Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that affects how people respond to their environment behaviorally, socially and communicatively. Since there is a wide variety of ways this disorder manifests itself, people on different parts of that spectrum have different strengths and weaknesses. No matter where a child falls on the spectrum, however, parents must work with schools to ensure students receive the education they deserve — and with an estimated 1 in 59 children diagnosed as autistic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many families need support.
This guide discusses the unique difficulties autistic students face and how educators can respond to them. In addition, advice is provided from autism experts and resources to help families with an ASD child.
While the number of children with other developmental disabilities has remained constant over the last decade, according to the nonprofit organization Families for Early Autism Treatment, the amount of children with autism in K-12 schools around the United States has increased by more than 100 percent. This means educators are dealing with unique student issues that they may not have seen in years past and responding to problems they may not yet have had experience with. Following are some examples of the challenges that K-12 students with autism face:
ASD students perform well when they participate in routine and repetitive activities. However, if that routine deviates, these students may have problems adapting, which can lead to behavioral, academic or mood problems. In fact, even being confronted with the possibility of change can be anxiety-inducing for these children.
Children with autism may have problems focusing during class, which can result in them not being able to remember what was taught during school lessons. In addition, this tendency makes it hard for these students to concentrate on assignments and study for tests.
“Language is more difficult for children with autism to process. During early grammar school years, instruction is often visual. However, as children get older, lectures are more common,” says Jessica Leichtweisz, founder and CEO of Hope Education Services and speaker and author in the field of autism. “This type of instruction is not well suited to children with autism, who often have a difficult time understanding the information presented. For this reason, as children with autism get older, it can be far more difficult for them to keep up.”
Autistic children have challenges with motor skills, which can make it tough for them to do well with handwriting exercises because they may have problems holding a pencil. In addition, these students can have problems participating in physical education activities because of their reduced motor abilities.
“Children with autism spectrum disorder may also struggle with an overwhelming amount of sensory input at any given time while in the classroom setting. Something as simple as students talking too loudly or an overly decorated classroom can make it difficult for a child with ASD to adequately learn in the classroom setting,” says April J. Lisbon, a family coach and empowerment speaker, who has worked in K-12 public education for 18 years as a school psychologist. “When a child with ASD becomes sensory overloaded, they may become more anxious in nature. Subtle stimulating behaviors — such as excessive feet tapping or jerking head movements — may become evident as the child attempts to control his or her environment.”
Children with autism tend to prefer doing activities by themselves, which makes them isolated and reduces the opportunities to interact with other students. In many cases, teachers will allow these students to pursue the solo activities they prefer, but that comes at a price: ASD students are not able to learn the social etiquette and rules with which their nonautistic counterparts are quite familiar. This can cause autistic students to become outcasts among their peers and targets for bullying.
When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, it recognized that because of the special challenges people with disabilities face, they need special legal protections to ensure they are treated fairly and not taken advantage of because of their condition. What this means for ASD students is that a host of legal rights ensure that they can enjoy the same educational opportunities that other students do.
The passage of the ADA opened the door for other legislation to be enacted that helps children with disabilities. First and foremost, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), autistic children are guaranteed a free and appropriate public education meaning students should have access to educational programs that best fit their special needs. Additionally, the law calls for education to be provided in the least restrictive environment, so students who have disabilities have the opportunity to learn among their counterparts who don’t have the same issues. In order to make this possible, classrooms may need to be tailored to the autistic students’ needs.
“Children with autism cannot just be thrown into a traditional classroom without any accommodations if they would not be able to benefit from the instruction,” Leichtweisz says. “There is often a fine balance between finding the least restrictive environment and one in which children can often learn, and many times parents and schools are not in agreement.”
The nature of the accommodations depends on what the individual student requires to be successful. Examples of accommodations may include revisions to a curriculum, adaptive equipment, visual support or individual time with a paraprofessional trained to meet the needs of ASD students.
In order to determine the nature of the accommodations necessary to remove restrictions, and create a pathway for academic success, schools are mandated to work with parents to create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that acts as a roadmap for what the school will provide to the student and what measurable goals the student will be expected to meet during the academic year. Although these agreements can be fairly detailed, it’s important for parents to keep in mind that IEPs are not set in stone and can be changed based on how a child progresses.
“Should the student struggle to meet his or her IEP goals, it may be appropriate to reassess the goals or reconsider a change in service delivery if needed,” Lisbon says. “This should be done for all children with special needs, including those with ASD.”
Since children with ASD have unique problems that other students usually don’t face, educators need to adopt unique pedagogical approaches in order to reach them. In the following section, our experts weighed in with advice about what teachers can do to create the best environments in which students with autism may learn.
“Generally, children with autism are visual learners,” Leichtweisz says. “Having pictures, especially when transitioning between activities, will help children with autism respond more independently.”
“Children with autism respond well to structure,” Leichtweisz says. “Providing specific routines and keeping them in place whenever possible will help children participate fully in activities.”
“All children with autism engage in sensory behaviors or stereotypy,” Leichtweisz explains. “This can look like hands flapping, focusing on parts of objects such as spinning wheels, making loud and repetitive noises, jumping up and down and many other behaviors. Having places in the room where children with autism can go to cool down when these behaviors occur can help ease both their frustration and the teacher’s a great deal. Some examples of items to have in this area include bean bags, pillows, Play-Doh, squishy balls or fidget spinners.”
“Provide [the student with a] warning of any changes to the routine or switch in activity,” Lisbon says. “This may be a visual or verbal cue that the teacher and student have established in advance so as not to draw attention to the child with ASD when compared to neurotypical peers. Also, allow the student to avoid certain competitive activities that he or she may not like or understand to reduce anxiety or anger outbursts.”
“Use language that is clear and unambiguous,” Lisbon advises. “Idioms and sarcasm are difficult for students with ASD to process, so do not use them when teaching these students.”
“Protect the child with ASD from teasing during unstructured time and provide peers with some awareness of the unique needs of children on the spectrum in general,” says Lisbon.
This page on the Autism Speaks site provides information for parents on numerous products that help keep children safe. Some of the resources listed include protective head gear, identification cards, medical bracelets and seat belt guards.
This page provided by FindLaw offers legal advice to parents with autistic children. Topics covered include the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Individualized Education Programs and the Free Appropriate Public Education requirement.
The National Association of Special Education Teachers provides examples of IEP plans, which can give parents an idea of what to expect from their own children’s plan. Areas covered include communication, social and life skills goals.
Autism Speaks explains the importance of a transition plan on this page, which includes information on IEPs, the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, the page explains how assessments are conducted during the transition planning process.
Autism and the Transition to Adulthood: This article by Marina Sarris on the Interactive Autism Network website provides details on what happens during transition planning. It includes information on how parents can help their autistic children gain the skills they will need to navigate life as adults.
This article on the Autism Speaks website provides practical advice from Kristi Campbell, the mother of an autistic child.
This article by Dilshad D. Ali in Parents Magazine provides information on how to care for a child with autism. It includes advice on how to deal with sibling rivalry, getting autistic children ready for school and home therapy sessions.
This site hosts blogs and podcasts that provide advice for the parents of autistic children.
This nonprofit organization offers advocacy services and community programs for families. In addition, the group has education programs to help people better understand autism.
Resources for Parents: This page includes videos for parents and their children, as well as daily routine cards and storybooks.
This page contains comprehensive information about autism from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It covers research studies, screenings and resources for families.
This site provides information about wandering in the autistic community. It includes help for parents to prevent their children from wandering and advice on what to do if it happens.
This Autism Speaks toolkit is designed to help parents during the first 100 days after finding out a child has autism.
This website supports the needs of military families with autistic children.
This Milestones Autism Resources page offers advice that parents can use when dealing with daily challenges of raising children with ASD.
Parenting is challenging for anyone, but for families with autistic children, there are additional daily considerations. We asked our experts to provide some information for parents in dealing with these challenges.
Jessica Leichtweisz, founder and CEO of Hope Education Services, who is also a speaker and author in the field of autism
April J. Lisbon, family coach and motivational speaker, who has worked in K-12 public education for 18 years
Lisbon: IEP goals are based on the identified area(s) of weakness for a child. These goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, results oriented and time bound (SMART). For children on the spectrum, these goals should be based on their individual needs. For example, if a child with ASD does well academically based on information from parent(s) and educators but struggles with emotional regulation, IEP goals may only address social and emotional concerns to assist the child in (1) identifying his or her triggers and (2) understanding how to emotionally regulate in a positive manner when triggered.
IEP goals should always be child-centered. It is important that teachers and parents agree that each goal should be based on (1) current and relevant data that address the child’s strengths and needs and (2) affords the child opportunity to make adequate progress towards these goals on a yearly basis.
Leichtweisz: Traditionally, state curricula determine what teachers teach in a classroom. However, for kids with autism, these often are not enough or altogether inappropriate. IEP goals determine what a child with autism will learn. They are based upon the present level of performance of a student and the goal outcome for their education, which may be very different from traditional goals that prepare children for college or the workplace. They are written annually at an IEP meeting, and progress is typically measured quarterly.
Leichtweisz: Transition planning is one of the most important parts of any IEP. It helps to ensure that the goals outlined for the student will lead to him or her living the most independent life possible after high school. Once a child turns 16, transition planning takes place every year during an IEP meeting. A child’s goals are typically determined by the child, if he or she is able to participate, as well as the parents, teachers and support team such as speech, occupational, physical and behavior therapists.
Lisbon: A transition plan from high school to college helps a student with special needs identify goals and strategies that will assist them post-high school. Specifically, the plan should assist students with ASD in identifying their strengths, interests, skills and needs beyond high school. A transition plan is important because it assists in creating a concrete action plan that will help prepare them for college and/or career, as well as to live independently.
During the transition planning process, self-advocacy is key. To start the process, it is important that the student completes interest inventories to help identify his or her abilities, skills, interests and aptitudes based on the desired career.
Additionally, parents can assist by helping the student open that first checking or savings account. Helping the student understand the importance of car insurance and routine maintenance, for example, is key in learning how to drive. Parents can also help with the college search by researching colleges based on the child’s interests, or by determining what community resources are available to the child.
Lisbon: Services for families of children with ASD vary based on location and insurance. For those families who qualify for Medicaid or state waivers, they may receive applied behavior analysis therapy within the home setting, for example. Other services that may be included are occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, counseling services or physical therapy (depending on the child’s gross motor development). There also are local parenting groups made available through community agencies.
In some instances, parents may request support and services through their local school districts, in which case the school district will then pay a percentage of the therapy cost and parents will pay a co-payment based on their yearly income.
Leichtweisz: The best thing that parents can do to be aware of the protections their children are entitled to by law is to familiarize themselves with IDEA and request a copy of their rights from their school district. It is also important that parents participate in their children's IEP meetings. If parents feel uncomfortable with the process and want additional support, they can request a parent advocate to help them understand their rights.
Lisbon: It is advisable that, at the beginning of each school year, parents schedule a meeting with school-based personnel to discuss any changes to the child’s behaviors or needs that may impact performance at the start of the new school year. Things like being overly anxious about school or fears about attending school should be brought to the attention of the school team to ensure that the child has a smooth transition to start the school year. This may help reduce some of the angst often seen in children with ASD.
Additionally, parents should monitor their child’s academic, behavior and social-emotional progress on a regular basis. The reality is that case managers have many students on their caseloads and may not always know if a child’s performance has declined. If your child is having difficulties, notify your case manager as soon as possible so that your child can improve his or her performance. If a child is having significant difficulties academically, it would be appropriate for the IEP team to reconvene to adjust goals, classroom environments, amount of service hours in a given delay area, etc. The goal is to catch the problem before it becomes major.
Lisbon: The parent has a right, as noted in their procedural safeguards, to file a complaint against the school district. The procedural safeguards that were provided at the initial child study meeting provide step-by-step guidelines as to how parents may file a complaint. One critical step when filing a complaint against a school district is for parents to clearly outline concerns in writing and submit this information to appropriate district-level personnel as outlined in the procedural safeguards, so that the district representative is able to begin the investigation as soon as possible.
The timeframe in which a parent can expect a resolution to concerns is dependent on (1) what the concerns are and (2) the district’s policy on resolution timeframe from receipt of the complaint. Some cases may be resolved within four to six weeks from the receipt of the initial complaint. Then there are other cases that may take more than three months before a resolution is agreed upon by both parties. Thus, it is important that parents carefully read and understand the complaint process to ensure that the school district adheres to its own written policies and procedures.
Leichtweisz: An IEP is a legal document. All of the procedures that determine how and when it must be written are called due process and are outlined under the IDEA. If a parent believes a school district did not follow due process and a child’s rights have been violated, they can file a due process complaint within two years of the violation. This is put in place as a procedural safeguard. The complaint is filed with the state education agency. A parent is also required to provide a copy to the local education agency.
If a complaint was accepted the LEA and parent have the right to an impartial due process mediation. Most times at this meeting, an agreement can be reached.
Leichtweisz: Parents can request a due process hearing if they disagree with their child’s education goals or the placement a school is offering, or if they feel that that school violated due process by not responding in a timely matter. It is advisable that if a parent proceeds with a due process hearing, they obtain an attorney. Parents can contact their LEA, who must provide them with information on special education attorneys in the area. If they win the lawsuit, they can recover attorney costs from the school district, but if they lose, they are usually responsible for attorney fees. As a result, this should be a final resort.
Lisbon: If the parents feel strongly that the school district has not addressed the needs of their child and going through mediation was not successful, they may wish to seek legal consultation from a firm that specializes in special education law. Parents may also want to address these concerns at the state level so that the state may conduct their own investigation based on the policies and procedures of the district to determine whether the district erred in addressing the parents’ concerns. In some cases, parents may also elect to remove their child from school to work with them at home or have their child participate in online schooling.
Lisbon: The most important thing for educators to know is that these students can learn. However, they may have a difficult time understanding and responding to others’ emotions and feelings, which may impact their interactions with peers and adults. It is important that teachers understand that these students have difficulties with emotional regulation and planning their thoughts and ideas. More times than not, children with ASD are not trying to be disrespectful or not adhere to classroom rules. These students are trying to navigate a world filled with sensory overload that for many is extremely overwhelming. Be patient with them and set clear boundaries for them. Let them know that they are wanted and respected in your classroom just like their neurotypical peers. Ask questions of them that you know they can answer first before asking questions that may be challenging. This will help minimize peers laughing or saying hurtful words. Ensure that your body language aligns with what you are saying so that the child with ASD clearly understands your intent and expectations. Reduce ambiguity as much as possible.
For parents, understand that raising a child with ASD is a journey. What worked in the past may not work in the present or future. Patience is key. Make sure to establish clear rules, expectations and boundaries. Be active in your child’s IEP process and work collaboratively with school-based personnel. My experience has taught me that they are more willing to work with supportive parents than those who are contentious. Finally, know your rights. Take time to read and ask questions about your district’s policy and procedures. You are your child’s biggest advocate.
Leichtweisz: The most important thing for both parents and teachers to know is that every child is different. There is no one-size approach to education. Every child is capable of learning, but often children with autism learn differently from other kids. In order for them to be successful, teachers and parents must teach in a way that these children can learn. This means being creative and thinking outside the box. Finally, every child will be most successful when parents and teachers work together come up with goals and an education plan for each student.
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