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Educators & Students with Learning Disabilities: Autism Spectrum Disorders

Useful for elementary and secondary administrators, librarians, classroom teachers, and parents and students with Learning Disabilities

Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism Spectrum Disorders

The website Reading Rockets (WETA) explains why autism spectrum disorders is not a "learning disability"--we do not know the cause of ASD, and we know that LDs are neurological disorders. "Sometimes the media, the public, and even educators confuse autism with learning disabilities. They are two separate disorders. According to the Autism Society of America, autism is a developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others. Autism is defined by a specific set of behaviors and is a 'spectrum disorder' affecting individuals differently and to varying degrees. There is no known single cause for autism."

Each of the disorders on the autism spectrum share some or all of the following characteristics, which can vary from mild to severe:

  • Communication problems (for example, with the use or comprehension of language);
  • Difficulty relating to people, things, and events;
  • Playing with toys and objects in unusual ways;
  • Difficulty adjusting to changes in routine or to familiar surroundings; and
  • Repetitive body movements or behaviors.

Children with autism or one of the other disorders on the autism spectrum can differ considerably with respect to their abilities, intelligence, and behavior. Some children don't talk at all. Others use language where phrases or conversations are repeated. Children with the most advanced language skills tend to talk about a limited range of topics and to have a hard time understanding abstract concepts. Repetitive play and limited social skills are also evident. Other common symptoms of a disorder on the autism spectrum can include unusual and sometimes uncontrolled reactions to sensory information--for instance, to loud noise, bright lights, and certain textures of food or fabrics.

Above from Reading Rockets, Autism Society, and National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities


ASD Accommodations

  • Learn more about the autism spectrum. Check out the research on effective instructional interventions and behavior on NICHCY’s website linked below. The organizations listed in this publication can also help.
  • Make sure directions are given step-by- step, verbally, visually, and by providing physical supports or prompts, as needed by the student. Students with autism spectrum disorders often have trouble interpreting facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Be as concrete and explicit as possible in your instructions and feedback to the student.
  • Find out what the student’s strengths and interests are and emphasize them. Tap into those avenues and create opportunities for success. Give positive feedback and lots of opportunities for practice.
  • Build opportunities for the student to have social and collaborative interactions throughout the regular school day. Provide  support, structure, and lots of feedback.
  • If behavior is a significant issue for the student, seek help from expert professionals (including parents) to understand the meanings of the behaviors and to develop a unified, positive approach to resolving them.
  • Have consistent routines and schedules. When you know a change in routine will occur (e.g., a field trip or assembly) prepare the student by telling him or her what is going to be different and what to expect or do.
  • Work together with the student’s parents and other school personnel to create and implement an educational plan tailored to meet the student’s needs. Regularly share information about how the student is doing at school and at home.

From NICHCY (National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities)


What You Can Do in the Library: Autism Spectrum Disorder

Libraries and Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • Children diagnosed with ASD tend to be visual learners--use pictograms, have a tablet and pencil ready to draw instructions or diagram information
  • Chidren diagnosed with ASD do not like surprises. The unexpected can lead to tantrums and meltdowns. Ways to avoid this happening:
    • Have predictable routines, voiced and written out often, as much in advance as possible,
    • Have a series of visual steps to completion or "quitting time."--a visual "story book" of a planned event
  • Children diagnosed with ASD do not like bright and noisy space.
  • Children diagnosed with ASD can be calmed by doing a specific task--carry books, distributing papers--it gives them a multi-sensory activity and helps self-esteem
  • Children diagnosed with ASD benefit from being checked on frequently, seeing if they need help.
  • Having the student let you know what they need to learn best--have them write it, or record it for you
  • When speaking, avoid idioms, sarcasm, jokes, multi-part sentences. Tell them specifically what you want to do--do not say "It might be a good idea if..." or "What do you think you should do?"  
  • Arranging to have a peer "buddy" in the classroom can be beneficial for all. It is a good opportunity to discuss with the class what having autism is like.

From  Debra Lau Whelan, "What You Can Do," School Library Journal, 55.8, 2009.


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