How Educators & Therapists Can Work Together to Identify and Support Students on the Autism Spectrum
As an educator in the modern school system, you’ve undoubtedly interacted with students on the autism spectrum. Today, educational professionals are better equipped to recognize the signs and symptoms of autism in the children who experience it. This has improved our ability to diagnose the issue earlier on in a child’s development.
As a result, we’re often able to begin addressing this disorder with treatment and educational modifications much sooner than previously. With an issue like autism, we know early intervention is often hugely beneficial in the treatment outcomes for children on the spectrum.
Nowadays, many children with ASD who may not have been able to attend regular schools in the past can fully participate in the educational experience. And this is wonderful—as access to a full, robust educational experience shouldn't be limited to typically developing children, but should be open and available to all children, whenever possible.
But how can we, as educational professionals, best serve our students with autism, so they can have access to learning and social engagement in the least restrictive environment? How can we help them be the best students they can be? And how can educators help identify children who may be in danger of slipping through the proverbial cracks in the system?
When it comes to children with autism in the school system, there are many good questions to be raised.
We aim to address these questions, so educators like you can feel confident you’re providing the highest quality educational support and know there are professionals you can reach out to for assistance.
First, let’s review some basic info about what autism is—and what it isn’t.
What is autism?
Autism is a complex developmental disability that affects the brain.
School-aged children with autism commonly present with issues impacting their language skills, social skills, and behaviors that can be repetitive, restricted, or stereotypical in nature.
As you’re probably aware, autism is referred to as a spectrum disorder—meaning those with it can present with a wide variety of symptoms and severity.
In the school system, we commonly refer to kids as being “on the spectrum,” when they have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Because you’ve likely interacted with children with autism, directly or indirectly, you have a keen awareness of the saying about the disorder—”If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
You know that autism can show up very differently, based on the individual child who has it and the severity of the disorder.
Some children with autism may be nonverbal or exhibit characteristics of selective mutism. Some may be very verbal but have difficulty adhering to the rules, procedures, and transitions that characterize the school day. Some may be able to spend most of their time in the classroom, and to be fully included in the typical school experience. Others may require more specialized educational supports, provided in the school setting.
A hallmark of autism is its impact on the social skills of those who have it. Many children with autism experience difficulty navigating the social aspects of school—from using appropriate behavior in the classroom to interacting socially with their peers and establishing friendships.
As educators, we uphold the tenets set forth in IDEA—to provide appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible for all children with disabilities. Not only is this the right thing to do, but research has shown it greatly benefits children with disabilities—allowing them to interact with same-aged peers and participate in a robust educational experience.
Working to include students with autism in our classrooms can present some challenges, and it’s helpful for educators to work with other professionals to provide these children with the supports and modifications they need to participate and succeed in the least restrictive environment when at school.
Thankfully, professionals like Speech and Language Pathologists and Occupational Therapists are ready and able to assist educators with identifying and supporting students with autism, so they can benefit from the educational experience all children deserve.
How can educators help identify children who may have autism?
Educators can work closely with professionals like Speech-Language Pathologists to identify and assist children on the autism spectrum and help them gain access to the therapy and educational support services they need to thrive in the school setting.
SLPs are skilled at identifying and treating children with a wide variety of speech, language, and cognitive issues and disabilities, including children on the autism spectrum.
Educators are a crucial part of the IEP team and are often the first point of contact for parents who have concerns about their children. You’re also frequently the first person to notice red flags for autism in children who have not yet been diagnosed.
Helping children with disabilities to qualify for the educational support services they need is so important and can make a huge difference in their educational experience and life as a whole.
As an educator, we know you’ve already got a lot on your plate. But you can help to identify common red flags that may indicate a student should be assessed for possible ASD. These red flags we look for in the school-aged population include things like—
A student who makes brief to no eye contact with others
A child who struggles with daily transitions, even to the point of behavioral outbursts
A child who plays with only specific classroom toys, or plays repetitively. This may include stacking and organization behaviors
A student who is overly sensitive to bright lights and noise
A student who has difficulty relating to and interacting with others
A student who displays repetitive movements (like rocking, tapping, or hand flapping)
A student with a lack of social awareness and skills
A student who doesn't use gestures
A child who repeats or says words and phrases repetitively (known as echolalia)
A child with delayed speech or language development
A child who doesn’t engage in pretend play and may prefer to play in solitude
While these behaviors can be indicative of a child with autism, they may also point to another issue. As an educator, you’ve likely learned to trust your intuition when it comes to recognizing when a child is struggling in your classroom. If you notice something that concerns you, it’s always best to reach out, just in case.
At The Loop, we are always available to listen to educators’ concerns and questions when it comes to their students. We value your insight as we know you often see things others (even a child’s parents) might miss or disregard. We rely on you to provide referrals to assess if a student is in need of therapeutic intervention to enhance their educational experience.
How can educators support students with autism?
Some students with autism are able to participate in the regular classroom setting, if necessary modifications and supports are offered to them. In some cases, this may also involve changes to the learning environment.
Teachers can work closely with Speech and Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, and other members of a student with autism’s IEP team. At The Loop, our team of highly skilled therapists are happy to work with you to help make any adjustments necessary to help your students with autism thrive.
Some modifications children with autism benefit from may include the use of assistive technology—including things like: communication boards and other alternative augmentative communication devices (AAC), picture cards and schedules, sensory toys, and visual timers. The specific items needed will be assessed based on each individual child’s needs.
We can help train you in assisting students with autism with the use and troubleshooting of their devices, as well as helping you to fold them into the classroom setting in a way that doesn't negatively impact the learning experience of other students.
As an educator, you’re already familiar with the concept of person-centered care and language. At present, there is some debate over what terms should be used when referring to students on the spectrum. At The Loop, we believe it’s always best to simply ask a family or child what their preferred language is when we refer to them. This way, we are upholding an individual’s wishes with our language. When in doubt—it never hurts to ask!
Speaking of reaching out, you can always reach out to us if you have any questions or need any help. We love partnering with educators, because this is the foundation of the holistic education we seek to provide the students we’re honored to serve. Plus, we think you’re pretty great.
It takes a village to offer a robust education—especially for students with developmental challenges like autism. Together, we’ll make sure every student has access to the school experience they deserve. We’re here for you, too!
Here at The Loop, it’s our mission to cover all your bases when it comes to therapy and educational support services. We offer speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, educational consultancy and advocacy, executive function coaching, and learning remediation.
You can learn more about how we can help your school by checking out our website, following us on social media @TheLoopSLL, or reaching out directly with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.