A friend who is an experienced teacher shared some observations with several of her colleagues who were, for the first time in their young careers, having students diagnosed with autism assigned to their classrooms. Among other things, the teachers asked for some tips to help students focus in class.
Tip # 1. Avoid using eye contact as a measure of attention. We tend to measure the attention of students by their eye contact – are they looking at the speaker or at the book or at the board as the teacher is talking or demonstrating a concept? Some individuals with autism do not seem to make eye contact, but that is not necessarily an indication of inattention.
Tip #2. Repetitive mannerisms are not necessarily signs of inattention. One of my young adult friends with autism reports that high school was challenging for her because teachers assumed her repetitive rocking and occasional hand flapping signaled boredom or inattention. She said that she actually found herself making repetitive motions when she was excited about learning something new. We decided it would be best if she didn’t sit on the front row where her motions distracted other students.
Tip #3. Predictable routines encourage focus. Teachers can really help keep things on an even keel by having a predictable classroom routine. Some students respond well to a general schedule of classes, lunch, and breaks, and others do better with a more specific listing of individual tasks for the hour or the day. It usually works best if the teacher introduces the schedules (and changes of schedule) in a rather low-key, matter-of-fact manner rather than making a big production that only emphasizes a youngsters autism amidst more typical peers.
Tip # 4. Routine objects and tasks. Because school days can be rather unpredictable, teachers can add some steadiness for their students with autism by inserting routine objects and tasks. For example, the student could use the same type of pencil, the same basketball in P.E., or the same computer every day. The student could be “in charge” of checking attendance or putting away playground balls after recess or other routine tasks. Anything a teacher can do to help establish a regular routine will decrease agitation and increase attention.
TIP FOR THE DAY: Every individual with autism is different. Some students will seem to be distracted and inattentive in class, when, actually, they are absorbing every word and concept. Others will seem very focused, even obsessed, with the task at hand when they are actually absorbed in a movie script that keeps repeating in their head or intently watching a spider walking across the wall.
NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At FAQautism.com we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me a confidential email at talk@FAQautism.com with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism. http://FAQautism.com