Last semester, Mary Roth, an Autism Ally with the Autism Society of Indiana, came to School on Wheels to do a presentation and Q&A with our Program Coordinators on how to support students on the autism spectrum.  We have a few students dealing with autism in our program and are always eager to learn  new tips for how to best work with all types of learners during the tutoring hour.

Interacting with students who have autism does not have to be a mystery.  Even though not every child on the autism spectrum is the same, many of them interact similarly.  Here are five tips to help with basic interaction: 

  1. Give the student plenty of personal space and don’t insist on eye contact.
  2. Do not try to stop repetitive movements.  These movements are called “stimming” and could involve the student spinning, flapping, rocking, or something similar.  Stimming is a method of self-soothing.
  3. Use a flat tone of voice with little emotion. If speaking this way is hard for you, do not expect the student to understand your inflection.
  4. Use simple phrases and avoid using idioms or slang.  The more literal the better.
  5. Ask “yes” or “no” questions.

Just a few accommodations can make for a very productive tutoring hour.  As a staff we talked more about it, and we thought that many of  the tips below would be helpful for loads of other kids as well!  Here are five tips that we thought were the easiest to implement, and the most helpful with getting kids to work effectively:

First Then Countdown Board6. Explaining changes in routine and previewing transitions – Homelessness is difficult for any child.  Children on the autistic spectrum, however, thrive on stability and routine – which is often lacking when a child is staying in a shelter.  In your hour of tutoring, you can help provide some stability to your student by letting them know the plan and what you will be working on. A great way to do this is to make a list of tasks that you’ll try to finish. These can even be tasks within one assignment. At tutoring, we have implemented two different tools that you can use to help with this – first/then boards, which allow you to break down a task into smaller parts for students, and count down boards, which can help you break up a task or a set of problems into more manageable sets of five. Ask your Program Coordinator if you think these would be helpful for your student!

7. Visual teaching – If a student is having a hard time understanding what you’re saying, write it down in succinct sentences. Students who are on the autistic spectrum are usually very visual learners. If you can incorporate pictures into your explanations, this will help, especially with students who can not read.

8. Check for understanding, but avoid using “OK?” – Many students on the autistic spectrum have ‘echolalia’ which is repeating what they hear. If you say OK, they will just repeat  OK back to you. It is important to make sure you check for understanding because they will not necessarily volunteer that information.

9. Wait for responses – Don’t force an answer. Sometimes it takes a little longer for these students to get to the answer they desire. Delayed response time is very common.

10. Sensory and stimulation – Have on hand a few things that might make the student feel more comfortable and provide that sensory break they might need: sensory toys, chair that spins, heavy books to carry, or pencil grips. We have many of these things on hand at our sites already! Just ask your PC to help.

Want more information on ways to help students with learning differences? Check out our High Energy Students video series on Youtube!