Every child is unique – with individual learning styles, motivations, triggers, likes, dislikes, and abilities. The same is true for children with autism. In recognition of Autism Acceptance Month, educators from our team have compiled this refresher on autism along with 10 tips to help substitute teachers and paraprofessionals better understand how autism affects those with the condition. If you’re a sub or para pro, bookmark these tips so you can best support your students with autism – and be sure to help spread autism awareness and acceptance by sharing this post with your colleagues!
Autism is also referred to as autism spectrum disorder or ASD. Children with autism have difficulty understanding and reading others, so social skills often need to be taught differently.
Diagnosing ASD can be difficult because there is no definitive test. According to the CDC, symptoms of autism related to social skills and interactions include, but are not limited to:
- An inability to “read” others
- Difficulties with back-and-forth conversations and interactions
- Poor nonverbal communication skills and behaviors, and difficulty understanding these cues in other people
- Trouble adjusting behaviors to various situations, often resulting in inappropriate behaviors
- Lack of interest in peers
- Lack of desire for imaginary or collaborative play
- Inflexibility with routines and schedules
- Sensory sensitivities
- Difficulty responding to social interactions or initiating them
Why is Autism Considered a Spectrum Disorder?
Autism is called a spectrum disorder because it can have varying degrees of severity. Some children with autism are considered high-functioning, and their symptoms may not be noticeable in many circumstances. However, symptoms of ASD may become more prevalent in a highly social environments like school, particularly when the student’s routine is thrown off (for instance, when a substitute teacher steps in or a new paraprofessional enters the picture).
How Subs and Paraprofessionals Can Support Students with ASD
Although having a new substitute teacher or paraprofessional can be challenging for students with autism, you can take steps to ensure the transition is smoother. As a sub or parapro, you can prepare by using effective classroom management skills and evidence-based strategies to support students with autism. Here are 10 tips to help:
1. Refer to the Student’s IEP
As a substitute, you may or may not be given all the necessary information about the needs of each student. When possible, reach out and ask your supervisor (maintaining strict confidentiality) if any of the students you’re supporting has an individualized education plan (IEP) which may help guide your approach. The IEP is created for students with disabilities, such as autism, and it will have specific information based on careful assessment for each student. However, you may not be given access to each student’s IEP. Whether or not you are provided access to the IEP of a student with autism, the additional guidance that follows will help you best support the student.
2. Build Rapport with Students
One of the most important things you can do in any classroom is to build rapport with your students, even if you are just there for the day. Take a few minutes to get to know the group, and when possible, spend some time with each person individually throughout the day. While students with autism may not display the same social skills as typically developing peers, this does not mean they aren’t interested in social interaction, and they may still be learning the social skills needed to interact confidently. They may feel overwhelmed and/or seem hesitant to engage, so gauge each student’s comfort level and give encouraging feedback. You may not be aware of a student’s diagnosis of ASD, so be sensitive to each student’s needs and never take anything personally.
3. Maintain Consistency
In addition to following the lesson plan or the instructions provided to you by the school personnel, take cues from your students and ask them questions about what they normally do. Structure and routines are essential for successful classroom management and must be adhered to as closely as possible. For students with autism, consistency is especially important. By maintaining the existing structures and routines, you are providing a consistent environment that allows children on the autism spectrum to feel safe. Feeling safe and secure is critical for any student to be engaged and available for learning.
4. Use Positive Reinforcement
Reinforcement helps students understand the relationship between behaviors and consequences that follow behaviors. When used effectively, reinforcement can help teach target skills and increase desired behaviors. Providing positive reinforcement (such as behavior-specific praise) for desired or appropriate behaviors is an effective tool for you as a substitute or paraprofessional, even if you don’t have access to an IEP. Be sure to provide the reinforcement each time (and only when) the student engages in the desired behavior. If the classroom uses a token economy, use that system to reinforce behavior as well.
5. Model Desired Behaviors
In modeling, the educator shows students how to perform a skill while describing each step with a rationale. This gives students both a visual and verbal example of what they will be expected to do. The model can be delivered in-person or via video or audio. Video modeling is well-documented in the behavioral sciences as an effective intervention or support for students with autism. Demonstrating the behavior for a learner to mimic has been used to target various behaviors across many areas of functioning, including language, social behavior, play, academics, and adaptive skills.
- h3>6. Provide Structured Social Interactions
Just as modeling helps guide the behavior of students with autism, providing structured social interactions is another support that gives students clarity and security in navigating social situations. Provide pre-packaged responses for expected interactions and explicitly teach appropriate behaviors. For example, if asking the class to participate in a turn-based game, make it clear that students should count to two before taking their turn after another student has completed their turn. Another example is instructing students to say, “May I borrow your colored pencil?” if they need a colored pencil from another student. While we may take some of these skills for granted, we engage in such structured social interactions every day. While some people learn implicitly how to respond in various social situations, explicit instruction is needed for students with autism to be able to effectively communicate their needs or successfully participate in a social setting such as school.
7. Use Priming
Priming (or front-loading information prior to an activity) is an intervention that helps prepare children for an upcoming activity or event that they may typically find challenging. Priming can occur at home or in the classroom and is most effective if it is built into the child's routine. Students with autism tend to benefit from knowing and being reminded of the schedule, transitions, or upcoming activities. This is especially true if there will be a break in routine (such as a field trip) or a potentially stressful event (such as a test or quiz). If you know of an upcoming event that may present challenges for students with autism, be sure to prime within the existing routine and offer help to prepare as needed before the event.
8. Use Prompting
Students with autism may become easily overwhelmed with tasks when things don’t go as they expected. If a student you are supporting seems off-task or disengaged, they may benefit from prompting. Prompting can be thought of as simply providing the level of support necessary to help them be successful. This might include a direct instruction, written reminder, or a gesture.
9. Use Task Analysis
Task analysis is a teaching process that breaks down complex activities into a series of simple steps that students are able to learn more easily. Once you have broken down the task into its simplest components, prompt the student to engage in one step at a time. Be sure to offer positive reinforcement upon successful completion of each step.
10. Collaborate with Special Education Service Providers
While these tips are designed to help substitute teachers and paraprofessionals who may have varied experiences working with students with autism or who may not be aware of each student’s abilities, nothing replaces the expertise and familiarity of the students’ service providers. This may include the special education teacher, school psychologist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, and more. Reach out with any questions or challenges you may have to gain the skills and knowledge you need to understand and best support learners who have autism. Always maintain strict confidentiality when doing so.
Additional Resources to Support Autism Awareness and Acceptance
Autism Speaks A comprehensive resource for anyone looking to learn more about autism spectrum disorder. The site includes more in-depth information about various therapies and ways you can get involved with ongoing support of those with autism.
National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum NPDC has free professional resources for teachers, therapists, and technical assistance providers who work with individuals with ASD. Resources include detailed information on how to plan, implement, and monitor specific evidence-based practices.
California Autism Professional Training and Information Network, or CAPTAIN CAPTAIN is a multiagency network developed to support the understanding and use of evidence-based practices for individuals affected by autism spectrum disorder across the state of California. They offer resources such as manuals and padlets (digital collections of sticky note resources) for supporting students with autism.
Thanks for reading! To find more valuable tips from our team, visit our resources for educators.