This is a resource I developed some time ago to assist educators in preparing an ASD friendly environment in their classrooms. I hope you find something helpful for yourself or for your child’s teacher.
General Information about ASD: from www.autismspectrum.org.au
- Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong developmental disability characterised by marked difficulties in social interaction, impaired communication, restricted and repetitive interests and behaviours, and sensory sensitivities.
- The word “spectrum” is used because the range and severity of the difficulties people with an ASD experience can vary widely.
- ASDs include Autistic Disorder (Classic Autism), Asperger’s Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). Sometimes the word “Autism” is used to refer to all ASDs.
- When children are diagnosed with ASD, the Paediatrician or Psychiatrist refers to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This manual has recently been reviewed (2013) and is now named the DSM-5. There are a number of significant changes in this manual for children diagnosed with ASD.
- The DSM-5 uses just one label – Autism Spectrum Disorder. All other labels (PDD-NOS and Asperger’s Syndrome etc) will no longer be used. Children will simply receive a diagnosis of ASD and then there will be a severity level attached to the diagnosis ranging from mild to severe.
- Children with ASD are at a significantly increased risk of also being diagnosed with the following: epilepsy, ADHD, Tourette’s syndrome, Dysgraphia, Anxiety, Nonverbal learning disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), seizures and sensory issues. These conditions are often comorbid to Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Girls and ASD:
The diagnostic criteria for ASD are based primarily on research around boys and ASD – boys are 4 times more likely to have a diagnosis of ASD than girls. Because of this, girls often go undiagnosed until much later on when other conditions such as anxiety and depression may present. Girls with ASD present very differently to boys. Sue Larkey gives some great insights into girls and ASD in her tip sheet – http://suelarkey.com.au/media/Tip_Sheet_-_Girls_with_an_ASD.pdf
Carpet Square or Carpet Spot:
- For younger children with ASD, finding a place to sit on the carpet can cause a great deal of stress. Likewise, finding somewhere to sit at lunch time can be stressful. Some children enjoy having their own space and others may struggle to remain in their own personal space. The mat helps with these issues.
- Allocate a carpet square or carpet spot to the child which can then be moved inside or out, to specialist lessons, to the assembly hall or even outside for PE.
- A larger square allows room for a visual strip to be placed at the front of the mat. This can be helpful. If the child requires fidgets or other sensory supports like lap bags, these can live on or near the mat too. Visuals such as rules/expectations, calming strips etc may be useful.
- The carpet square can really help with a child who gets overwhelmed and may run away. If the child is trained to use the carpet square and that the carpet square is their space, this mat can be taken to unfamiliar places in the school with them and may lessen the stress to the child. I’ve seen this work really effectively for Prep students when they are introduced to specialist lessons. They are given permission to use their safe spot whenever they choose and the supports they require go with them (lap bags, sensory comforts, ear phones, water bottle etc).
Calming techniques (quiet corner):
- Create a quiet corner in your classroom for kids who are stressed/anxious, prone to outbursts, overwhelmed, angry or just making poor choices.
- A quiet corner works best if it’s retreat like – somewhere to hide from the rest of the room. So if you’re able to use dividers or something to create a quiet, private space – that would work best. A few cushions on the floor would also be good.
- Some children may require sensory input for calming purposes – like listening to some music through headphones, or accessing a sensory box filled with things like stress balls, play dough, twistable toys, various textures etc. Just interacting with the sensory item of their choice can be calming. Even drinking some water (particularly through a straw) or chewing some gum can be restorative.
- If you feel a student is becoming upset, or if they are not in control, direct them to the quiet corner. The quiet corner should be about learning to self-regulate – it should not be like a punishment or ‘time out’. Some children may not be able to regulate their own behaviour nor recognise that their stress is mounting. By giving them the option to go to the quiet corner, you’re helping them learn how to regulate their behaviour. For some students you may need to develop a discrete way of directing them to the quiet corner – like a gesture, handing them a visual (card) or a tap on their desk etc.
- The whole class would benefit from learning some calming strategies – just a simple routine like – take three deep breaths, have a stretch, have a drink – can be a really effective strategy for helping kids to calm themselves. This is even useful in the classroom when the children become overexcited and need to refocus.
- Talking about feelings is important to all the children in the classroom. Displaying a feelings thermometer or something similar in the classroom gives you a way to talk about feelings/stress/worry/anger. The whole class would benefit from learning some calming strategies for the purposes of learning self-awareness and self-regulation. Calming strategies are useful in the classroom when the children become overexcited and need to refocus.
- There is a great therapy program is called “How does your engine run?” – the Alert Program (link below) which is recommended as being effective when used with ASD kids. Basically in a nutshell you just explain to the kids that their body is like a car engine. A car engine can run high (overexcited, hyped up, wild, hyperactive, out of control), low (couch potato like, sluggish, spaced out) or ‘just right’ (alert, relaxed, happy and attentive). Our bodies are the same as a car engine – they run on low, high and just right at different times. It is effective because it’s simple and at the end of the day, the kids really just need to know if they feel “just right” or not – and then they need to know how to fix it. There is a visual sliding scale from Low to just right to high (pictured below) – and based on the kids’ behaviour – you can indicate where they’re at! They could do this individually or you could do it as a class. Once they grasp this, you can talk about strategies that might help change their engine level – like movement, listening to music, having something to eat or drink, quiet corner etc.
- You can ask them simple questions like, “Sam, how’s your engine running?” “How do you think we could fix your engine?” “Sam – I think there’s something wrong with your engine. I think it’s revving too high. What do you think?”
- There’s some information on the Alert Program web site and there’s a copy of the books and materials at IESS. It could be a good way to discuss stress management, energy levels, emotions, behaviour choices etc and it would benefit all the kids in your classroom. http://www.alertprogram.com/
- The “Zones of Regulation” program is also a great program for teaching self-regulation and emotional control. Links and visual examples below. http://www.socialthinking.com.au/index.php/the-zones-of-regulation.html.
- It is generally just good teaching practice to display the classroom rules/expectations in a highly visual format in your room. ASD children are highly visual. When they follow the classroom rules/make good choices, praise the kids directly for following specific rules. For example, “Thanks Johnny for raising your hand to speak – you’ve made a great choice and are following rule number 3” – or words to that effect. This way you’re positively reinforcing good choices and helping them to remember this by referring back to the visual which shows the rule.
- Talk about good choices and poor choices – it helps to focus on the child’s behaviour – not the child themselves. In the case of “How does your engine run?” it comes down to one question – “How’s your engine running?”
- The class may also benefit from an auditory cueing system. Simple ideas like “1-2-3 eyes on me” or similar can give the kids a quick cue that they need to attend. You could use something physical like clapping or even a series of actions. When lining up, a physical action would probably work best. A child with ASD may not respond the first time, but if the verbal or physical cue is repeated, they should be attending by the 3rd repetition.
- An extremely high number of ASD children (especially the boys) have dysgraphia which is a writing disorder associated with impaired handwriting. It can occur regardless of the child’s ability to read and is not due to any intellectual impairment/functionality. For this reason, it is advised that ASD children from Year 1 onwards complete a typing tutor program and have regular access to a laptop or similar in the classroom each day. Many children with ASD will struggle with written tasks and will require a lot of support. Dysgraphia and Typing tip sheet by Sue Larkey http://suelarkey.com.au/media/Tip_Sheet_-_Dysgraphia_and_Typing.pdf
- If some of the kids are not very independent with ruling books etc you have a few options. You could pre-rule and/or photocopy sheets for them and have them paste them in their book. This might be good at times when you know you’re going to be pushed for time. Or you could provide lots of visual support on the board, by modelling what you want them to do step by step. You could use a timer, or count back system to ensure they are doing this quickly and efficiently. Use lots of praise and rewards when they perform well.
- Provide lots of visual support when starting activities. This is a link to a great and easy way to display tasks in the classroom. I’m not sure if you have access to an interactive white board?? If not, you could just put a similar thing up on your board. http://www.firstschoolyears.com/general/inde1024x768.htm
- Children with ASD are highly visual thinkers. If you want them to comprehend an expectation, a behaviour or a concept, you must show this to them in a visual way. Behaviour charts and daily routines should be displayed clearly in the classroom so that the children are aware at all times of what is going on and what is expected of them. This is necessary for their comprehension and for their levels of stress.
- Tasks should also be presented in a visual way. If they are to glue then include a picture of glue beside the word glue etc. Make sure that your visuals are clear – if they are using a glue stick ensure your visual is a glue stick. All tasks should be presented in this way where possible.
- Remember to show the students visually what you want them to do (eg keep hands to yourself) rather than show them a picture of what you don’t want them to do (eg hands hitting with a red cross through it). The children will tend to recall what they see so be mindful that the visual is supporting what you want them to be remembering.
- If a child is having difficulty with a specific issue such as transitioning from the classroom to a specialist PE lesson, a social story can be really helpful. Basically a social story is a picture book with simple text that explains visually to the student what it is you would like them to be doing. This story is then read a number of times to support that student in fixing the issue. There are lots of free social stories on the internet which serve as a great model! Learn more about social stories here http://www.thegraycenter.org/social-stories
- In your focused learning area within your classroom, try to keep the visual input to a minimum. Don’t have lots of posters on the walls and things hanging from the roof. Keep the whiteboard fairly free of visual clutter – all that is required is the routine and anything relating to the lesson. Too much visual pollution around the room – particularly in the focused learning area – is overstimulating and impacts on the students’ ability to learn and engage. Save the posters, charts, sight word lists etc for the back of the room.
- Why and How to use Visual Supports by Sue Larkey http://suelarkey.com.au/media/Tip_Sheet_-_Why_and_How_to_Use_Visuals.pdf
- The use of visual schedules and timers by Sue Larkey http://suelarkey.com.au/media/Tip_Sheet_-_Schedules_and_Timers.pdf
- Some great links for visual supports
- Movement breaks are hugely important for all of us!!! After a period of time, we all need to get up and move in order to continue working optimally. For children who find class work stressful, or for those who have sensory needs, they have an even huger need for movement breaks. For the average child, it is recommended that in a two hour session, they probably need a 1-3 minute break each 20-30 minutes depending on the age of the child. Children with ASD need to work in a constant cycle of 15-20 minutes focused learning, 3-5 minutes down time. It is recommended that children with ASD have access to equipment such as scooter boards, mini-tramps, fit balls, spinning discs and other such equipment so that they are able to get their engines ‘just right’ for learning.
- For the whole class, you can provide movement breaks easily by teaching them a routine for the movement break. It could be – a big stretch, 3 star jacks and a drink of water. Give them a verbal cue like “activity break” so they learn they then straight away stand up and do their little routine. This makes the process quick and less disruptive. I’d recommend finishing with a quick calming routine (deep breath, stretch, drink) – it should help refocus them.
- For individuals who require more movement breaks – you could give them a goal oriented, directed break eg handing out things, wiping the board, tidying up, running an errand, a toilet/drink break etc.
- Children with ASD can be sensitive to light. Make sure they are located somewhere where this is limited glare, reflection from outside, whiteboards or fluorescent lighting.
- If a child is particularly having difficulty sitting for long periods, you could create a different seating location for them for various parts of the day. For children who are over-stimulated and anxious, a desk facing the wall is good, in a quiet area of the room. You could even seat the child at your desk. If the child is seated at the back of the room, they may choose to work without a chair for periods of the day. If you have access to a fit ball, this is also a good seating option for children requiring movement.
- For the whole class, you might think about changing your location for some sessions – going outside, going to the library, sitting under the trees. Or you could add in a walk or run around the oval at certain points in the day. Incorporate movement into your planning eg. if you are looking at angles in math – perhaps you could go for a walk around the school looking for different angles in the environment
- Children with sensory issues (particularly those with ASD) may require particular sensory objects in order to stay on task and relaxed at their desks. “Fidget” toys for busy fingers like 2-3 lego pieces, play dough, or a Velcro strip down the side of their desk can help children to receive sensory stimulation/feedback whilst they learn. Some ASD kids will struggle to attend without these fidgets.
- Some children may also benefit from the use of a fit ball rather than a chair, cushions (move and sit, disc and sit) or weighted products (blankets, vests) to help them to sit appropriately and to help them to keep focused.
- Activities such as lining up, sitting waiting for assembly, sport, concerts, sports days and specialist lessons etc are all going to be extremely challenging for children with ASD. Most children with ASD have sound/light/movement sensitivities and can feel physically ill or out of control in a noisy environment where there is lots of noise and/or movement. Sitting with the other children for lunch is also likely to cause issues. If noise is a concern, noise cancelling headphones are a good idea or even just have music playing into their headphones.
- Suggestion for younger children with ASD for specialist lessons: Allocate a carpet square/spot for the child to use whilst sitting on the carpet in the classroom. Teach them that this is their safe spot. If they feel upset, angry, overwhelmed they can go to this spot. They can use this spot whilst they sit on the carpet for circle time, or whenever they need to sit on the carpet. ASD kids tend to like to know specifically where they sit and generally need a little personal space as well. Leave the child’s drink bottle, a calming toy or weighted blanket, comfort object and perhaps a calming visual strip/support on this spot. When the child attends assembly or specialist lessons, take this “safe spot” with them. They will then have somewhere safe if they need it and objects/routines to calm themselves. It may also help to reduce “running away” behaviours. Ensure that you teach the child the expectations around the use of the safe spot and educate specialist teachers etc about it as well.
- Some children with ASD may spin, toe walk, flap or have some other repetitive behaviour that they do. Think very carefully before trying to minimise or eliminate these behaviours as there are physical and chemical reasons why ASD kids need to do these things. If you remove this primary behaviour, they will simply replace it with something else and it may be less desirable! Physical and vocal tics, vocalisations (including throat clearing, coughing, humming, words) and behaviours such as watching objects that spin or flash, are all stimulatory behaviours typical to children with ASD.
- Many ASD kids with sensory issues will benefit from having a structured “sensory diet” throughout the school day. A sensory diet is essentially a plan for the day that gives the sensory input a child needs to stay organised throughout the day. The diet can include specific kinds of sensory input moments such as mini-tramping to stimulate the vestibular system. It may also include making times throughout the day for the child to sip water through a straw or eat some crunchy foods for oral motor input. An OT will be able to give some great direction as to what the individual child needs across the day. For more information about sensory diets: http://sensorysmarts.com/sensory_diet_activities.html
- The playground is likely to be a cause of some stress for most children with ASD. The noise and movement of the playground can be quite overwhelming and the social aspects of play may be equally challenging. Children with ASD may struggle with competitive, structured games such as handball but might quite enjoy a drawing table and manage that quite well.
- Children with ASD often need help in thinking through their playground plan. Due to issues with executive functioning, kids with ASD can struggle to organise what they will do at lunch time. Often having a quick discussion before lunch breaks can be really helpful in reducing the stress of the yard for ASD kids. Some children may require a playground plan – a visual support to help the kids make choices in the playground. This plan or discussion would address: Where will I play? What will I play? Who will I play with? What do I need? What are the rules?
- Passive playgrounds. Most schools are now offering a range of passive play opportunities at lunch time. These activities are quieter activities which for the most part do not require more supervision than you would already have in place. Lunch time clubs, allowing access to the library, or a drawing station within the usual playground are all good passive play options. Even simply placing a box of books or construction materials under a tree in a less busy part of the playground is great. Sue Larkey has a great tip sheet at http://www.suelarkey.com/media/playground.pdf and
Social Skills / Manners:
- All children with ASD experience great difficulties with social interactions, social understanding and social communication. They may sometimes appear abrupt, tactless and honest (often to a fault!) This is part of the condition.
- ASD children experience difficulties with waiting, turn taking, turn taking in conversation, sharing, understanding body language, facial expression and tone of voice.
- If you wish to teach a particular social skill to an ASD child, a social story or some kind of visual support will be a necessary part of ensuring they understand what is required of them. Visual cue cards which they can use in a group situation will help them to achieve success.
- Group activities are going to be challenging for your ASD child. Before commencing group work it would be useful to discuss the rules and expectations with the whole class. How do we work as part of a group? This will benefit all of the children, not just the child with ASD.
Anxiety and the need for regular preventative breaks:
- Many children with ASD suffer from anxiety and stress. It is part of the condition. When ASD children are anxious, stressed, overstimulated or overwhelmed, this is likely to result in undesirable behaviours. The aim is to keep the child’s stress levels low throughout the day, so that outbursts don’t occur.
- Preventative breaks are necessary for every child with ASD irrespective of their age or ability. 10-15 minutes on and 5 minutes off throughout the day is the recommended routine for managing anxiety and stress in these children (a minimum of 3 breaks per session). Even when the child appears to be managing OK, it is still necessary to give them breaks. For many of these kids, they will hold it together all day at school, letting the tension and stress mount, and then when they get home they completely fall apart. Breaks are necessary throughout the day to ensure that anxiety is managed. This is one of the key modifications teachers will need to make for children with ASD in their classrooms.
- How to schedule these breaks can often be a challenging question for teachers. To simply the process, provide one longer break in the middle of each session. During this break, encourage the child to go to the toilet, have a drink, eat a snack and have some downtime in the retreat space. Often the noise and movement of lunch breaks are very challenging for children with ASD and they can tend to avoid the bathrooms and can have problems eating/drinking. Allowing this break each session ensures that those basic needs are met, and you are more likely to keep stress levels low. If you then provide a short break half an hour either side of this mid-session break this should be easier to manage. Some children may require more breaks. This will necessitate teacher observation and discussion with the children/parents.
Useful Tips for Teachers:
- Summary Profile of student by Sue Larkey. Really wonderful if the child’s previous teacher could fill this form out for the new teacher.
Programming for Students with ASD:
It is really helpful if the child’s previous teacher could complete this form for the new teacher. This form outlines the child’s learning needs and what strategies have been effective in the past.
- Clicker Docs for iPad. A great support for children with writing difficulties. It will read back text to the child. There is a text prediction option. Really useful writing tool.
- Social Adventures. Ideas and activities for teaching social skills and friendship.
- Dexteria. A set of therapeutic hand exercises to improve fine motor skills and handwriting readiness.
- Injiji. Learning games for children with cognitive, language and fine motor delays. Very comprehensive program.
- Super Duper Publications have a huge range of apps which address speech language concerns, critical thinking skills, vocabulary knowledge, social skills, grammar and storytelling.
- Choiceworks – fantastic app for creating daily routines or general schedules (includes timer option). Easy and quick to use. Inbuilt picture library or use your own pictures.
- List of apps recommended by Autism Qld for children with ASD
- Toontastic. I have often used this app with kids for social story purposes. It’s an app where you create your own cartoon – you are essentially a puppeteer and provide the voice over etc. It can work really nicely as a social skills or social story facilitator. Great for other aspects of the curriculum too.
- Stories2Learn. Great for creating your own social stories. You can use your own pictures, text and voice overs. Great for many purposes from scheduling to social stories.
- iEarnedThat. This app allows you take a photo of what the child is “working for” and then breaks it up into a puzzle. The child then earns parts of the puzzle piece. Once the puzzle is complete they earn the reward.
- Dragon Dictate. This requires a wifi connection. This is an easy to use voice recognition program which allows the child to speak and instantly see the text. Great for reluctant writers.
Air Server: iPad viewing platform for your classroom
- If you want to use your iPad with the whole class, and you have an interactive whiteboard, then Air Server might be for you. Air Server is a cheap PC download ($13) which allows you to wirelessly beam your iPad display to your PC and from there to your whiteboard/projector. This gives you the freedom to move around the room with your iPad in hand. It is better than using Apple TV because it runs in the background/on your PC desktop rather than requiring you to plug your iPad directly into the projector. Worth a look! Ask your IT support person about it.
- Your role is as advocate for your child and their needs. It’s a very demanding and challenging role but it is a crucial role.
- As parents, it is our job to build a community of care and support around our children and our families. Whilst it’s important to advocate for our children, it is equally important to treat those who interact with our children with respect and understanding, and that we learn to work in partnership together in a positive way. This is often challenging but hugely important to your child’s success at school.
- If your child is on medication it is important to ensure that the child always has access to this medication and that you never let a script run out! It is also important that you ask lots of questions of the school so that you can ensure that the medication is working optimally. Medication should be reviewed at least a couple of times of year and remember that if you add any new medications to the mix, it’s likely you’ll have to review the dosages of any previous medications.
- Look after yourself. Carer burnout is a huge concern for parents of children with ASD. Ensure that you have a good network of support around you through family, friends and other support groups. There is lots of support available.
- Educate yourself. Attend workshops, read and learn about ASD so that you are able to educate others about your child and their needs.
Some useful links:
Lots of free visual supports and pictures for schedules.
Lots of fantastic free visual supports and social stories with picture supports.
A free resource which contains lots of information about visual supports and how to use them.
Sign up to receive Sue’s free E-Newsletter which is filled with great tips and ideas for managing children with ASD in your classroom. The website has lots of resources, tip sheets and ideas to help you along also.
Sue also has a Facebook page which I highly recommend.
A great example of a feelings thermometer.
Click the link at the bottom right of the page in “Making Friends”. The link is called Stress thermometer.
Scroll down the page to the “Feelings thermometer” section. It allows you to download an adobe colour copy of the feelings thermometer. I really like this one. It could be easily adapted if it’s not quite right for you!
Free printable calm down strategy charts and behaviour charts.
Some great auditory cueing ideas for hard to control classes. This website has lots of great ideas, free printables and charts etc. It’s worth having a good look around.
Have a look at this website for some great sensory ideas which benefit all children. If the above link doesn’t work – just go to sensationalbrain.com and have a look at the resources.
Some free online social stories.
Positive Partnerships – online courses and advice.
Special need IT specialists – inclusive learning technologies.
Wendy Lawson’s web page. Australian lady with Autism. Public speaker and writer.
ASD transition to school information via EQ. Lots of ideas for teachers and families.