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Teaching Kids with Autism

Recently the Montana GM Department invited Charles Chivers, Executive Director of Special Touch Ministries, to come and be the main speaker of our Leadership Advance. The topic of our Advance was, "Working with children with special needs and disabilities." In one of the workshops, Charles gave tips for teaching students with autism.

The following bullet points came from notes Charles shared from Jim Pierson-Exceptional Teaching.

• Don't let the student's behavior overwhelm you. Working with her parents, arrange a plan for dealing with her behavior. Target the behaviors that are most disrupting to the class.

• Involve the student in the class. Find a task she can do.

• Develop a picture and word schedule for the routine of class. It will be especially useful when the student changes from one activity to another.

• Use her peers to interest her and demonstrate appropriate behavior.

• Train an assistant to work with the student.

• Don't pressure the student to do things she doesn't want to do. Give her a choice.

• Develop a special handshake, a word, or a gesture and use it every time you greet your student.

• Avoid asking, "Would you like to color these pictures?" Instead say, "We are going to color these pictures. We are so excited!" Approaching the student with a plan in mind keeps her from having to decide. Remember, she thinks in pictures and it takes her a little while to get them all in place. She probably wants to color but has not arrived at that point. You make the decisions and she (probably) will follow the plan.

• Keep your classroom as structured as possible.

• Try to maintain the same routine. If there is a change, tell the student with autism in advance. If she is notified, the change will be easier.

• Follow the parent's and school's leads in dealing with ritualistic behaviors (pacing, hand waving). Everyone in the student's life should use the same approach.

• Give the student time to adjust to her new classroom space and the people in it.

• Prepare her for the experience. Take her to the classroom when no one else is there. Talk to her about what will happen. Show her the picture schedule on the wall.

• As time goes by, expect more of the student.

• Because she may not enjoy being touched or having you invade her space, don't approach her directly. Without looking at her, sort of back into her space.

• When orienting the other members of the class about their classmate with autism, tell them she doesn't always look at them and she might pull away when they touch her. This is part of having autism. As she gets to know them, she might look at them more and not be bothered by being touched. Stress with children that their friend with autism knows they are there and is happy about it.

I hope these tips can help bridge gaps in practical ways so classroom time goes smoother and relationships between sponsor, class, and special needs student grow in beautiful ways.

For more on this topic, see Momentum Leadership Development Unit: Education, available through

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