I can’t cook very well. More specifically, I can’t follow recipes very well. When there are too many details, I realize I’m not actually cooking but rather “assembling” – like one of the 1,000 piece, Ikea set that I have ordered online. Who wants to do that? I like to teach the same way I like to cook: simple, practical, and repeatable. If I want to change things up I can but the fundamental steps are already mastered so I never feel lost. For me, any great meal starts with knowing the main ingredients. Anything else, excuse the pun, is just gravy.
Hence, the five main ingredients for your autism spectrum friendly classroom:
1. SENSORY ADJUSTMENTS – Cooking is all about the five senses – now, in regards to your students with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) think about someone who’s palate is far less adventurous. As a teacher, we must look at how to reduce classroom noises, distracting posters, glare from fluorescent lights, the smells from someone’s lunch bag, screeching from chair legs on the classroom floor, and all those transitions that make a typical school day very difficult.
2. VISUALS – Can you imagine a stove without a temperature dial or an oven without a timer? Visuals remind us about classroom rules, schedules, where supplies are placed, etc. Using pictures and non-verbal cues (like hand signals) keeps your classroom quieter, lessens anxiety, and increases focus.
3. CONSISTENCY – I had an uncle who loved to brag about all the exotic foods he had tried in his life. It was pretty disgusting. I like the basics: hamburgers, pizza, chicken; same old, same old. The unexpected is scary for our children with ASD. Same is Safe for our students on the spectrum and having a predictable routine to the day greatly helps them feel secure. When a child on the spectrum knows what to expect every day in your classroom, the demands for classroom management will magically decrease.
4. DIRECT LANGUAGE – Children on the spectrum don’t pick up on metaphors or figurative language and can get frustrated at their inability to do so. My son on the spectrum heard, “It’s raining cats and dogs” he got so angry because it was a physical impossibility. When speaking to your ASD students, keep your language calm and direct. If you don’t, you will find it’s a recipe for disaster.
5. “SIMPLE SOCIALS” – I put myself through college working as a waiter and know every single kitchen has its own social structure. The same with school – all these nuances, hidden messages, and expectations can be overwhelming. Support your students on the spectrum in the more challenging social situations, such as lunch, recess or other unstructured times by CLEARLY explicitly teaching SIMPLE social skills, turn-taking, and other strategies to develop social competence.
If you’re struggling with behavioral challenges and want to better reach your students on the spectrum, please contact me for other ways to revitalize your classroom environment. Alan Aymie Is a writer, teacher, and autism specialist in Los Angeles, CA where he lives with his wife and three children. More information on what he does can be found at www.teachthespectrum.com