Five Tips for Working with Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

By Erica Rooney

Student wearing gloves finger paintsThese tips may be useful, but only if they apply! One size fits none. Observe your students with fresh eyes. Our guides are our students, and they are all different. We always talk about getting our students to connect to us, but our work is to connect to them and to learn how to read their language first.

  1. Use music. Music can help students regulate. It creates community. Combine it with a rhythmic movement, such as clapping or tapping the knees (audio-visual synchrony) for even greater impact. You can even add a short chant.
  2. “Please help me.” Create a card or a cue for your students. Asking for help is not always easy for students with ASD. Interestingly, giving students a technique to ask for help generates self-awareness (that they need help), task awareness (what they need to do), social awareness (who to ask), communication skills (that language has a purpose), and initiative (I can ask!).
  3. Be specific. “What color do you want?” is harder to answer than “Do you want blue or red?” “Who do you want to choose?” is harder than “Do you want to choose Jake or Lisa?” When you say, “Pay attention!” a student may wonder, “pay attention to what?” The phrase “Look at me.” is clearer.
  4. Know when to push and when not to push. If a student’s “color of the year” is purple, you might have to let it be. Think carefully about whether it is more important to push the student to use orange than it is to honor his or her fixation. Weigh the consequences and consider your goals.
  5. Be aware of language capabilities. Some students have very good receptive language but poor expressive language. Some students have very good expressive language but poor receptive language. We can miss connecting with a student if we assume both skills are working, but only one is.

Photo of Erica RooneyErica Rooney is a teaching artist and licensed creative arts therapist in New York City. She is a Master Teaching Artist with Marquis Studios’ Teaching Artist Training Institute.

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