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General recommendations and strategies to better communicate

This is an excerpt from Physical Education for Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders by Michelle Grenier.


Many students with ASD have trouble understanding spoken language. Some are very literal in their interpretation of language and, as a result, need a longer response time during conversations. In other words, students with ASD may be delayed in both expressive and receptive language. Taking turns speaking during conversations and working with others may be difficult because of delayed learning in understanding facial expressions and emotions. Some students are also nonverbal. Following are general recommendations and strategies to better communicate with students with ASD.

  • Determine the communication style of the student. Special education teachers, speech language pathologists, and paraprofessionals can provide support in this area. Use symbols from Boardmaker, an iPad, or another communication device.
  • Communicate class expectations on a daily basis, and present information visually. Options include visual planners or a daily schedule, a whiteboard, or picture cues. Preview physical education with the paraprofessional or teacher to let students know what to expect.
  • Offer visual cues. Modeling is an effective visual instructional and communication technique. Task cards, photos, and videos can also provide clear information. Task cards are helpful for all students and adult assistants in the gym. Many pieces of equipment have picture cues to help students understand them.
  • Give short, precise directions that are positively stated, telling the student what to do rather than what not to do. For example, use the directive “Walk” rather than the phrase “Don’t run.”
  • Give direction with statements, not questions. Do not pose a question if you are not offering the student options. Rather than say, “Are you ready to run your laps?” try, “It’s time to run; would you like to do two laps or three?” and then begin moving.
  • Give directions in a low, firm voice. Do not yell or shout. Do not overexplain or repeat the direction over and over. State the direction and wait. Equipment or activity choice boards can be easily made using photos from equipment catalogs. Say, “We are playing catch today. Which ball do you want to use?” Giving students choices helps to engage them in the activity.
  • Pay attention to nonverbal communication. The ability to use expressive language or to speak coherently is not indicative of cognitive ability. Many students who are nonverbal are very bright. Try to appreciate what students are trying to tell you with their gestures. For example, students who are nonverbal may communicate by pulling you to a specific location.
  • Minimize sport jargon, which can be very confusing. Students with ASD tend to be rather literal in their interpretation of language and may do exactly what you say. For example, if you say, “Fingers on the laces,” the student may touch her shoelaces rather than the laces on the football. “Run home” may be misinterpreted as a directive to literally run to their home. If you say, “Keep your eye on the ball,” the student may touch his eye to the ball. “Gallop back” may be taken to mean gallop backward rather than back to a place in line. Some students confuse gym with Jim, thinking that is their physical education teacher’s name.

Learn more about Physical Education for Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders.

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Physical Education for Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders

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Physical Education for Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders
Offers strategies, insight, and tools to help physical education teachers design a curriculum that includes students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Teachers learn to support students’ abilities and learning interests, develop solutions for appropriate programming, and teach students with ASD the skills they need to learn through natural supports, social learning tools, and engaging activities.
Physical Education for Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders eBook

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