Temple Grandin, a prominent advocate for people with autism and a professor at Colorado State University, says that her experience in a small, structured classroom in the 1950s helped her succeed in spite of having autism. The ideal school situation for most children who have autism would be a structured environment with at least two teachers and no more than 12 children. Unfortunately, the ideal educational environment rarely exists. In a typical classroom, children who have autism often struggle academically, socially and behaviorally for a variety of reasons. Understanding the reasons behind the behaviors can help teachers and parents find solutions.
Communication difficulties are one of the three overarching characteristics of autism, but individual difficulties can vary. Some children who have autism have almost no verbal language. Others have strong vocabularies and verbal skills, but might miss auditory directions or have difficulty talking about topics other than their own specialized interests. These children often miss the pragmatics of language. They don't recognize body language, metaphors or symbolic speech. They take idioms like "hop to it," or "hit the nail on the head," literally. Most children who have autism benefit from speech therapy. Help your child's teacher understand your child's language difficulties. Your child's teacher can use visuals in addition to verbal directions. Suggest that the teacher use short sentences and say exactly what she means, suggests Ellen Notbohm, co-author of "1001 Great Ideas for Teaching & Raising Children with Autism or Asperger's." For example, the teacher might say, "Sit down and put your hands in your lap," instead of, "Take a seat."
Children who have autism vary widely in their academic abilities, according to Sally Ozonoff, co-author of "A Parent's Guide to Asperger Syndrome & High-Functioning Autism." Some children have tremendous difficulty learning basic skills, including reading, writing and math. Other children may be gifted in a particular area, such as decoding words, but may lack the ability to comprehend meaning in reading. Most children who have autism find writing challenging. Abstract concepts are also usually difficult. Many children who have autism struggle with auditory processing. A lecture-driven teaching format is often disastrous for them. Encourage your child's teacher to combine lectures with technology and hands-on activities. Help the teacher identify the challenging areas, as well as the child's strengths. Many children with autism have excellent memories and can quickly learn facts. They also often have a few obsessive interests. Work with the teacher to plan unit studies and assignments around these interests.
People often assume that children who have autism have no interest in social relationships, but this isn't always the case. Many autistic children long for friendships, but lack the social skills to initiate and maintain them. Their odd interests and behaviors sometimes alienate other children and can spark bullying. Temper tantrums and meltdowns occur when a child who has autism feels isolated or picked on. Give your child's teacher permission to talk with the class about your child's condition. A teacher can say something like, "Brandon has a hard time knowing how to start a conversation. He can't always tell how you're feeling by looking at your face. Sometimes he stands too close to people. He wants to have friends, though. You can help him by telling him what to do." The unstructured portions of the day are typically the most problematic for children with autism because they don't know what to do or how to behave. Ask the teacher to assign a buddy to sit with your child with autism at lunch. Instruct aides and other school personnel to offer extra supervision at these times.
In addition to specialized, rigid interests, children who have autism often display rigid thinking, according to Michael D. Powers, author of "Asperger Syndrome and Your Child: A Parent's Guide." An unexpected transition might spark a meltdown. Changes in rules can also cause problems. Offer your child's teacher tips on how to handle transitions and changes with your child. Teachers can help by using visual schedules that show exactly what to expect each day. If a change is expected, the teacher can tell the child about it well in advance.
One of the main reasons children who have autism misbehave is because they're overstimulated by their environment. Many children with autism are acutely sensitive to noises, lights, crowds or touch. Environmental stimuli that most people don't notice is bothersome or even painful to a child who has autism. A child tapping his pencil on his desk might send a child with autism through the roof. Tell your child's teacher about your child's particular sensitivities and offer solutions. Teachers might leave some visual space on the walls, rather than filling every space with artwork and posters. Soothing neutral colors are better than bright primaries. Natural light and table lamps are preferable to fluorescent tubes. Offer to provide headphones to block out irritating noise.