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What is it?

Autism is a brain disorder that primarily affects communication, social skills and behavior. Sometimes those with autism have repetitive language (called echolalia); or hand flapping, twirling or rocking. Many People with autism have little or no eye contact and seem to be uninterested in relationships. The autism spectrum is huge!

boy playing with toys

Autism is characterized by someone who has severe difficulties in social interaction, communication, and social behaviors. Although autism is frequently associated with some degree of mental handicap, the pattern of cognitive abilities in autism is unusual. Strengths are noted in non-verbal abilities and weaknesses in verbally mediated tasks. Isolated master skills may be present, such as musical or drawing abilities, or date calculations. But the range of abilities within the autism spectrum is enormous!

Learning Support

Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may need a variety of supports to learn, participate, and complete assignments in the classroom. Many students with autism have great difficulty learning and remembering information they hear. Visual supports may be needed to provide a clear, meaningful mental picture to the student. During the early years, these visual supports can bridge the gap between organizing information and the process of reading and writing, organize and simplify information, view important relationships, view text as a sequence of relationships from one paragraph to the next, and construct sentences and paragraphs.

  • Provide instruction/directions for assignments and tasks: Many students with ASD will follow written or pictorial directions literally and precisely, but not make inferences we call “reading between the lines”. Directions need to be explicit and concrete, with clear parameters for the scope of the work and what the finished product will look like. It is important to estimate how long the project will take the student. Teacher assistants and teachers need to inform the student how much work they are to do, where to begin, the order in which they need to do it, and then where to turn in the assignment when it is finished, and what to do next.
  • Modify assignments and homework: Students with ASD may need fewer repetition and practice problems to learn a new skill, but may take longer to complete each problem. Thus, assigning fewer problems may be appropriate. Homework in which the student previews the concepts and vocabulary for the next day’s lesson (pre-teaching) may be more important than review of past material.
  • Modify test taking: Test taking can be highly stressful because of anxiety over being incorrect or needing more time to process information. Paraeducators/TAs can do small things such as helping the student take the test in a quiet location, without time limits, in several shorter sessions, or in a different format (oral, pictorial), may be helpful. Cue cards with reminders such as “remember to relax,” or “remember to ask for help” can prompt the student.
  • Group work and class discussions: During small-group work, the students with ASD may need written instructions of what to do and a description of the process. During class discussions, a student with ASD may not understand the topic and may say things that are off-topic. With the teacher’s support you can attempt to link it to the discussion and then redirect the student to the topic with “Thank you, now tell me one thing about ______”
  • Organization and time management: Often students with ASD do not know how to organize a task, and they are unable to begin. Organization is very conceptual, requiring one to be able to see the whole picture. Students with ASD require specific training in organization and time management in order to understand it. Utilize visual aids and structure that clearly indicate where to keep materials, the sequence of steps in a task, and the sequence of activities over time. Useful tools include an organized study area, assignment folders for classes, calendar systems, and planning charts (Cohen, Klin, Paul, Volkmar, 2005, pp. 1018-1021).

Social Supports

man wearing a University of California hat

As children become adolescents, they develop a greater capacity for abstract thinking and perspective taking. As a result, their social interactions become more complex. A teen with autism may have a difficult time knowing that the “rules have changed. Miscommunication is painful and the social gap between students with ASD and their peers can widen. In assisting an adolescent with ASD, it is important to provide guideposts that are concrete and descriptive that help them during social interactions. Two social intervention strategies that work well are comic strip conversations and social stories. Comic strip conversations are a process of drawing out what people do, say, and may be thinking during a social interaction. Social stories are written from a specific individual and a specific situation in order to share accurate social information and identify expected responses in the situation. Drama therapy is another possible social support that can be used for students with ASD. Drama therapy is the use of improvisation, role-play, mime, music and movement, storytelling, masks and rituals, puppetry, theatre games, and scripted drama as a therapeutic vehicle. It can build confidence, self-awareness, relaxation, and responsibility (Crimmens, 2006).

References and Websites

United States

  • Quality Literacy Instruction for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Editors: Carnahan, C., and Williamson, P. Available at
  • Cohen, D., Klin, A., Paul, R., & Volkmar, F.R. (Eds.). (2005). Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Development Disorders (Vol. 1-2). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Son, Inc.
  • Crimmens, P. (2006). Drama Therapy and Storymaking in Special Education. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishing.

United Kingdom



New Zealand