School Matters: Simple Solutions to Help Students with Autism Sometimes the answer to a problem facing a student with ASD is right in front of you. School Matters
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School Matters  |   April 01, 2014
School Matters: Simple Solutions to Help Students with Autism
Author Notes
  • Sylvia Farnsworth Diehl, PhD, CCC-SLP, is a clinical instructor in the communication sciences and disorders department at the University of South Florida. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 1, Language Learning and Education; 12, Augmentative and Alternative Communication; and 16, School-Based Issues. ■sdiehl@usf.edu
    Sylvia Farnsworth Diehl, PhD, CCC-SLP, is a clinical instructor in the communication sciences and disorders department at the University of South Florida. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 1, Language Learning and Education; 12, Augmentative and Alternative Communication; and 16, School-Based Issues. ■sdiehl@usf.edu×
Article Information
Special Populations / Autism Spectrum / School-Based Settings / School Matters
School Matters   |   April 01, 2014
School Matters: Simple Solutions to Help Students with Autism
The ASHA Leader, April 2014, Vol. 19, 30-31. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM.19042014.30
The ASHA Leader, April 2014, Vol. 19, 30-31. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM.19042014.30
I am often asked to help schools that have students with autism spectrum disorder with behavioral and communication troubles. I invariably learn from these situations, each of which is different. Many times I see unhappy parents, educational professionals and students involved in sometimes very complex battles with multiple variables.
After all, ASD is a complex disorder. But it’s a good idea to step back before moving to complex solutions. Answers don’t always have to be complicated and many times communication with the student holds the key.
For example, one school had a fifth-grade student with ASD who would have a tantrum before physical education every day. The child’s team had poured amazing amounts of work into an elaborate behavior plan that presumed multiple reasons for the behavior. A choice of multiple consequences depended on the professionals’ determination of which reason had triggered the behavior. The child had not been consulted.
I gave the child a list of things involved in PE (teacher, game being played, weather, friends) with three faces to choose from—positive, neutral and negative. The student circled all positive faces until we got to the weather item, where the student had circled the negative face. The student had recently moved from the north and the Florida weather had changed from cool to fairly hot right when the behavior started. We gave the student a pair of sunglasses, a hat and a place to sit in the shade when needed. Problem solved.
In my experience, more than a few of the problems that trouble students with ASD can be solved this simply. It’s just a matter of consulting the student to find the root cause. Here is where the speech-language pathologist comes in: An SLP understands the social language challenges and the language-related academic concerns that can cause confusion with students with ASD. An SLP can translate behavior that is often misinterpreted as noncompliant or irrational; make the difference between students understanding the academic and social information presented to them or simply memorizing facts; and help children develop true friendships rather than relating only to people who are paid to help them. Here are strategies I’ve seen work.
Use interests to motivate
Students with ASD often lack motivation for many school assignments. This is not because they have attention deficit disorder (though students sometimes have both diagnoses) but is typically because narrow and restricted interests are a core characteristic of ASD. A student can be thrilled by maps for hours at home; at school, however, not everything involves maps, so the student’s attention wanders. Individualization—using the students’ motivations to help provide reasons for learning—is a powerful tool. For example, for a student who likes airplanes, teachers could use the requirements needed to become a pilot as a motivator in reading, geography or math.
Keep it positive
Students with ASD frequently have poor self-regulation. Their school day often becomes full of directions, corrections and learning topics that they don’t find interesting. This disinterest generates a terrible circular pattern that results in more correction and less motivation. Meanwhile, it is often difficult for a student with ASD to have a different emotion from the one that is in front of him or her. If the teacher is upset, for example, students with ASD often mirror that emotion. Many adults giving directions to a very distressed student will only escalate the behavior. Treating students with respect and allowing them time to calm down, however, is much more likely to produce preferred outcomes. Positive Behavior Support is one approach that has been shown to be incredibly successful school-wide and individually. This approach examines the function of the behavior and provides a proactive method for dealing with challenging behavior.
Visual supports and strategies
Visual supports and strategies are very powerful. In her book “Thinking in Pictures,” Temple Grandin describes her process of relating experiences in conversation as translating a series of visual images to words. Imagine that your calendar was written in an unknown language—it would hamper you significantly in knowing others’ expectations. Many children with ASD seem to be attracted to visual symbols first and then pair them with oral language. It is not uncommon for a child to be able to recite a lengthy list of rules but not follow any of them; however, this same child can follow a visual schedule flawlessly. In fact, many evidence-based strategies and successful academic strategies are, at their heart, visual supports (visual schedules, social stories, video modeling). Use visual symbols that the child understands, such as objects, photographs, line drawings and written words.

Evidence-Based Practice Resources

The following selected resources can help school-based SLPs support children with ASD using evidence-based practice:

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FROM THIS ISSUE
April 2014
Volume 19, Issue 4