What Teachers Should Know

Autism is one of the most common developmental disabilities. People with autism, also called autism spectrum disorder (ASD), have differences in the way their brains develop and process information. As a result, they face significant communication, social, and behavior challenges.

Symptoms can be severe and interfere with everyday tasks, or they can be mild and cause only a few problems. Experts call this range of symptoms a "spectrum." Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorders (PDD) are conditions that fall within the autism spectrum.

Signs of autism may include:

  • trouble interacting, playing with, or relating to others
  • little or brief eye contact with others
  • unusual or repetitive movements, such as hand flapping, spinning, or tapping
  • delays in developmental milestones or loss of already-achieved milestones
  • difficulties learning in school
  • playing with toys in ways that seem odd or repetitive
  • low muscle tone, clumsiness, and poor spatial awareness

Although there's no cure for autism, early intervention and therapy can help kids develop skills and achieve their potential. Therapy is tailored to each child's individual needs and may include behavioral, educational, speech, and occupational therapies.

Students with autism may:

  • get easily frustrated and act out in certain situations
  • be sensitive to bright lights, loud noises, or busy hallways
  • need to go to the school nurse for medications
  • miss class time for doctor visits and therapies
  • have trouble speaking or not speak at all
  • seem insensitive or unemotional
  • need extra time for class assignments and homework
  • need to take tests in a separate area away from distractions

Because bullies often target students who seem "different," health conditions like autism can put kids and teens at higher risk for bullying.

What Teachers Can Do

Many students with autism can thrive in a structured environment, so establish a routine and keep it as consistent as possible. Adhering to daily schedules and allowing ample time for transitions can help with many students' behavioral issues and frustrations.

Instructional support is often needed within the classroom setting. Students with autism learn better with pictures and demonstrations. Limit long verbal instructions and provide visual cues and written instructions, when possible. Also limit distractions and use positive rewards for positive behaviors.

Many people with autism have strong passions and deep interests. Getting to know your students' likes and dislikes can help you understand what motivates them. Students with autism can participate in most activities that other kids and teens do, so provide encouragement to participate when appropriate.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2019 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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