The United States Center for Disease Control states that the 2011-2012 rate of autism is 1 in every 50 children in the United States. As the most prevalent childhood developmental disorders, the chances are very good that you will meet a child with autism, and you may even get to teach one of these children at some point. Whether you're teaching an autistic child in your own home, at a care center, in a school setting or at a church or other community center, it can help to have some background on the disorder and some tricks to help the autistic child in your life learn.
Traits of autism
Before you jump into teaching a child with autism, it will help to have some background on this complex disorder. The first thing to understand is that autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that children with autism have a variety of abilities and levels of functioning. Children at the high-end of the autism spectrum may seem "normal" and only have difficulty interacting in social settings, whereas children on the low-end of the spectrum may not speak, be toilet trained or be able to care for their most basic needs.
All children with autism will share some of the same traits, however. Some of these symptoms include the inability to read social cues such as body language and tone, difficulty expressing themselves verbally and repetitive behaviors such as body movements, arranging objects, or repeating words or phrases.
Also, some children with autism may suffer from sensory processing disorders, sleep disorders, digestive problems and/or seizure disorders.
Setting yourself up for success
As a teacher, you can create a classroom or home setting that will allow your autistic learners to flourish. A couple of things to consider are:
Many autistic children have a hard time focusing when faced with too many distractions. Keep noises and displays to a minimum in the space where they will be learning.
Space to cool off
Children with autism become overwhelmed easily, and they need a safe place to go and cool off, preferably where it is dim and quiet. Let him know that this space is always available when he is feeling out of control.
Children with autism do well with structured routines. Hang a pictorial schedule somewhere in the learning space and stick to it.
Because many autistic children have difficulty with expressive communication, make sure they have the tools they need, such as a PECS system or language book, to help them communicate their needs.
The most important ingredient to create a successful learning environment is genuine love. Even if you feel the autistic child you are caring for doesn't connect with you, know that you are an important part of his world even if he doesn't have the language to express it. All children want to feel that their caregivers are supportive.
It may take some time to learn the unique characteristics of the child you are teaching, but communicate openly with the child's parents or guardians. They are a great resource to help you develop effective teaching techniques.
For more information about autism and support for teaching the autistic child, visit autismspeaks.org.