4 Teaching Strategies for Students with Autism

In 2000, fewer than 100,000 students with autism were served by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law requiring access to free public education for disabled children and young adults. By 2018, less than two decades later, that number had septupled to more than 700,000 students — over 10 percent of the 6,964,000 disabled students who were covered that year.

As more U.S. students are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — a disorder whose “prevalence rate has nearly tripled” since 2000, according to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health — it’s increasingly important for educators to develop adequate and appropriate response strategies. By increasing their awareness of various educational strategies for students with autism, not only can teachers better serve their students — they can also develop valuable skills that will help them stand out to potential employers.  

In this article, we’ll explore four teaching strategies for students with autism spectrum disorder, which can be utilized to help young learners achieve better outcomes. Whether you’ve already begun your career as a special education teacher, or you are still in the process of earning your credential through an accredited teaching program, the methods and concepts discussed below can benefit the children you work with. 

4 Instructional Strategies for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

It’s important for teachers to understand that ASD is not a learning (intellectual) disability. Instead, autism spectrum disorder is categorized as a developmental disability. In contrast to learning disabilities like dyslexia, which are characterized by difficulty with language, mathematical calculation, and/or sustained focus, ASD is associated with symptoms like repetitive motions, difficulty socializing, and compulsive or ritualistic behaviors, which range in severity from child to child. Despite these distinctions, there is also significant overlap between ASD and learning disabilities, with Autism Speaks reporting, “31 percent of children with ASD have an intellectual disability.” 

Even though ASD is not considered a learning disability, it can still create challenges to academic success by impacting communication, socialization, and other key aspects of a child’s behavior and development. However, educators can overcome these challenges by implementing effective academic strategies for students with autism, which we’ve supplied four examples of below. 

Strategy #1: Limiting Sensory Overload 

As any teacher knows from experience, the classroom can be a hectic environment, especially at lower grade levels such as elementary school classes. From the shouting and laughter of children to the humming and blinking of lights, it’s easy for students to lose their focus — especially when they don’t feel motivated to learn

These types of environmental factors can be distracting for any student — but for students with ASD, they can be overwhelming. Many children and adults who have ASD — anywhere from 69 to 93 percent, according to some research — experience hypersensitivity or other “sensory symptoms,” including “overreactions to the sensory environment” (such as “covering [their] ears to the sound of someone singing”). 

While it’s impossible to eliminate every potential distraction, teachers can still make a positive difference by identifying and managing sources of sensory overload. For example, Autism Speaks points out that some students who have ASD might feel discomfort with making sustained eye contact, changing in busy locker rooms, or standing in crowded lines. By taking simple actions to avoid or accommodate these scenarios — for instance, granting students with ASD “a few minutes to unwind after walking in a noisy hallway,” or allowing students to “dress when the locker room is empty” — educators can make the classroom a more welcoming and less distracting environment. 

Strategy #2: Using Rewards and Incentives (Applied Behavior Analysis) 

Applied behavior analysis, or ABA, is a form of therapy that is used to help children with ASD manage or eliminate problem behaviors, such as behaviors that result in self-harm or disruptions to other children. One of the most widely-used treatments for children with ASD, applied behavior analysis therapy works by using rewards and incentives to reinforce positive behaviors. 

Though sometimes controversial, ABA has also been proven effective for certain children by research. For example, a peer-reviewed study published in 2020 “found that long-term, comprehensive ABA-based interventions were beneficial to lifelong development of children with ASD,” highlighting “socialization, communication and expressive language” as being potentially “promising targets for ABA-based interventions.” 

Only individuals who meet certain educational and professional requirements can become ABA therapists. However, all teachers can implement the basic ideas of ABA, such as positive reinforcement in the classroom (or online classroom). To explore these topics in depth, read about how teachers can use reward systems to encourage better student engagement, or explore our Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis, which will prepare you for a career as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). 

Strategy #3: Providing Appropriate Feedback for Students with ASD

Students who have ASD frequently have difficulties with communication. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that you are clear and direct when providing student feedback, asking questions, or giving directions. Avoid metaphorical or abstract language and choose simple, straightforward wording to minimize the risk of misunderstandings. It’s also important to periodically check in with your students to see how they’re progressing and whether they’re struggling with any particular aspects of a course, task, or assignment.  

Strategy #4: Focusing on Autism Reading Comprehension Strategies

Reading is an essential skill for lifetime learning. Without strong reading comprehension skills, not only are students likely to struggle with completing their assignments and retaining information — they’re also at risk for additional problems. According to The Children’s Reading Foundation, children with poor reading comprehension are more likely to “struggle with low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy,” and may even be in danger of “attendance and dropout problems.” 

Because some research has shown that reading difficulties are common in children with ASD, educators should be mindful of their strategies for teaching literacy. Here are five techniques that educators can use to teach stronger reading comprehension skills to students with ASD: 

  1. Begin cultivating a passion for reading at the earliest age possible. 
  2. Choose reading material that is likely to be intellectually stimulating for the student, such as material that is related to his or her subjects of interest. It is common for children with ASD to develop intense interests in specific subjects, which may provide ideal reading material. 
  3. Communicate with the student’s family to encourage at-home reading activities. 
  4. Talk about the figurative or metaphorical meanings that exist “between the lines” in fiction. 
  5. Teach technological literacy, so that your students can easily read on a variety of devices. 

Using these three success strategies for teaching kids with autism, educators can diversify their professional skill sets while promoting a more inclusive environment for students. 

Earn Your Teaching Credential, MS in ABA, or Graduate Certificate in Autism at National University 

Whether your goal is to become a special education teacher, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, a school counselor for children with ASD, or to explore a related career path, you’ll hone the skills you need in National University’s challenging, fast-paced degree programs. 

Our accredited programs in school psychology, teacher education, and special education offer a wide range of academic options for undergraduate, graduate, and transfer students. NU students can pursue their passion through programs like the Master of Science in Educational Counseling, the Graduate Certificate in Autism, the MS in ABA, or other academic majors, combining theory and analysis with hands-on fieldwork to build the foundations for a rewarding and dynamic career. 

Earn the degree, credential, or certificate you need to take your teaching career to the next level. Ask our admissions office about our accredited ABA and educational counseling programs, or start your application today.  

Additional Sources

https://online.sju.edu/graduate/masters-special-education/resources/articles/techniques-for-teaching-students-with-autism-spectrum-disorder 

https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=64 

https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/news/20180426/more-us-kids-being-diagnosed-with-autism 

https://www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2020/us-autism-rates-up-10-percent-in-new-cdc-report.html 

https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Learning-Disabilities-Information-Page 

https://www.additudemag.com/autism-learning-disability-symptoms/ 

https://www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-differences/getting-started/what-you-need-to-know/is-autism-a-learning-disability 

https://www.autismspeaks.org/autism-statistics 

https://www.medicinenet.com/autism_symptoms_and_signs/symptoms.htm 

https://www.appliedbehavioranalysisprograms.com/faq/controversy-surrounding-aba/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7265021/ 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4918912/ 

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1750946717301460 

https://www.readingrockets.org/article/reading-comprehension-and-autism-primary-general-education-classroom 

https://www.readingfoundation.org/the-impact 

https://www.readandspell.com/us/autism-and-reading-comprehension