and his license.)



  • Emotional Outbursts:Sometimes these “outbursts” can seem pretty unexplained. It can also seem like an extreme overreaction when a typically developing child would not react to s certain situation that way.  Outburst can also occur when a routine is slightly thrown off or even in a very routine situation. A child with autism may be unable to control their emotions when they are in physical discomfort, emotional discomfort, feel afraid or when they find themselves in a new, strange, or stressful situation.
  • Delayed language Development: By the age of 1, children should be able to say a few simple, single words. By 18 months, children should have at least 6 solid words in their own vocabularies. By age 2,children should be able to string simple two-word phrases together. By age 3, children should have the ability to form complete (simple) sentences. Children with autism can have language development that develops much later! If you notice that your child keeps missing these language milestones it might be a good idea to bring it up to your pediatrician.
  • Prone to non-verbal communication:Like we talked about above, kids with Autism a lot of times have delayed language development. They may begin using visual or physical means of communication. (Drawing, gestures, and sometimes physical aggression). Another red flag of autism is a loss or regression in language and verbal skills. They may not build on new communication skills or revert back to earlier forms of communication. They may also start losing words or regressing or losing milestones that they hit at earlier ages.
  • Difficulty understanding figurative expressions:Children with Autism have a hard time understanding sarcasm or people who express themselves figuratively. Like we talked about earlier kids with autism many times don’t get simple meaning from demeanor or facial expressions.  They also have a hard time understanding tone of voice. Kids with Autism also seem to have more trouble distinguishing between what’s real and what is make-believe. That line between what is real and what is make believe may be blurred or non-existent.


  • Repetitive Behaviors:Kids with autism are very prone to repetitive behaviors. They may arrange and rearrange toys or objects over and over. They may also rock back and forth, flap their hands, or repeat the same words and phrases over and over. This is obviously one of the easiest identified behaviors when diagnosing autism. Children with Autism also have more motor delays than your typically developing child. They may have more trouble holding crayons, or other materials to create recognizable pictures, art or writing.
  • Pica:Children (even adults!) with autism are very prone to pica. What is pica? It is the tendency to eat objects that are not food. ( During outside time they may eat dirt, clay, rocks etc…) If this is the case they need to be watched closely! They will often chew and/or swallow things that are NOT edible.  They may also put other things in their mouths such as fingers, or objects that are not safe. (Scissors, pencils, glass etc…)
  • Sensitivity to external stimuli: This can be one of the earlier signs of autism. Kids with autism can become very upset or agitated when they are exposed to specific  noises, bight lights, or particular smells, tastes, or textures. They might refuse to wear certain colors, they may avoid certain colors, tastes, areas in the home for no apparent reason etc…If they are exposed to these they could lash out, have emotional outbursts or temper tantrums. But… can also look pretty opposite sometimes… The child might insist on wearing certain clothing items at all times, colors or textures, they may prefer to be in rooms with bright lights, bright colors, loud sounds and they may enjoy playing with or touching specific body parts. When they are not given their preference in “stimuli” you might see those emotional outbursts we talked about or emotional stress.


In Babies:

  • Slow to smile or laugh: Babies with Autism tend to not smile or react joyfully themselves. They also have a lower ability or capacity to form the typical back-and-forth sharing of sounds or facial expressions.  (These symptoms will typically appear by about 3 months old)
  • Resists cuddling or holding:
  • Doesn’t point at objects
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Fails to respond to their name by 12 months

In Toddlers:

  • Doesn’t engage in pretend play by 18 months (caring for a doll, using objects as phones etc..)
  • Prefers to play alone
  • Doesn’t understand feelings in other people
  • Doesn’t speak or speaks with an abnormal rhythm or tone
  • Gives unrelated answers to questions
  • Seems to ignore you when you make a request
  • Repeats specific routines or rituals
  • Throws temper tantrums because of minor changes in routine
  • Intentionally and repeatedly causes harm to him/herself (head banging, pinching, picking at scabs or skin, aggression such as hitting, or biting themselves).
  • Becomes obsessively interested in something
  • Moves Spastically -flaps hands, rocks, or spins his body continuously: Kids with autism, like mentioned before can enjoy odd stimuli. Flapping hands, or waving hands in front of their eyes etc… is an enjoyable feeling for them.
  • Reacts to sounds, smells or touch in an unusual way.
  • Has unusual food preferences
  • Concentrates on games, toys or other objects for extended periods of time

Now that we know more about Autism…Let’s talk about helping in the Classroom…

What are Picture Schedules/ Social Stories?


  • One of the best tools to use while working with children with Autism is a social story or a picture schedule.
  • Children with Autism thrive on schedules and predictability



Tips on making a social story/picture schedule- Plus some really great FREE resources


Keys to SUCCESS  when using a picture schedule

  • Keep it Simple
  • Be Consistent!!!
  • Make it individualized
  • Change it daily (if needed and possible) to coordinate with daily activities


Other Helpful Tools

  • PECS
  • Checklists
  • Timers
  • Motivators
  • Reward Charts

Each Child is First and Foremost an INDIVIDUAL

  • Be flexible! Not two children are alike, including children with Autism!
  • No two education plans should be the same
  • No child fits into an exact mold, so being open to tweaking things to fit an individual’s needs is critical to student success!

By having Open Communication, your life as well as the lives of the children you work with, can be made much more simple!!!

  • Have an open communication with parents
  • What is the child working on at home?
  • Give parents ideas of what you are working on and help them implement it at home and in the classroom.
  • What is on their IEP?
  • Do you have their IEP goals? Are you working on them in the classroom?

Your attitude is EVERYTHING!!! 


Do NOT let your attitude get in the way of a child’s success!!

You can find my full power point–Helping Children with Autism Succeed in the Classroom (1)

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