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Autism in the Classroom: An Overview
Preparing Your Classroom for a Student with Autism

By Marlise Witham, M.Ed

Perhaps this year's class includes your first student with autism. While autism is highly complex and every student is unique, there are some general steps teachers can take to make the classroom a more supportive learning environment.

About Autism
Autism Spectrum Disorder, sometimes called Pervasive Developmental Disorder, is a condition that is diagnosed within the first three years of a child's life. As the word spectrum suggests, autism manifests a broad range of symptoms. Students with autism benefit from specialized social, behavioral, and communication interventions designed to lead them to reach their full potential.

With autism, the level of severity varies greatly from student to student. Symptoms may include (but are not limited to):

Repeated (often rigid) body movements
Different (often oversensitive) sensory needs
Delayed verbal and nonverbal communication
Self-abusive behavior

Some individuals with autism refer to themselves in the third person. While the pervasiveness of symptoms spans a broad range, they typically include social and communication challenges.

What Teachers Can Do
Experts recommend that school staff view students with autism as differently abled. All students are able to learn with appropriate instruction and modifications. In order to flourish, individuals with autism need a specialized, individual education program that meets their needs.

Educators can create supportive learning environments by minimizing distractions and unnecessary stimuli and by providing clear classroom structure and routines. In addition, setting consistent classroom expectations is essential for students with autism. Many successful programs include visual schedules, specific teaching of social skills, and computer-based literacy/communication strategies.

Professionals working with students with autism have found that visual, hands-on classroom tools are particularly beneficial, including:

  • Charts that illustrate goals, schedules and expectations (Our suggestions: LER 2504 Daily Schedule Pocket Chart, LER 3233 Magnetic Classroom Schedule Chart, LER 3240 Go for the Goal Chart, LER 3239 Reward Raceway, and LER 3231 Magnetic Subject Labels.)

  • Clocks and timers that show the length of a work period, which enable students to more easily understand when it is time to work and when it is time for a break (See LER 6900 Time Tracker Classroom Timer, LER 6909 Time Tracker Mini, LER 6999 Time Tracker Tags Time Management System, LER 2989 Jumbo Timers, LER 0808 Simple Stopwatch, LER 3218 Time Tabletop Pocket Chart, and LER 2982 Elapsed Time Pocket Chart.)

  • Realia or role play sets that allow for demonstration and teaching of social skills (See LER 2665 Teaching Telephone, LER 2629 Calculator Cash Register, LER 0088 Cash 'n' Carry Wallet, LER 9048 Doctor Set, LER 2642 School Set, LER 9069 Emergency Rescue Set.)

  • Technology tools that give auditory cues to which students may respond without speaking. This provides students with low-stress opportunities to interact with curriculum. (See LER 4412 Talk Block, LER 4409 Talk Point, LER 6910 Radius Audio Learning System, LER 6914 Quizzillion Build Your Own Quiz Game, and LER 4413 Talk Board.)

  • It is estimated that one in every 110 children is diagnosed with autism1. The more teachers know about the disorder, the better they can support each student's learning needs.

    Author Marlise Witham serves as director of Special Programs for Newell-Fonda Schools in Newell, Iowa. With Masters of Education degrees in both Special Education and Education Administration, Marlise has taught in general education, self-contained special education, and hearing-impaired classrooms in Grades PreK - 12. She is driven to provide education opportunities for ALL students to reach their full potential.


    U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Community Report from the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, “Prevalence of the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) in Multiple Areas of the United States, 2004 and 2006”, United States, 2006.


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