Autism in the Classroom: 6 Best Practices for NY Teachers

A classroom desk with Play-Doh and wooden letters of the alphabet.

With the passage of the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) 2010, the state of New York began leading the way for supportive and inclusive education for children with a wide range of challenges. The act is designed to ensure educators are trained and informed about how to create successful environments for students of all cultures, backgrounds, and disabilities. 

One of the most important demographics teachers need to be aware of is students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 1 in 36 children is affected by autism in the United States today, and it encompasses a wide range of symptoms that can vary from mild to severe. These issues may affect a student’s ability to communicate, socialize, process information, and regulate their behavior. 

While there’s no cure, many young people with ASD are able to have rewarding and enriching classroom experiences. Professional development content like Needs of Children with Autism by Premiere is equipping teachers across the state with a solid understanding of how to implement strategies that make their schools welcoming environments for these students to navigate. Here are 6 best practices teachers in New York can follow to support ASD in the classroom.

1. Foster a Sensory-Friendly Environment

People with autism process information differently, and part of the experience can include hypersensitivity to intense sights, smells, sounds, and textures. As many teachers know, a classroom full of children can sometimes be a little chaotic. They are spaces that can be loud, full of energy, and very active, and students with autism may easily become overstimulated. This can lead to stress and anxiety that impacts their health and well-being in the moment and over the long term. 

Creating a sensory-friendly environment requires understanding and effort to manage potential sensory issues for students with ASD. This can include modifying the environment or making accommodations like:

  • Using light covers or allowing for sunglasses.
  • Allowing for earplugs or noise-canceling headphones.
  • Coordinating schedules to avoid large groups.
  • Removing anything with a strong scent from the classroom.
  • Providing workspace away from windows or hallways.

 

While the physical aspects of the classroom are important, producing a sensory-friendly environment is also about the behaviors of the people within it. Educating peers on the experience of students with ASD and fostering classroom inclusivity is critical. This, combined with establishing expectations related to things like communication and noise control using an effective classroom management plan, makes everyone an ally in supporting students with sensory needs. 

2. Anticipate and Prepare for Changes

People with autism often experience difficulty transitioning from one environment to another or moving between activities. Given the amount of content packed into a typical school day, this can be especially challenging when trying to support children with autism in the classroom who may find change especially stressful.

Teachers can manage these transitional moments by anticipating what changes might be difficult and preparing the group ahead of time. Here are a few ways to minimize discomfort and make activities flow smoothly from one to the next:

  • Use visual aids that allow the student with ASD to better manage their own time.
  • Set a clear schedule and give students plenty of advance notice when changes happen.
  • Establish a transition cue such as a song when it’s time to clean up.
  • Organize activities around predictable routines.
  • Allow the peers to support transitions through a buddy system.


Also, it may be important to consider how big-picture timing can impact students with ASD. For example, if a particular activity like coloring is more difficult for the student to transition from, don’t plan it at the end of the day right before it’s time to pack up and go home.

3. Support Communication Skills

ASD often includes communication obstacles that can range from difficulty understanding social cues to a severely limited or non-existent ability to verbalize. Inclusivity for children with autism in the classroom is incredibly dependent on teaching and reinforcing good communication skills among the students. They need to be aware of the communication challenges their classmates with ASD might be experiencing and be reminded that listening is as important as talking.

When teaching the students about effective communication in the classroom, touch on basic elements like how to start a conversation, empathetic ways to ask for clarification, and appropriate volume, cadence, and body language. Tips for the students can include:

  • Looking at the person when speaking to them.
  • Minimizing interruptions.
  • Specifying what you're confused about and asking for clarification.
  • Listening to the person’s entire reply.
  • Not speaking too loudly or quickly
  • Paying attention to facial expressions or body language that may indicate someone feels uncomfortable.

 

4. Consult IEPs and 504s

NYC Public Schools use Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) to help students with special needs experience the least restrictive environment their school can offer. These plans are created by school staff in collaboration with parents to outline the special education support and services a student will receive, including how they can best access and participate in the general curriculum.

Students with autism typically qualify for an IEP, and they can vary significantly from child to child. Also, it’s important to stay in contact with administrators and family members to ensure an IEP aligns as closely as possible with their needs.

Depending on the level of severity, some students with ASD may qualify for 504 disability accommodations. These plans ensure that students with disabilities are able to participate in appropriate programs and activities despite their limitations, and are vital guidelines for creating an inclusive classroom environment.

5. Leverage Strengths and Interests

Schools play a huge part in the development of all children, and a learning environment supportive of their strengths alongside their needs can produce amazing outcomes regardless of their personal struggles. It’s important that children with ASD who are challenged in a variety of ways still be celebrated for their success and given opportunities to explore their interests.

Of course, educators are extremely busy people who are often working at the limit of their capabilities. Creating an inclusive environment does take some extra effort—especially when it comes to managing special needs during specific activities. At the same time, expanding opportunities to explore these activities can be some of the most rewarding and life-changing moments for teachers and children alike.

It’s worth speaking to administration and colleagues for advice and support if you feel like you need help exploring ways to connect students with autism in the classroom with extra-curricular activities and experiences. A fresh perspective and a few helping hands can make all the difference.

6. Stay Connected to Family

Nobody is going to know your students better than their family, and parents can be a gold mine for helpful information on how to support their children and guide them to success. While many teachers are considered experts in their field, parents always know their own children best!

ASD is a spectrum disorder, and that means there are symptoms most people will experience as well as a wide range of possible issues that are particular to every individual. At the end of the day, managing autism in the classroom is about realizing that all your students learn and grow differently, and ASD is just another star in that constellation.

By keeping in contact with family and friends, you can all work together to find solutions that help everyone—including you—share the best classroom experience possible with all your students.

Become Familiar with the Needs of Children with Autism in the Classroom

New York’s classrooms are filled with children from all walks of life with their own unique experiences and needs. While each child may face a spectrum of challenges, students with ASD can undoubtedly integrate into inclusive classrooms successfully and offer meaningful contributions to their peers with a little support from teachers and staff.

Premiere is committed to helping educators create inclusive classrooms in New York’s schools with professional development that reflects the latest research and expertise. Needs of Children with Autism and New York - DASA Dignity for All Students Training created by Amy Adkins-Dwivedi MS, APRN, and Jennifer McDaniel M.Ed., QIDP offer a deeper understanding of the etiology and prevalence of autism, its characteristics, current research, evidence-based instructional methods, behavior management techniques, and tips for effective collaboration.

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