Teaching Autistic Children: 3 Things You Need In Place

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boy playing with blocks

Teaching autistic students takes a special and flexible approach.  Every day will be different when it comes to what works with each student and what strategies you need to lean on.  I developed a framework to help educators and parents understand the fundamental areas that are essential for teaching young autistic children.  This framework is fluid, meaning that you will go back and forth between these elements often. 

First, let’s go over each of the elements or pillars in the framework. The first pillar is regulate, the second is connect, the third is routines and the last is teach.

framework for teaching autistic children

1. Regulate

A dysregulated child isn’t going to be in a position to learn new things. We know that autistic children often struggle with interoception, which is the ability to sense the internal state of the body. If the ability to sense the internal state of the body is impaired, it can affect self-regulation, managing emotions, sleeping, toileting, experiencing pain, and identifying symptoms when sick. 

Co-regulation is typically where we need to start at the early childhood level. Co-regulation is defined as warm and responsive interactions that provide the support, coaching, and modeling children need to “understand, express, and modulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors” (Murray et al. 2015). It is the process of soothing and helping children regulate their emotions and body before they have the skills to do so themselves.  Co-regulation helps children learn to regulate their emotions and behaviors with the help of a caregiver.

Differentiating Self-Regulation

Self-regulation, on the other hand, is the ability to manage and control one’s own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It is a developmental skill needed for children to learn to manage their own emotions and behaviors independently. True self-regulation does not fully develop until well past the early childhood years. So, we should not be focusing solely on self-regulation for 3 and 4 year olds. 

The Bridge Between Co-Regulation and Self-Regulation

We should rely heavily on coregulation and begin to teach skills that will bridge to self-regulation. Some strategies that can help bridge the two include: using coregulation consistently, teaching deep breathing, teaching a calming sequence using visual cues and/or video modeling. You should also talk to an occupational therapist to get their ideas for supporting each child. They can help you incorporate sensory tools that can make a big difference.

Meeting each child’s needs in the area of regulation is one of the most important places to start when creating a supportive learning environment. Both coregulation and self-regulation are important for children’s emotional and social development. If our child or student is not regulated, we are not going to be able to teach them the skills that are often goals in their IEP.  Things like communication, fine motor, social and pre-academic skills. It’s essential to be addressing the area of regulation throughout each day!

2. Connect

Fostering a positive relationship with your autistic students is vital. This holds true for teachers, paras, therapists….everyone. You need to reach the child before you can teach the child. Take some extra time at the beginning of the school year to work on relationship building.

Oftentimes, in a self-contained classroom, you don’t have to follow a set curriculum that needs to be started on day one. This gives you the flexibility to schedule in a lot of play and activities that will grow your relationship with your students. Then, be sure you continue to thoughtfully connect with each individual child throughout the school year.

child interest survey

A great way to do this is to find out what the child’s interests and favorite activities are. I have a free resource for you, the Child Interest Survey. This checklist is for you to send home to parents to find out what each student really loves and is geared toward the early childhood level. Grab it by going to www.autismlittlelearners.com/survey

Once you know their preferences, engage in activities without immediately transitioning into “teaching mode.” Avoid bombarding them with questions. Instead, observe, play alongside, listen, and mimic their actions. Connecting involves being present without taking over their play, fostering a genuine connection beyond traditional teaching methods.

Connecting with an autistic child means building a positive and nurturing relationship that goes beyond traditional teaching methods. Developing positive relationships is paramount for creating a secure and trusting environment. It enhances engagement, facilitates communication, and lays the foundation for teaching social skills. Adopting an individualized approach, respecting autonomy, building on interests, following their lead, and creating a supportive environment are key strategies to connect with autistic children effectively.

Some additional ways to foster a positive relationship when teaching an autistic child include:

– Using an individualized approach and tailoring interactions to align with their needs and interests

– Respecting the child’s autonomy and offering choices whenever possible

– Building on the child’s interests to enhance engagement and motivation

– Following the child’s lead in activities and communication

– Creating a supportive and understanding environment where the child feels seen and heard

– Being mindful of personal space and sensory boundaries

– Practicing patience and empathy, and paying close attention to verbal and nonverbal cues

– Being flexible and willing to adjust strategies and plans based on the child’s needs and reactions

– Honoring multi-modal communication, which means to respect the way the child is currently communicating. That could be through sounds (like an unhappy grunt or a happy noise indicating they like something), gestures (like pushing a toy away), through low tech AAC (such as pictures), or through a more robust AAC device.  I place an effective communication system and multimodal communication under the pillar of connect because it is one of the best ways to build a mutually respectful relationship with a child.

3. Routines

The third pillar in the framework is titled ROUTINES. Creating predictable routines is essential to reduce anxiety and create an effective learning environment. With a daily schedule that is as consistent as possible, you will set your students or child up for success.

As they learn the routine, anxiety will lessen and the child’s independence will increase. Visual supports can help children learn classroom and home routines.

Some ways to create routines are by using visual schedules, posted visual sequences, and by using songs to help children remember the steps to an activity.

Predictable routines are important for young autistic children for several reasons:

1. Stability and reduced anxiety: Predictable routines offer clear structure and a sense of security, reducing anxiety levels and helping children feel more in control of their environment.

2. Learning and development: Predictable routines create an environment conducive to learning and development, allowing children to focus on the content of what they’re being taught rather than worrying about what’s coming next.

3. Building positive relationships: Consistency in routines fosters trust and a sense of security, leading to more positive and productive interactions between students and teachers.

4. Anticipation and control: Predictable routines allow children to anticipate what’s coming next, reducing anxiety and providing a sense of control over their environment.

5. Independence: Predictable routines promote independence among autistic students, empowering them and equipping them with valuable life skills.

Examples of predictable routines for teaching young autistic children:

– Creating individualized visual schedules that each student can really understand.  To individualize them, you need to take into account their attention span and what type of symbols they understand.  That will help you decide which symbols to use…objects or pictures and what the length of the schedule should be… a single picture or a sequence of pictures.

– Using visual sequences for common routines like brushing teeth, using the toilet, and getting dressed.

– Implementing systems such as an “all done” bucket, a wait mat, and a simple visual schedule.

– Starting the day with a routine for hanging up coats and backpacks, using visual support to prompt and guide children through the steps.

Once we have put time and effort into making sure our student or child is regulated, has connected with us, and has been introduced to predictable routines, we can start to TEACH. 

Teach

The 3 skills are considered teaching but, when we think of the majority of IEP goals and objectives, we think of skills in all areas of development. 

Things like pre-academic skills, language skills, fine motor skills, etc… These types of skills can’t be taught effectively until we’ve laid the foundation by supporting regulation, connection, and developing routines.  

Some modifications that can help when teaching autistic children include:

– Using an individualized approach tailored to their preferences, interests, and sensory sensitivities

– Respecting the child’s autonomy and offering choices whenever possible

– Building on the child’s interests to enhance engagement and motivation

– Understanding that behavior is a form of communication and interpreting challenging behaviors as unmet needs, an attempt to communicate  or discomfort

– Building a strong trusting relationship with the student, getting to know their interests, strengths, and challenges

– Observing and engaging in activities that the child enjoys to establish a strong foundation for learning

_ Paying attention to the physical layout and structure of the learning spaces. 

– Being mindful of personal space and sensory boundaries, and practicing patience and empathy

– Using visual supports, gestures, or technology to enhance communication and being flexible in your teaching approach

Flexible Approach

This framework is fluid. Meaning that we flow back and forth between all 4 pillars of the framework. We may be teaching a new skill to a child and they become dysregulated. At that point, we need to set our agenda to the side and go back to using regulation strategies that we know help that child. This is going to be the case day by day, student by student.  

I hope this framework helps give you some ideas on what to focus on first, second and third when you have dysregulated students or students who seem hard to connect with. Working on the pillars of regulate, connect, and routines first is going to result in a shift in your classroom. Things will start to feel lighter and less stressful.  

Children learn best when they like their teacher and when they think their teacher likes them”  – Gordon Neufeld

To listen to a related podcast on routines, check out episodes 35 and 41.

To read more on regulation, check out these blog posts!

Want to listen to the podcast episode? Episode 55

If you use visual supports in your classroom or home, you are going to want to sign up for this free Visual Supports Starter Set ASAP! Click here to have one sent to your inbox. Also, be sure to read more about visual supports and how they can help autistic children here.

Visual supports starter set

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