Today we have a guest post from Barbara Boroson, author of Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Inclusive Classroom, How to Reach and Teach Students with ASD. Barbara is a nationally-recognized professional development provider with 25 years of experience in autism spectrum education, and is the mother of a teenage son with ASD. She brings her unique perspective as both educator and parent to guide teachers in creating learning environments that are attuned to the needs of children with ASD and allow all students to learn and grow together. Here, she provides valuable and practical insight on how educators can prepare to support their students with ASD before the first day of school.
Every student on the autism spectrum will enter your classroom bearing a backpack full of worries. If they can’t put those worries down when the new school year begins, then toting that heavy load will become a way of life at school, a learned behavior. Each day they will return to school burdened and compromised by the worries on their backs. Seize this time during the summer to prepare a classroom that exudes comfort, clarity, and consistency, so that students can offload their worries and be ready to learn, even on day one.
Here is a basic list of what you can do before day one to ease the transition for students on the spectrum:
1. Reach out to families. Send home a questionnaire that asks about strengths, challenges, anxiety triggers, and comfort anchors (find one specially designed for this purpose at www.barbaraboroson.com). Learn what makes your students tick—as well as what makes them tic. Any anecdotal information that emerges from these contacts will help you pave the way for day one and beyond.
2. Talk to colleagues who may have had experience with these specific students so that you can benefit from both their struggles and successes. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel; instead, plan to use tried and true strategies both to establish continuity, and, of course, to avoid known provocations and potholes.
3. Spend some time with your co-teacher and/or classroom paraprofessional to clarify roles together.You and your co-teacher may prefer to take turns leading the class, or to divide lessons and tasks according to your own strengths and interests. Get yourselves in sync in terms of decoding and responding to behaviors (as described throughout my new book, Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Inclusive Classroom: How to Reach and Teach Students with ASD). With paraprofessionals, review professional expectations and rules of confidentiality, and share the Fact & Tip Sheet (p.233), which was created just for them.
4. Arrange for students on the spectrum to visit your classroom shortly before the school year begins. The issues that are important to them may be quite different than you’d expect. They may be comforted by discovering what the classroom smells like, what they can see from their assigned seat, what kind of clock is on the wall, what color your hair is, and more. With students on the spectrum, first impressions are really lasting impressions. Try to make this visit a good one.
5. Create a visual schedule for the first day of school. Students on the spectrum have a compelling need to know what to expect. If possible, have the first-day schedule posted when students visit. Show them how to interpret and manipulate it. And when school begins, stick to it!
6. Avoid seating these students near expectable distractions or sensory provocateurs, such as the loudspeaker, the windows, the easel, the gerbil cage, the Bunsen burner, the microwave, the bathroom, and so on. Remember, it may all be perceived as much louder, brighter, and smellier to students on the spectrum than it is to you.
7. Restrain yourself from decorating every inch of wall space. A disorganized external environment fuels a disorganized internal environment. Instead, create clear, uncluttered spaces with minimalist decorations that are comforting and comprehensible, while still attractive to others. Eventually, as students on the spectrum become familiar with the classroom, you might be able to add more elements to the decor; but at first, less is definitely more.
8. If possible, designate a small corner of your classroom as a Cozy Corner or Sensory Space. Soften it up with some basics comforts: pillows or beanbag chairs, a small rug, a couple of stuffed animals, a few friendly books and magazines. If you’ve learned what might specifically comfort certain students, add that, too. This may become a comfy place for any student who needs to decompress a bit, but for your students on the spectrum, it will be a sanctuary.
9. Post basic classroom rules in clear, simple language. Students on the spectrum may not generalize that some rules are consistent from one classroom to the next, while others vary from teacher to teacher. They also won’t necessarily infer that classroom rules are different from, say, gym rules. But once they understand the rules, these students are likely to be your most reliable rule-followers.
10. Brush away your doubts and polish up your confidence. You can do this. Really. It’s important to believe that, because thinking positive will keep you feeling optimistic. And staying optimistic will optimize progress and sustain the positive atmosphere. It’s an upward spiral.
These ideas are just a beginning—alone, they won’t get you through the year. But, they’ll help get you and your students on the spectrum off to a gentle start. There will be plenty of fine-tuning to do later and you can read all about that in Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Inclusive Classroom: How to Reach and Teach Students with ASD. But for now, just lighten the load.
As a national keynote speaker on Autism Spectrum Disorder, Barbara travels the country, providing presentations and professional development workshops to educators. Barbara’s full list of schedule speaking events, which can be found here, includes the International Literacy Association (ILA) conference in Boston, MA on July 9th.
We are giving five readers the chance to win a copy of Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Inclusive Classroom, How to Reach and Teach Students with ASD. To enter for a chance to win, leave a comment below telling us what you are most anxious about as you prepare to work with students on the spectrum in the coming school year. One entry per person. All entries must be submitted by 5:59 p.m. ET on July 17, 2016. U.S. residents, 18 and over, please. See the complete legal rules here.