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:

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.