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Management of the Autistic Child in the Classroom

Michelle MacKinnon is a Registered General and Obstetric Nurse. She has a son who suffered mild brain damage as a child and displayed Autistic Spectrum behaviour as a result. He found mainstream schooling difficult and eventually completed his education by correspondence with her help.  The following article was written as an aid to assist the classroom teacher with an autistic pupil.

1. Build on the child's interests

2. Offer a predictable schedule

3. Teach tasks as a series of simple steps

4. Actively engage the child's attention in highly structured activities

5. Provide regular reinforcement of behaviour

6. Parent involvement

Using the Developmental Approach

A predictable schedule of activities each day helps children with autism to plan and organise. Changes to their environment or a change in teacher or day plan can cause enormous stress to the autistic child.

Avoid changing the seating arrangement in the classroom.

Try to avoid teacher changes - one constant teacher rather than a succession of relievers.

Sensory reactive children will find difficulty adjusting to noise, smell, taste, tactile and visual changes.

If a child expects to be in a particular room for the day and is then sent somewhere else, the child may react in a negative way.

The autistic child who has the ability to function on a higher level may be able to handle academic work but they may need help to organise the task and avoid distractions. Extra time may be needed to complete a task and a checklist might be useful so that tasks can be checked off when completed. This tool can help the child remain on task and remember multi commands.

Using the Behaviorist Approach

Reward the desirable behaviour eg 10 minutes working quietly = 1 star on the chart.

e.g. 6 stars = 1 reward. Under no circumstances remove stars for negative behaviour! You may need to reward for 5 minutes working quietly instead of 10 initially. Start at an achievable level for the child and tailor the reward to the child.

Dr O Ivar Lovaas' methods involve time-intensive, highly structured, repetitive sequences in which a child is given a command and rewarded each time he responds correctly. (Pavlov and his dogs)

An individualised programme should be designed for each child.

Suggestions for Teachers of child X

X has been diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder after suffering mild brain damage as an infant.

X's strengths and likes

Maths (concrete maths)

Crossword puzzles

Computer games

Ball throwing and kicking

Order and perfectionism

Jigsaw puzzles

Lego construction

X is a very black and white, concrete thinker and has difficulty with abstract concepts such as parables, similes and parallel examples. Maths that involves problem solving with several steps is also difficult. He dislikes reading and art. He reads with a very monotone voice and has a very basic ability to read body language.

1. Position his desk near to the teacher, not in a group, facing the blackboard. Enough space behind him so that he doesn't feel his back is exposed to other children, somewhere that he can see the doors without turning around. X is left-handed and does not like crossing the midline. He can be a distraction to others and feels threatened if someone walks too close to his desk or has an adjoining desk. Ideally his desk would be side up against a wall.
Do not shift his place in the classroom.

2. Have a standard timetable that sets out the daily routine (laminate it).
Changes to the daily routine need to be well explained and forewarned.

3. Itemise areas that need improving and work on one or two of these at a time until the desired behaviour is automatic. Eg X mutters to himself, makes noises, calls out in class. His impulsivity and lack of control can be perceived as naughtiness. He often draws on himself or his surroundings with biro. If he sees a ball he will automatically go and kick or throw it, regardless of glass windows nearby. He chews his nails and sucks his thumb when agitated and this seems to sooth him. Being a perfectionist, he will often destroy his work or scribble all over it if it does not meet his standard. Sometimes his frustration is vented in swearing, yelling, or breaking things. Hard line, confrontational methods tend to exacerbate rather than halt this behaviour. Anticipate and pre-empt possible situations of conflict. Positive reinforcement and reward charts work well.


1. Explain expectations over and over with patience. Just because he can recite the rules doesn't mean that he can follow or act upon them.

2. If reprimanding him, use a low toned voice, firm but not aggressive.

3. Take him aside from the group when chastising so his self-esteem is not damaged.

4. Have an area set aside that he can go to if he feels he is going to lose control.

5. Reward good behaviour with lots of praise and encouragement. Stickers, lollies, privileges. If he has earned a reward for one thing don't remove it if later behaviour is not acceptable, give a separate punishment. Short-term rewards work best. Don't use 'lucky dip' reward system where names are put in a hat and one child gets the reward. If he earned it then he should get it.

6. Avoid peer pressure discipline techniques such as asking the class to tell him to 'shut up'. He has difficulty with establishing relationships amongst his peers so this method will only alienate him further.

7. Teaching new concepts to X involves a lot of patience. He sometimes will rush ahead thinking he knows how to do something and won't always take in the complete sequence or set of rules. Once it is fixed in his mind that 'this is how you do it', it is very difficult to re-train him or get him receptive enough to take it in. Lots of repetition is needed and practical application may be needed many times before it 'clicks'.

8. X has an advanced ability in memory and processing speed. Capitalise on these strengths if possible when teaching new ideas.

9. Always follow through. If you told him such and such is going to happen, and then for some reason you change your mind, he is likely to react with frustration and anger and ground will be lost.

Before disciplining

Take a deep breath and count to 10. If you still feel angry do it again.

Tell yourself 'This is not personal. I'm here to train this child in acceptable behaviour and anger will not achieve that'. Take another breath and ask yourself the following:

Did I make the instruction clear?

Did he fully understand the instruction?

Was his behaviour childish, typical of his condition, or was it naughty? (This can be a difficult one to answer sometimes).

Take him aside and explain to him what he did wrong, how it made you feel, or ask him to explain it and ask how he thinks you might be feeling.

Tell him the behaviour is unacceptable (for whatever reason) and tailor the punishment to suit.

Encourage confession, remorse, restitution and reassure the child that although the behaviour was unacceptable you still care for him.

Children will accept punishment if they feel it is fair and not dealt out because you hate them, or are just having a bad day and picking on every one.

Afterwards, pat yourself on the back and tell yourself you've done a great job.

If you lost your cool and ranted and raved in anger, then once you have calmed down make sure you apologise to him and reassure him that you still care, otherwise any future attempts at correction will have no effect and your life together will be miserable.

Don't carry punishments into the next day. Each day should be a clean slate.

Good Luck!

Michelle MacKinnon Author on SearchWarp!
3,422 - 6 - 1 - US

Michelle MacKinnon was born in New Zealand, in 1957 and she lives with her husband in Palmerston North. In 2008 she published a double award winning novel called Escape from Eden and in 2009 she published an award winning children's picture book called Bluebell Mary. Michelle has seven children, three adopted and four by birth. Since her training as a General and Obstetric nurse, Michelle has been involved in many different vocations from beekeeping, alternative medicine, and hobby farming, to accounting, marketing, and voluntary counselling. Writing has been a lifelong passion and in 2008 she completed a Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing at the Whitireia Polytechnic in Wellington, New Zealand.