Understanding the Needs of Students with Autism

Understanding the Needs of Students with Autism

When working with students with autism, it is vital for educators to understand the unique combination of needs of their students in order to achieve success within the classroom. “No two students with autism are alike,” says Nina Finkler, M.Ed., LDT/C, BCBA and presenter of edWebinar’s Understanding the Needs of Students with Autism. “Students with autism spectrum disorder present unique challenges to any educator working in the classroom or school setting.”

According to Finkler, the challenges students with autism present are in the areas of learning, communication, socialization, and behavior. As educators, it is important to understand what autism is and how it is diagnosed. “Simply put, autism is a processing disorder that makes it difficult to take in information,” says Finkler. “As educators, we must focus on how to help students who process things differently.”

As recently as 2013, the way autism is diagnosed has been changed dramatically. Previously, students may have fallen into categories ranging from minor difficulties or minimal impairments to individuals with high IQ and no cognitive difficulties. Now, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is determined if an individual has persistent deficits in social communication and interactive and restricted repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities.

“A child will receive a medical diagnosis of autism, but then we as educators must understand how and where the child’s deficits are so we can program appropriately for that child,” says Finkler. “When designing educational programs for students with autism, it is important to recognize each and every child’s areas of deficits, then utilize strengths while working to develop the deficit areas.”

Some areas of deficits for students with ASD:

Social skills deficits

Examples of social skill deficits include the impaired use of eye contact, impaired play skills, lack of imaginative play, difficulty relating to people or a preference to be alone. Students with autism may have a greater attachment to objects than people. The idea of the theory of mind, or lack of understanding how others feel, is also prevalent in students with ASD. A lack of reciprocity or a lack of understanding of social cues and a narrow range of interests or no sharing of interests is also common amongst students with autism.

Impairments in language

Of individuals with autism, 20-30 percent do not develop verbal language and often use alternative or augmentative communication systems to communicate. Students with ASD also present comprehension deficits or impairments in using gestures and interactive or social communication. In terms of auditory function, students with autism may have immediate and delayed echolalia, repetitive auditory behaviors (acts as if deaf) and perseveration. Students with autism may have difficulty with abstract concepts and could use inappropriate behavior to express communicative needs.

Behavioral characteristics

In addition to social and language deficits, students with autism may also present behavioral characteristics that educators must consider in determining programs. Individuals may appear rigid or stiff. There may be an insistence on sameness and stereotypes.  If uncomfortable or in a stressful situation, students with ASD may tend to use self-injury, tantrums and aggression, or ritualistic behaviors to express themselves. Other behavior characteristics can include unusual response to pain, sleeping and feeding/eating issues, and hyperactivity or passivity.

Learning characteristics

Students with autism may have an uneven learning profile. Much of the techniques educators utilize in order to teach and evaluate comprehension can potentially pose challenges for students with ASD. For example, difficulty with imitation, resistant to change, difficulty generalizing, reliance on cues and routines, difficulty with unstructured time and waiting are all common learning characteristic deficits. Their problem-solving ability or judgment tends to be impaired. Additionally, splinter skills, issues with attention and focus, and little or no response to social reinforcement may present challenges to educators teaching or working with students with autism.

Watch the edWebinar recording

Despite learning characteristic deficits, students with autism tend to be visual learners or concrete learners. Based significant scientific research and evidence, Vizzle, an interactive visual learning platform, was created specifically to help students with autism and special needs. Vizzle was created in collaboration with special education educators and experts at the Monarch Center for Autism and with researchers from the Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

“My caseload is really diverse and I typically get the entire classroom at one time. Vizzle is so adaptable and it allows me to accommodate each of my student’s needs.” — Kristine Hampton, Speech-Language Pathologist, Conestoga Valley SD

Vizzle is being used in more than 1,000 schools across the country and helping as many as 33,000 students with special needs succeed. If you’re a teacher, speech therapist or paraprofessional working with students with autism, you can register for a free trial and try Vizzle in your classroom today!

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