5 strategies for supporting students with autism

By Laura Devaney, Director of News, @eSN_Laura
September 2nd, 2015

Technology plays a role in helping students with autism succeed in school

autism-supportTransitioning to a new school year often is challenging for students with autism, but technology can help support those students as they become more independent in their learning.

During an edWeb webinar, visual strategist and speech language pathologist Linda Hodgdon shared five tips to help students with autism begin the school year successfully. Lauren Stafford, vice president of Research and Instructional Design at Monarch Teaching Technologies (MTT), offered technology tips to support each of the five strategies.

The most important thing to understand, Hodgdon said, is the communication strengths and challenges of children with autism. Most people misunderstand how autism can impact a student’s communication abilities.

“The majority of them understand what they see better than what they hear,” she said. The same is true for other special-needs students and students in general–they tend to be visual learners.

“There’s no problem with using low-tech, mid-tech or high-tech,” Stafford said. In outlining ways to match Hodgdon’s strategies to technology strategies, Stafford touched on MTT’s web-based vizZle tools, but other tech tools also are available for students with autism.

1. Communication

  • Create a communication environment that is “user friendly” for students
  • Plan for all students
  • Use many forms of communication, including speech, pointing and gestures, body language, pictures, objects, written language, and technology

Technology: Topic boards that give students simple options to respond to questions by selecting “yes,” “no,” or “maybe,” thinking about Universal Design elements and giving students a variety of ways to respond so that participation is easy for everyone.

Group time can be a challenging time, so having visual supports to help everyone get organized can help students with autism know what their routine will be.

Students can use a topic board to drag and drop icons to communicate, build sentences, and respond to sentences.

2. Environment

  • Set up a visual classroom
  • Analyze the environment as it relates to schedules, routines, group needs, and individual needs
  • Prepare visuals in both low- and high-tech forms
  • Plan how they will be used

For instance, examine transitions–how does each student know where to go? Does the student know what to do when he or she goes to an area? How does the student know when the activity is finished and what will happen next?

Organize the physical environment with maps, visually-marked work stations, and make it free from distractions.

Maps can be made with Microsoft Paint, Paintbrush 2 on a Mac, or with an online tool such as

Visuals are key in setting up classroom structure for students with autism, and educators should identify the type of visual needed to foster independence. Visuals could include objects, photos, line drawings, symbols, or text.

Technology: Technology in the classroom requires considerations, Stafford said. Educators should focus on what types of technology will be integrated into the school day, and they should think about the layout of the classroom so that their technology isn’t distracting to other students.

“Come up with a plan so that when you’re putting these things into practice in your classroom, you’re optimizing your time with your students,” she said.

3. Giving information

  • Think of using visual tools to give information to students with autism. This information might include what it going to happen and when, what choices the student has, what is changing, and so on.

Technology: “It becomes complicated because we have different kinds of visual learners,” Stafford said.

A visual schedule with drag-and-drop icons representing different activities can help students with autism understand what they will do on a given day. This also could be done in a paper version for a low-tech approach.

First-then or first-next-then boards are another option for students with autism. The student has a bit of control when choosing learning activities pertaining to certain subjects.

Technology can help educators include everyone in learning because it is customizable to meet students’ different needs, Stafford said.

4. Managing time

  • Time management can help students with autism understand when to start and stop activities, when something will happen, how to follow a schedule, when to take a turn, and more, Hodgdon said.

Technology: Timers or stopwatch features on smartphones work well and can be used as visual reminders, Stafford said.

5. Support positive behaviors

  • Use visuals to help students with autism understand classroom rules, expected behaviors, and how to handle social situations.

Technology: A student’s behavior can indicate that they are having a difficult time absorbing information.

Classroom rules are often written in text and list form, but using visual representations can help students with autism understand classroom rules.

Multi-sensory supports include visual, sensory, and auditory supports.