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Tips for Teachers Engaging with Students on the Spectrum

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 35 percent of students attending public school in 2014-15 had a specific learning disability, and 9 percent of those students were autistic. Do you have a student on the autism spectrum in your classroom? Are you having a hard time gaging the effectiveness of your instruction? If you are an instructor who is less familiar with working with autistic students, incorporating these strategies into your pedagogy will help all students flourish.  And, they’ll create a better leaning community for everyone.

Instructors are usually careful to consider how their students perceive the world, but students on the spectrum may have thought processes that differ from a neurotypical student. Autistic students also have different experiences with classroom dynamics and expectations. In an article put out by The Conversation, entitled “Supporting Students with Autism in the Classroom: What Teachers Need to Know,” the author points out that classrooms are often fairly social habitats, and some student success is connected to the ability communicate and socialize effectively with others. Thankfully, there are many ways that a teacher can lessen such stress and tension within the classroom. While both of the resources above are geared for teachers in pre-collegiate education, they offer tips that can be modified for a college classroom. For autistic students, the expectation of social interaction can heighten stress and anxiety. Because these resources focus on strategies like prepping students for transitions and upcoming deadlines, being explicit in your assignment-making and expectations, offering breaks when students are depleted, and praising strengths, these strategies contribute to a better learning experience for all students.

When possible, give instructions and information through multiple channels. Many classes now have an online component or class shell. If you give instructions in class, be sure to take a moment and repeat them on the online platform and via email, too. This only takes a moment, and it will save you plenty of headaches. Keep your language clear and direct.

You might also consider mid-semester or quarter progress report check-ins, where you briefly let your students know where they are in the class and where you’d like them to be. Establish goals that they can follow and work towards. This is a good opportunity to check in with the students to be sure they understand what is expected of them.

Although you are likely already using visual aids— charts and graphs, YouTube and memes—don’t forget to check out newer resources like Kahoot, Quizlet, or Socrative. Find creative ways to allow students to showcase their skills through less traditional mediums. Is there an opportunity for a photo essay or create-your-own-web-shell assignment? These assignments allow students to demonstrate their understanding of material in ways that may surprise you.

When giving tests or in-class assignments, give your students on the spectrum more time if needed. Also, consider allowing them to complete their work in an environment with fewer distractions, such as the testing or writing center.

Giving autistic students the option to take breaks throughout the class period can be helpful. Breaks can allow students to recoup and refocus. If it works with your lesson plan, implementing a more casual conversation approach to discussion is often useful. It can help students feel more in control of their environment, and that they can participate without feeling stressed or overwhelmed.

Most teachers expect typed assignments, submitted in class or through platforms such as D2L or Blackboard, but in those instances when you ask students to handwrite something, keep in mind that written work may be difficult for students on the spectrum to write (and for the teacher to read and grade). Consider giving your students the option to either hand-write or use a tablet or laptop to complete those assignments. Having options is generally important for the success of autistic students. They’ll be able to identify what helps them learn and why, which will help them communicate with their instructors and advocate for their own needs.

Environmental triggers can create extra stress for students on the spectrum. Those loud jarring noises, bright lights, and temperature fluctuations because the school is renovating the hallway outside your classroom? They could be a significant barrier for autistic students to feel safe and secure in the classroom. Consider asking students who have self-disclosed their autism to meet with you to discuss any concerns, and make sure to send a summary of what you discussed after the meeting so that they have something to reference.

These simple and easily implemented steps can help ensure the well-being of everyone in your class (and there are a few more tips here). One of the benefits about considering how to integrate learning strategies for students on the spectrum into your classroom is that you’ll likely find your implementations improve the learning experience for everyone.

If you’re an instructor, what other tools and tips have been helpful to building a more flexible and inclusive learning environment? What obstacles to implementation are we missing? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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Chelsea Harris
Chelsea Harris has appeared in The Portland Review, Smokelong Quarterly, The Fem, Minola Review and Grimoire, among others. She co-runs a zine and reading series in Bellingham, WA called Wallpaper Magazine. Chelsea received her MFA from Columbia College Chicago. You can find her work here: chelseamarieharris.tumblr.com/writing

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