Supporting Students with Autism in the Classroom

Tips for Transitioning Students with Autism Into the Classroom edLeader Panel recording screenshot

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Over the last 10 years, the number of students with autism diagnoses has grown. Couple that with learners (many not yet diagnosed) who are entering schools for the first time since the pandemic with multiple challenges—like school-readiness deficits, language acquisition delays, mental health issues, and socio-emotional difficulties—that make it hard for them to regulate their emotions. Plus, it’s tougher for teachers to navigate students’ diverse needs, especially those with autism and on the spectrum.

But, with the appropriate strategies and tools in hand, it is possible, explained educators in the edLeader Panel, “Tips for Transitioning Students with Autism Into the Classroom.” They described the challenges neurodiverse students face in the classroom and the various supports that effectively address these students’ unique needs.

Navigating Neurodiversity

Students with autism are often described as neurodiverse, meaning they interact differently with the world around them. Recognizing how these students engage within the school community informs teaching and learning approaches.

Know, for example, that students with autism—who have been out of school for a while—might return with slightly regressed behavioral and academic skills. In new settings, neurodiverse students may be transitioning from unstructured to structured environments, moving back and forth between classes, exposed to new stimuli, following different routines, and interacting with new staff and peers calling for a different set of social expectations, all situations that can challenge the senses and the ability to adjust.

Teachers must also consider the level of support students need and in what areas. Social and communication skills might not be an issue, but sensory and self-management could require substantial attention. (Some people with autism describe their sensory strengths or superpowers—great vision or acute hearing, the ability to hyperfocus, and recognize patterns—but they also have unique challenges, like sensory overload or resistance to change.)

Sometimes, parents inadvertently reinforce certain behaviors at home that are not appropriate for school. This might call for creating a plan to address said behaviors or thinking of how to prepare for behavior change before students return to school.

What is the best advice to navigate these circumstances? When neurodiverse students transition back to school, give them additional time to process directions, the environment, and everything happening around them to facilitate social interactions and relationships with service providers.

Championing Students with Autism: Put Their Passions First

Students with autism have a broad spectrum of needs and strengths. Ideally, educators will identify, target and help grow these learners’ special interests, fascination, and passions that are building blocks to learning.

The special interest areas of individuals with autism are far ranging. For teachers, that means being cognizant of what makes neurodiverse learners tick and how to pair that impetus with learning opportunities. Pay attention to students: Listen to them discover their likes to reinforce their learning.

The panelists shared illustrative examples. There was the student who used a toy phone to pretend he was Jake from State Farm, which led to Pivotal Response Treatment in answering questions and discussing descriptors.

Another student was interested in vacuums, catapulting the learning of different concepts, including career interests and pre-vocational activities. One student was a Matchbox car enthusiast; the teacher created parking lots, maps, and related theme-based learning tools and tasks addressing specific skills during sessions with embedded targets. Then there was the preschool elephant lover and the teacher who made sure to use the elephant whenever possible to capture the student’s interest and attention.

To best support students with autism, get to know them well, which reports, like IEPs, don’t necessarily allow. The panelists referenced inclusion expert Dr. Paula Kluth’s suggestion of the birthday present test: “If you read a report about a student and it doesn’t describe her well enough that you can figure out what present you might get for her birthday, it’s probably not worth the paper it’s written on.”

Don’t forget administrators, critical partners in designing, developing, and implementing interventions. They should work closely with their special education teams, join district special education parent advisory groups, visit schools to meet with teachers and principals, attend relevant events, listen to parents of students with IEPs, host parent universities, invite teachers to present resources to parents, and strive to bring together community members.

Putting Theory Into Practice

The panelists recommended several tools and strategies that have boosted their support of students with autism in the classroom:

  • The STAGES Learning blog has numerous resources (learning tools, articles, product reviews) to support students with autism.
  • The Student Snapshot (found within the Building Better Bridges Binders on that page), which was developed by the Autism Intervention Research Network on Behavioral Health, is a fillable form that individuals (students themselves, parents, family members, teachers, speech therapists, etc.) who know a student well can complete with detailed information that includes interests and triggers.
  • Social Stories can be created with Canva, an online design tool. A Social Story (developed by Carol Gray) is a learning tool that supports the safe and meaningful exchange of information among parents, professionals, and people of all ages. It is a narrative that illustrates how people navigate situations and problems, helping children with autism understand social norms and appropriate communication.
  • The Kids’ Guide to Staying Awesome and In Control – Simple Stuff to Help Children Regulate their Emotions and Senses is a handy book that helps children identify, label, and manage their feelings.

The entire school community must partner to champion students with autism. Parents, family members, educators, and administrators working together can ensure the learners receive the appropriate support to be the best versions of themselves.

Learn more about this edWeb broadcast, “Tips for Transitioning Students with Autism Into the Classroom,” sponsored by STAGES® Learning.

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Join the Community

Teaching Students with Autism is a free professional learning community that provides ideas and resources for teachers working with students with autism, particularly advances in technology that can lead to significant breakthroughs in communication and learning.

STAGES Learning

For 25 years, STAGES® Learning has been dedicated to creating quality teaching tools to help educators provide the best learning opportunities for students on the autism spectrum. Since our first product, Language Builder: Picture Cards, was introduced in 1997, millions of children around the world have benefited from our products. Today, STAGES’ offerings include award-winning, photo-based teaching tools, manipulatives, games, puzzles, posters and sensory items, culminating in our recently launched complete curriculum for children with autism or other cognitive delays. STAGES’ online learning platform, releasing in time for fall 2022, will provide a digital option to ensure educators can support learners with autism and language delays in even more ways.


Blog post by Michele Israel, based on this edLeader Panel