A classroom is both a space for learning, and an educational community where everyone is welcome. Working with many different kinds of students means adapting the room, the instruction, and the subject matter to accommodate as many needs as possible, including students with disabilities and neurodiversity.
As Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is becoming increasingly understood, researchers are discovering that the signs and symptoms it encompasses—as well as the number of people it affects—is much broader than previously thought. 1 in 36 children is diagnosed with autism every year, and meeting the needs of autistic learners is an important skill for teachers to develop.
However, because autism is a spectral disorder, its behavioral, cognitive, and developmental expression can vary widely, and can range from mild to severe. Professional development is an important component of classroom inclusivity as new research develops and new strategies evolve.
Educators need to be aware of the 3 levels of autism severity they may encounter, and familiarize themselves with the individualized educational programs (IEPs) that will empower their students on the autism spectrum to contribute and participate as valuable members of the class.
ASD typically presents with a constellation of factors that impact social interactions and communication. Meeting the needs of children requires expertise, but for children with ASD, the activities of daily life can be even harder to manage. Roughly 30% of those with ASD are non-verbal and the other 70% can express varying degrees of difficulty in communicating with those around them. This can sometimes create frustration on the part of the child and those managing their care.
As children with ASD become adolescents and young adults, they may have difficulties developing and maintaining friendships or communicating with their peers, which can be especially challenging in social environments like a classroom. It may also be hard for them to understand what behaviors are expected in places like school or work. These developing signs and symptoms may include:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Minimal facial expressions that relate to happiness or sadness
- Absence of gestures
- Not noticing other people around them or wanting to interact with them
- Not noticing when others around them are hurt or upset
- Repetitive behaviors
- Strong adherence to routines
Early screening and timely intervention is the best way to set those with ASD up for success. Once diagnosed, Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and related therapies are well-researched and offer promising results.
The 3 Levels of Autism
Most students on the autism spectrum will need some degree of support in the classroom. There are 3 different levels of autism severity, and they range from mild to severe impairment. Educators and case managers need to be aware of the level of functioning of a student with ASD, and create an IEP that meets them where they are.
Students with level 1 ASD exhibit very mild behavioral and cognitive signs, and are typically considered high functioning. In the past, people with level 1 ASD have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, but the term has become outdated as our understanding of autism has evolved.
Teachers are most likely to encounter students with level 1 ASD in the classroom because they tend to be highly verbal and adaptable to the social and educational environments. They may have difficulty with social interactions and can struggle with flexibility in established routines, but small accommodations from teachers and administrators are often sufficient to meet their needs.
Students with level 2 ASD are less likely to participate in a general classroom because they experience much more pronounced challenges with verbal and social interactions. They may also be very sensitive to breaks in routines, and can experience intense anxiety when confronted with unfamiliar people and circumstances.
Anticipation is the often greatest ally of the team crafting an IEP for a child with level 2 ASD. A student’s anxiety and frustration can escalate quickly, and may result in a meltdown that requires calming and cooling. Teachers need to be aware of physical cues of stress, such as stimming (self-stimulating behaviors like fidgeting or repetitive movements), zoning out, or verbal expressions of discomfort.
It is very uncommon for students with level 3 ASD to be present in a typical school environment. Behavioral and cognitive impairment is substantial, and most people with level 3 ASD are nearly or completely non-verbal and highly inflexible in their routines. They may be largely unaware of social cues, and repetitive behaviors may not be manageable or suitable for group learning.
Accommodating a severely autistic student typically requires a dedicated specialist who is able to work with them on a constant and consistent basis. Mainstream education may also be unsuitable for a particular child’s needs, and homeschooling or private school is often a much better option. That being said, education can be an immensely valuable and rewarding experience for a child with level 3 ASD, and with the right strategy many non-verbal children can learn to speak and even write.
Building a More Inclusive Classroom
Creating schools that can accept a wider range of neurodiverse students is a rewarding and beneficial experience for everyone in the classroom. By promoting a culture of diversity and inclusion, students are better prepared to engage in the world around them with empathy, compassion, and a sense of collective value.
Developing a classroom that can accommodate different levels of autism requires planning, experience, and ongoing education so that teachers and administrators can best support and anticipate neurodiverse needs. Professional development is key, and Premiere is dedicated to keeping educators up to date and informed about the 3 levels of autism and how to best incorporate autistic students into their educational institutions.
New York: Needs of Children with Autism provides all the essential information on autism and working with autistic students, and is approved by the NYSED. All courses offered by Premiere are created by leading industry professionals. New York: Needs of Children with Autism is created by Jennifer McDaniel, M.Ed. QIDP, Southwest Ohio Developmental Center, and Amy Adkins-Dwivedi, MS, APRN.