To nearly everyone off the spectrum, autism is an utterly baffling disorder. Autism rewires how those affected see and understand the world around them, but the severity of the disorder varies widely. Sometimes, autism manifests as a bit of social awkwardness; sometimes, it prevents those afflicted from communicating, sensing the world around them, developing fine motor skills, and worse.
Autistic students typically require special attention in educational environments — but rarely are teachers or tutors equipped to manage an autistic student’s unique needs. In some cases, a psychologist or clinically trained learning expert is appropriate, but in other cases, students with autism just need and could benefit from the expertise of an academic tutor for a given subject who is sensitive to the needs of the autistic student.
Considering that cases of autism have increased in recent years – perhaps due to a greater familiarity with the disorder – tutors should strive to equip themselves with tools to help autistic students learn. This article addresses six unique things a tutor must keep in mind when working with a student who happens to be autistic.
Students with autism often have:
- Difficulty with Social Interaction
- Delays in Cognitive Development
- Differences in Sensory Perception
- Struggles with Motor Skills
- Trouble Focusing
- Fear of Change
Difficulty with Social Interaction
Some will say that this is the most obvious aspect of autism. There is a social disconnect for people with autism, and they are unable to read the social world as the rest of us are. The social cues and body language we take for granted on a daily basis are difficult, and sometimes impossible, for autistic students to interpret.
For a tutoring relationship to be truly successful, a personal connection must be established. The best tutors will take extra time to get to know their students and connect what they’re learning to the individual’s particular interests and learning style. This can become difficult when working with an autistic student.
- Be clear. Don’t rely on tone, sarcasm, or body language to convey your point.
- Don’t be offended. People with autism don’t necessarily recognize social norms or etiquette, and they can be very blunt.
- Use structure & routine. Create an outline that you’ll more or less stick to for every session.
- People with autism are typically visual thinkers. When learning vocabulary words, write them down. When teaching math problems, try to use concrete objects to represent numbers, percentages, etc.
- Don’t be afraid to get to know them. Usually, autistic students have specific, intense interests. When meeting them for the first time or taking breaks, figure out what they enjoy and try to connect the lesson to these things as often as possible.
Delays in Cognitive Development
Oftentimes, although areas of intellectual development are strong, autistic students will struggle on varying levels with certain topics or subjects.
When teaching an autistic student new or problematic content, play to their strengths. People with autism have unique patterns of development, and quickly adapt to using their stronger skills to supplement the areas where they may be lacking developmentally (be sure to evaluate whether they’re visual-spatial, nonverbal/kinetic, or auditory learners).
Differences in Sensory Perception
Most of us have heard the term ‘sensory overload’. Many people on the autism spectrum experience some form of over- or under-sensitivity (sight, touch, smell, etc.), and these sensitivities can lead to anxiety, withdrawal from the present situation, and even physical pain.
Of course, as the student’s tutor, you want to make the environment as comfortable and conducive to learning as possible. Always be on the lookout for any loud noises, lights, etc. that may become an issue. Make sure you’re doing all that you can to minimize the possibility that something may be disruptive (turning your cell phone to silent, for example).
Also have a game plan and escape plan in place for when disruptions do happen. Tell the student about possible stimuli they may experience if this is a different environment for them. Open communication here is key.
Struggles with Motor Skills
Children with autism often experience delays in acquiring motor skills such as writing, tying shoes, running, etc., which can lead to frustrating and negative day-to-day experiences at school and in the home.
As the tutor, make sure you check in with the student’s parents beforehand. They’ll be able to fill you in on any specific motor skill deficiencies the student may be struggling with and what strategies they use for combating them. For instance, if an individual has trouble writing, they may use speech recognition software instead. It’s important to know these things beforehand and to be prepared to adjust your usual teaching methods to accommodate these modifications.
If you’re working on developing motor skills, connect the activity to something the student is interested in and take breaks often.
As the tutor, you’re most likely only with a student for a limited amount of time every week; therefore, it’s important to maximize the time you have. When an autistic student is having trouble staying on task, here are a few strategies you can employ:
- Break content up into smaller chunks. This way, you can have the student complete one part, take a break, and then move on to the second, rather than spending 15 minutes on an entire problem.
- Remove distractions. Whether they’re visual, auditory, etc. remove everything that is taking away from the lesson at hand until breaktime.
- Use physical activity during breaks. Give the student something active & fun to do on short breaks, whether it’s bouncing on an exercise ball, playing with Play-Doh, going outdoors. This will help them stay more engaged when it’s time to get back to work.
- Provide rewards when tasks are completed.
Fear of Change
Change, especially unexpected change, causes stress and anxiety for individuals with autism. It is imperative that tutors introduce a sense of structure to sessions to provide consistency and stability. Providing a visual, written out schedule that is shown to the student at the beginning of every session will help keep things predictable.
As always, communication is necessary. Let the student know what is going to happen in this lesson and try your best not to stray from that plan. If you have an idea of what you’ll be working on in the next session (you should, by the way), tell them. For instance, if you’ll be focusing on their vocabulary skills next week, let them know that you’ll be reviewing words and their meanings for the first half of the next lesson. This way, the student knows what to expect and there are no surprises.
In recent years, the general public has become more familiar with autism and its meaning. However, there is still a lot to learn. As a tutor working with a student on the spectrum, it’s important to be prepared for their specific struggles and weaknesses, as well as to be aware of their strengths and interests. If you’re interested in pursuing a career working with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a Graduate Certificate Program is a great option.
Keep in mind the six factors explained above, and you’re well on your way to a successful and positive student-tutor relationship.