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Understanding the autism spectrum makes better teachers

By Pattie Rouse


As the term "spectrum" implies, a wide range of cognitive, communication, and social abilities is represented in children with autism. The diagnosis ranges from autism with varying degrees of cognitive, social, and communication disabilities to Asperger syndrome, in which the student has normal intelligence and language development

but has deficiencies in social and pragmatic skills (Ervin, 2007). Still, most children with autism have some level of intellectual delay and speech and language problems. Some of these children do not speak; others have limited language skills; and others use repetitive phrases. Yet most experts agree that it is the physical and emotional detachment from other people and the severe communication difficulties that are the hallmark symptoms of autism (Richard, 1997). What works for one student with autism may or may not work for another. A technique that works for a student today may not work tomorrow. There is no "mold" for the child with autism. Therefore, it is imperative to be patient and open to trying new things.

Students with autism need to keep reviewing information to help them remember. It is of great importance as an educator to choose the skill or behavior that you want to teach the student and break that skill into smaller increments. Then, add new information as the student masters each skill.

Many students with autism have very acute senses. Noise, touch, or even bright lights can often overstimulate them, causing them to display stereotypical autistic behaviors such as extended gazing, flapping, rocking, twirling, or spinning (Ervin,2007). This self-stimulating behavior is usually a sign that the child is under stress. If the student starts the self-stimulating behavior during any activity, slow down the activity or take the child to the side, and the self-stimulating behavior should slow down. Using a timer at this point will sometimes help the student calm down a little faster. Also, the student may need to walk around the gym to calm down.

In addition, some students with autism have hypoactive (underresponsive) senses (National Center on Physical Activity and Disability [NCPAD], 2008). In these cases, students can become self-injurious (e.g., engage in head banging, biting, or scratching) when frustrated or overstimulated. When this occurs, the teacher or paraeducator should intervene to stop the behavior. For example, sometimes adding an alternate activity to engage the student will help him or her refocus and stop the behavior. In some extreme cases, the student may need to be removed from the classroom or gym.

Sensory problems may make it difficult for the student to initially participate in physical education or even to enter the gym. So, allow participation in differing degrees or steps, for example, (1) arrive at the gym, (2) next, sit in the corner, (3) then participate only in warm-ups, and (4) eventually do an activity. Some students may start participating at the third or fourth level; others may stay at the first level for weeks. The key is to allow the student the time and modifications necessary for success at any level.

In some cases, the student with sensory issues may need to wear a weighted vest or may need compression strategies. If this is the case, the paraeducator will have been trained to provide what is needed. Most importantly, the school’s occupational therapist (OT) has a formula to determine the amount of weight in the vest and can provide additional strategies and techniques for sensory issues. The general educator needs only to be open to allowing the use of these strategies in the classroom and to realize that once the sensory issues are addressed, the student’s behavior more often than not improves.

On the other hand, some students with autism are sensitive to touch and do not tolerate even the slightest contact from others, even hugs. These students will have a difficult time holding hands in a game, so it may be helpful to provide an object such as a rubber ring or a rope held by another student for the student with autism to grasp, or to avoid holding hands altogether. Also, some students with autism may not be able to tolerate being tagged in a game of chase. In this case, I would ask the general students to avoid tagging the student. This was the case for one of my students, but he and the other students handled the problem without assistance. The student with autism would say "beep, beep" as others approached him for the tag, and the general students just knew instinctively not to tag him. I figured this out by observing and asking the students about it.

Additionally, ordinary things such as clothing tags or scratchy material in clothing can irritate a student and cause him or her to become agitated. The paraeducator will be aware of these circumstances with the student and will often handle the issue before it becomes a problem. Once again, the general educator needs to be open to strategies carried out by the paraeducator to address these sensory issues.

Be prepared for distractions from students with sensory struggles, and inform the general peers that some things may need to be ignored. In the initial stages of inclusion, you should be ready to teach over these distractions and understand that improvement will be seen over time. Be patient and focus on the process. Learning strategies to decrease negative behaviors and increase positive behaviors is critical when you are teaching students with autism. I have found that it is more effective for most students with autism to work toward a positive reinforcement rather than having things taken away because of negative behaviors. This strategy keeps the student in a positive state and motivates the student to perform given tasks. Too often, I have seen students with autism become upset and almost defiant when things such as computer, recess, or free time are taken away because they did not do what was asked of them. Accentuate the positive for positive results.

With this in mind, note that students with autism have significant difficulty expressing their thoughts and desires in an effective manner. For example, sometimes the purpose of a negative behavior is to gain attention, or a behavior may be an attempt to communicate. Knowing this, the paraeducator or the teacher can help others understand some of the student’s confusing behaviors. Communication between the teacher, paraprofessional, and family members is necessary to help the student transition more effectively and be a part of the general classroom. This is truly a team effort, and the student responds better when all adults are on the same page and have the same expectations, whether at home or at school.

This is an excerpt from Inclusion in Physical Education.




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