Autism in the Classroom

WebMD talks to parents, therapists, and educators for advice on how to help children with autism thrive in the classroom.

From the WebMD Archives

When your child has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), for example Asperger's syndrome, school can be difficult. Autism in the classroom is something that’s hard for teachers, parents, and the child with the ASD to deal with.

“My school just doesn’t get it,” one parent who didn’t want to be identified told WebMD.

Another said “My child is developing behavioral problems. That’s because he can’t communicate well at school.”

Some parents say that sometimes private schools won’t take a child with ASD. The reason they give is that they aren’t equipped to deal with autism in the classroom. The few schools that do take kids with autism, according to one parent, cost a fortune. And, she adds, they only accept a handful of children.

What’s the best way to help your child with an ASD learn? And how do traditional schools adapt to help children with autism do well in a classroom so they can grow and thrive?

WebMD asked for advice from parents and educators and therapists who work with children who have an ASD. They drew on their own experience to offer tips on how to help children with autism thrive in the classroom.

Autism in the classroom: One size doesn’t fit all

The parents and the professionals all agree that it takes lots of hard work to help a child with autism get the most out of the classroom experience. It also takes, they say, a good dose of structure and the understanding that every child with an autism spectrum disorder is unique. That means each child has different symptoms as well as styles of learning.

"Autism isn’t like diabetes,” psychologist Kathleen Platzman tells WebMD. “With diabetes, we have two or three things that we absolutely know about every kid who has it. But since it’s not that way with autism, we need an educational model wide enough to take in the whole spectrum. That means it’s going to have to be a fairly broad model.”

Platzman works with autistic children and their families in Atlanta. She says every child with an ASD needs individual attention.

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Autism in the classroom: Tips from a parent

Atlanta resident Leslie Wolfe and her husband, Alan, struggle with whether to tell people their son Joshua has autism. The bright 7-year-old did so well in his public school's first-grade class that many of his classmates’ parents didn’t know Joshua needed extra help.

Wolfe says one reason Joshua is thriving in public school is that the family got started early to help him get ready.

Joshua attended Emory University’s Walden School. Walden School is a preschool for children with autism. Each classroom has up to 18 children. There are two “typical” children in the classroom for every one child with autism. The idea is to help the children with autism learn from the behavior of their classmates. Another aim of the Walden School is to help families learn how to deal with autism spectrum disorders.

Wolfe offers these other tips for helping your child with an ASD do well at school.

  • Know your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Wolfe says it’s important to get a “really good assessment of your child.” She recommends the ADOS. ADOS stands for Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule. It’s a standard evaluation used to assess social and communication behavior in autism. You can ask your child’s doctor or contact an autism center at a university to find someone trained to conduct it. Results can help guide your child’s individualized education plan or IEP.
  • Practice makes perfect. Wolfe says it takes her son “50 repetitions to learn to use the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’ correctly.” So it’s unreasonable to think he would be able to just “walk into the classroom and skip along.”

She suggests showing up a week before school starts. Practice walking to school. Once there, show your child his new classroom. Also show your child with autism how to get to the water fountains and the bathrooms.

  • Give teachers and coaches easy instructions. Wolfe tells WebMD that if Josh is third in line during soccer practice, he won't necessarily remember the instructions his coach gives him. But if his coach says his name and takes a minute to repeat the instructions, he'll understand the task. This technique works well for any kid, she adds.
  • Get involved with your school. Wolfe advises joining the PTA or volunteering at school events. That way it will be easier to keep up on what’s happening at the school. And your child’s teachers will get to know you.
  • Share your knowledge. Wolfe recommends giving manuals or articles that focus on children with autism to teachers. Then ask the teachers to share the materials with therapists, the PE teacher, and anyone else who works with your child.

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Autism in the classroom: The IEP meeting

Public schools are legally bound to use an IEP to guide the education of a child with an ASD. IEP stands for individualized education plan. It outlines therapies and educational programs that will be provided to help ensure your child's educational success. Therapies might include speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and behavioral therapy. The IEP might also define the time your child will spend with a special education teacher.

During the meeting, educators make decisions about what services your child will receive or be offered during the school year. IEP meetings can be held at any time throughout the school year.

Here are tips from parents and educators for having a successful IEP meeting:

  • Be an advocate, not an agitator. It doesn’t work to go in demanding “We want this, we want that.” What works is being prepared to discuss goals your child can attain.

Be ready to talk about supportable, age-appropriate goals for your child. For instance, one goal might be for your child to initiate a conversation with a peer several times a week.

  • Invite outside team members to participate. Bringing in an expert -- for instance, a former teacher or therapist -- who really knows your child can enhance the team’s efforts to design strategies and brainstorm goals.
  • Show gratitude. Thank everyone who attends your IEP meeting. Send them a handwritten note or an email. A child with an ASD creates more work for teachers. So it’s good to show your appreciation.

Autism in the classroom: Changing schools

Platzman advises parents to not be shy about changing schools if things aren’t working out the way they should.

One “litmus test” she uses for knowing it’s time to change is when a child is continually punished for something he or she has no control over.

Platzman says that something like “stimming” may be neurologically based. Stimming refers self-stimulating behaviors when a child with autism makes repetitive motions. Stimming may be prompted by anxiety, boredom, or being lost in school.

Children with autism also often have sensory issues. For instance, your child might be either under-sensitive or extremely sensitive to light or touch. Or your child may crave deep pressure or be calmed by chewing things. If a child can’t say, “Hey I’m lost,” in class, he might compensate by doing something like chewing pencils.

Most general education teachers are not trained to notice these types of behaviors. As a result, kids with an ASD often get punished for “bad behavior.”

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Autism in the classroom: Schools for learning differences

Some parents feel that traditional schools don’t have the resources to train teachers. Or they feel they don’t have the resources to keep up with the challenges and demands of a child with autism in the classroom. Those concerns have prompted some parents to start their own schools.

For instance, eight years ago, Tamara Spafford along with three families founded the Lionheart School in Alpharetta, Georgia.

Spafford is now the school’s executive director. She says she helped start the school because when she looked at private and public schools something was missing. She couldn’t find anything as good as what she was doing for her daughter at home.

“We needed to get out of the basement,” she says. “And we needed a supportive, loving community. We also needed a school.”

Spafford says she and the other founding families didn’t want to battle school systems. They also “didn’t want to lose time.” There is no known cure for autism. Experts believe, though, that early and steady intervention is key in helping children learn the social skills and strategies they need. When they have those skills and strategies they can communicate. At the same time, behavioral problems can be addressed before they become major impediments.

The Lionheart School’s director of special services is Victoria McBride. She says the school’s approach goes beyond teaching skills. “We teach children to be thinkers and problem solvers. And we teach them how to use those strategies in appropriate ways.”

Elizabeth Litten Dulin is Lionheart’s director of education and admissions. She says, “Oftentimes, older children who come to us have had lots of school failure and disappointment. And that takes a toll.” She adds that you “can have a strong impact if you start early.”

The Lionheart School, like a few others across the U.S., uses a developmental clinical approach in a school setting.

Calls come from all over the country. The school has 32 full-time students.

Jacob’s Ladder is another special school. It’s founder, Amy O’Dell, home schooled her son Jacob for a few years. Then ten years ago she founded Jacob’s Ladder, a “neurodevelopmental learning center” for children with any type of developmental delay.

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O’Dell says the staff at Jacob’s Ladder follows a “brain-based” program. The program looks at where children stand in four main areas:

  • Neurodevelopmental aspects
  • Physiological components
  • Social, emotional, behavioral
  • Academic

O’Dell’s philosophy is to create a loving environment with creative, passionate and tireless teachers. The school takes children from kindergarten to 12th grade. O’Dell and her staff, though, also evaluate children and create a home-based learning plan that’s tailor-made for them.

They also offer parent training and intense programs for out-of-town families.

Autism in the classroom: Balancing family needs

Wolfe tells WebMD all the hard work with her son Joshua has been worth it.

She says getting early intervention and training helped her entire family become stronger. In a sense, she says, the focus is no longer all on her son. That takes some of the pressure off him and creates a more balanced family life for everyone.

Now when something like a behavior issue pops up, she asks, “Is it because he is a boy? Is it because he is 7? Is it because he has autism? I don’t know and that’s when it is really hard, trying to decipher when to be the helicopter mom and swoop in and when to just back off because you know 7-year-old boys are going to poke other 7-year-old boys.”

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