The Autism Blog

Autism and General Education

September 28, 2011

We recently connected with elementary school teacher, Chris Cooper, to get his perspective on teaching students with autism in a general education classroom.  Here’s what he had to say.

Question and Answer on Teaching Students with Autism in a General Education Classroom

Q: Can you tell us how you became so familiar with autism? 

A: I am a fourth grade teacher in a general education class in Washington and I’ve had students with autism in my classroom. But 99.9% of what I know about autism comes from being a stepparent of a child with autism. 

Q: How many kids with autism have you had in your class over the years?

A: I have taught 4th grade for the past sixteen years. For the first eleven years, none of the students in my classroom had an autism diagnosis (that I knew of). In the past five years I have had six students (that I knew of) with autism in my classroom. 

Q: So you’ve seen an increase?

A: I would say that is an increase. I am not sure if it is an increase in the number of kids diagnosed with autism, or an increase in the number of kids with autism in a general education classroom, or an increase in the number of parents who talked to me and told me about their child.  Perhaps all of the above. 

Q: Parents often ask about the benefits and risks of disclosing their child’s diagnosis such as qualifying for services vs. having a label. Can you tell us your thoughts about sharing a diagnosis with a teacher in a general education classroom? 

A: In my experience, open and honest communication is the best way for a child with autism to succeed in school. It should happen early and it should happen often and it should be from home to school and school to home. Educators are bombarded with everything society has to offer. We need you, the expert parent, to help us help you and your child. Meet with your child’s teachers as early as possible to help them understand your child. Tell them what works with your child and what doesn’t. Let them know that certain behaviors your child might demonstrate are not at all intended to be disruptive or disrespectful. 

Q: Do you think kids with autism are accepted in school? What steps have you taken to encourage awareness, acceptance, and inclusion in your classroom? 

A: Kids with autism are accepted in school by accepting kids and staff and in schools where diversity is respected and valued. Since I am a parent, I have found many opportunities to encourage awareness, acceptance, and inclusion. As an example, I have read aloud the book Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko. The main character’s sister has autism. This has led to my talking at length about my daughter. The kids ask many good, thoughtful questions.  When a parent starts to tell me about their child, they often are anxious and unsure of what or how much to tell me. I try to put them at ease and let them know that I have a daughter with autism. The reaction is one of relief that I “get it”. 

Q: What would you say in general about autism awareness in the general education classroom? 

A: We have a ways to go to educate educators. In the countless seminars and classes and meetings and professional days that I have attended, not once was a class on how to work with a student with autism in a general education classroom offered. We can’t expect our public school teachers to be able to do a good job without offering training. This world gets more and more complicated each day. And schools, especially public schools, are a reflection of society. Autism is another piece educators need to learn about and learn how to deal with. I sometimes feel overwhelmed as an educator by all that is expected of us with so few resources. 

Q: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned because of your experience with autism? 

A: Autism is hard to understand, especially if you don’t know much about it. I find myself coming in conflict with things I have said and routines that have been seemingly unquestionable. For example, at the start of the year we always spend time reviewing class and school rules. One piece of that is, “Students, how do you show me you are being a good listener?” And of course, Keep Your Eyes on the Speaker is rule number one. Well… this is not always the case! Kids with autism can have difficulty keeping eye contact and listening at the same time. 

I think most people get into education because they enjoy teaching and respect learning, at least that’s why I did. For the first part of my career it was difficult not to take personally what I thought to be disrespectful behavior. Autism has taught me not to do that. 

Q: If you could give any tips or advice to parents whose child might be starting in a general education classroom for the first time, what would it be?

A: I wish that all parents of kids with autism would be able to confidently disclose their child’s diagnosis without worry about any risk. If you are a parent of a child with autism and your child spends time in a general education classroom, I suggest you contact the teacher and set up a conference. Do this as early as possible. As educators we want all kids to succeed. You know your child better than anyone and we need your help to best understand your child’s unique strengths and needs. 

Tips for Teachers Who Work with Kids with Autism

  • Use a calm voice, don’t yell.
  • Use as few words as possible to make your point.
  • Allow fidgety kids to hold a discreet manipulative such as a small squishy ball or piece of fabric when working on tasks.
  • Keep classroom distractions to a minimum.
  • Allow kids to sit up front where there are fewer distractions.
  • Try “first . . . then” to help with transitions/waiting, such as “First we have math, then we have recess.”
  • Use visual schedules to help with predictability and transitions.
  • Ask parents! They’re the experts on their child and have specific helpful tips.
  • Help kids interact with peers. For many, it doesn’t come naturally.
  • Know that kids with autism experience the world differently. They often experience sensations at a heightened or exaggerated level. This can lead to upset and confusion.
  • Behavior is communication. Look beyond/before/beneath the behavior to see what your student is trying to tell you and what the function of the behavior is.
  • Disruptive behavior most often isn’t intentional disobedience or willful misbehavior.
  • Repetition is key to learning – do it/say it over and over again.
  • Most kids with autism are visual learners. Listening is difficult. Write things down, use minimal words, use pictures.
  • Give kids advance warning of what is to come. For example, “in ten minutes, we will be putting our things away and going to lunch”.
  • Be patient. Give kids time to process new information, requests, tasks.
  • Respect personal space, don’t get in their face.
  • Cues that typically indicate a child is paying attention (such as eyes on teacher, sitting still) don’t always apply. Many kids with autism have trouble looking at you and listening at the same time. To pay attention, kids may need to look down or away or have a manipulative to feel settled.