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Effective Classroom Strategies for Students with Autism

written by: jenniferterry • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 9/11/2012

Children with autism learn the most when they are in an environment that is physically comfortable, mentally soothing, and the lesson plans spark their interests. This article focuses on using a child's special interest as a teaching tool.

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    The Advantages of Teaching a Child with Autism

    Obsessions have long been viewed as a deficit in children with autism. Some have focused attentions on trying to increase the child's purview of likes, however embracing the "obsession" can prove to be more beneficial for the teacher and the child. After all, an obsession is merely a special interest.

    Most children have these special interests in a particular toy or character. The special interest last for a short length of time and they move to another special interest. For instance, a train may infatuate a typical child. For a solid week, the child will talk about nothing but trains. He or she is happy to get or hear anything about a train. As suddenly as it began, the obsession with trains is over and without warning the child now loves fashion dolls.

    A child with autism will usually continue their special interest through adulthood. This is an advantage over trying to teach a typical child in a way that is motivating and interesting to them. Most of a child's high school years are spent with a school guidance counselor trying to get the young adult to identify a special interest. Because the child with autism has already identified theirs, we can plan long-term and look ahead to possible vocational interests. Then we can focus attention on those probable adult interests.

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    Teaching to the Special Interest

    Effective classroom strategies will always begin by identifying the child's present level of performance and the next level we should strive to achieve. Once this is identified, review the lesson plan for your class. How can you work the child's special interests into the lesson plan?

    In preschool and early elementary this may be very easy. If the child's special interest is airplanes, he or she can color pictures of airplanes, identify the color of the airplane in photographs, read a story about airplanes. Chances are many other students in the class are also interested in airplanes and will be happy to work with them. Even if they are not as delighted with airplanes as the child with autism, it doesn't take away from the class to incorporate and even focus on airplanes for most lessons. The children are probably not very interested in counting dots either but they are always there.

    As the child gets older, there will be science fairs in which he can build a model of an airplane, tell how the propeller works, add airplanes, count the pieces of the airplane, read how the engine of an airplane works and write a report, the child may present a report to the class about airplanes. If the child is hesitant about speaking to a group allow them to give the presentation to one or two people then increase the number as their comfort level increases.

    In high school, the child may learn about the airport. Here he can learn what jobs are available at the airport. The class will benefit from a field trip to the airport. The child with autism can identify further aspects of the airport that he likes. Some of these likes can transfer to jobs on other locations, or the child may begin an internship at the airport with support from the high school.

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    Do Not Forget the Basics

    In order for the child to grow up to be a successful adult (perhaps working at the airport) they must have certain skills. Personal hygiene can be taught utilizing the special interest, microwave cooking, and accessing public transportation are also important skills.

    Identifying and keeping the child's special interest in mind can be the most effective classroom strategy a teacher can develop.