Tag Archives: Sensory Diet

Teaching Autistic Children #AtoZChallenge

Welcome to day twenty in the A to Z Challenge on autism. Today’s post is all about teaching autisitc children. This post primarily addresses teachers, but parents and other interested people can learn from it too.

Children with autism often benefit from as structured an educational environment as possible. In fact, many behavioral therapists say you can’t overstructure with an autistic child. I do however feel that a child needs time to unwind too, because many autistic children have short attention spans and sensory needs. An ideal education mixes mostly structured teaching with free time (such as during recess) where a child is allowed to do whatever they want as long as they don’t harm anyone. For example, during a break, a child should be allowed to self-stim or to just stare out the window if they want.

A good education encourages the autistic child to maximize their strengths. Many autistics are good wirh art, while others are good at math or computers. If a child is academically able, they should be taught at an academically enriching school. Unfortunately, due to the way the educational system worked when I was in school, I couldn’t get an academically challenging education and get proper help for my social, sensory and behavioral needs at the same school. This has thankfully changed.

There are many strategies for teaching elementary school children with autism.

  1. Use the child’s special interests as a way to motivate them for schoolwork. If a school has a theme-based curriculum, or you’re using this as a homeschooling parent, you may be able to get your autistic child motivated for the theme being discussed at the time whether it matches their special interests or not. After all, some autistics (like myself) will fixate on basically anything they can fixate on. If your child only has one special interest, you could use time spent on the special interest as a reward for doing schoolwork and still incorporate the special interest in your teaching.

  2. For visual learners, it may help to use concrete, visual tools to teach math. My (non-autistic) sister had a pen which she could use to learn multiplication tables and use to scribble and doodle with at the same time.

  3. Handwriting is often hard for autistic children because of fine motor deficits. Nowadays, handwriting truly isn’t that importnat anymore, so allowing the child to type is recommended.

  4. Some autistics learn to read best by learning the phonics (traditional teachign method when I was in school), while others learn better by memorizing whole words. Comprehension is often harder for autistic children. You could use cards with a word and picture on them and show the picture/word card while speaking the word at the same time. The picture and word need to be on the same side of the card. This way, the child learns the meaning of words rather than just how to say them.

  5. For daily schedules, some children do best with visuals, while others do best with words, and still others prefer a combination of the two. Some autistics do not understand line drawings and will need photographs of real objects to understand what you mean.

Taking into account a child’s sensory needs may be hard, particularly in mainstream schools. For example, some children will absorb information much better when they’re stimming, but this is often seen as a distraction. An occupational therapist can advise the school teacher on a sensory diet for the child.

What Is a Sensory Diet?

Sensory processig disorder (SPD) refers to a group of disorders that cause problems regulating and processing sensory input. Sensory issues can also be prevalent in autistic individuals. I for one have strong sensry needs, and have lately considered creating my own sensory diet.

What is a sensory diet? It involves all sensory input we deliberately create to meet a person’s sensory needs. I reckon it can also be sensory input we remove, because some people actually get overloaded by certain stimuli. In sensory integration dysfunction, a particular type of SPD, people roughly fall into two types or a combination of both: sensory seeking and sensory avoidant. I for one avoid certain stimuli and crave others, which both can be addressed in a sensory diet.

Here are some examples of sensory activities and input you can use in a sensory diet:

  • Fidgeting. This is perhaps the easiest to incorporate, as anyone can be fidgeting. It may be necessary to teach yourself or the sensory person in your life to fidget in a non-obvious way as to minimize social stigma. Then again, consider also educating the people aroudn the sensory person about toleracnce of varying sensory needs.

  • Weighted blankets or vests. I have not found a weighted blanket in the Netherlands, but honestly have not been looing yet. A weighted blanket, as the term says, is a blanket with extra weight added to it to provide deep pressure. Even people who may be sensory avoidant towards the slightest stimuli, may like this. A weighted vest should not be worn all day. I don’t know about a weighted blanket for sleep.

  • Play dough or clay. Use play dough for a younger child and perhaps some type of clay for an older child or adult. I prefer polymer clay to earth clay because it gets less messy.

  • Swinging, jumping, running, exercise. This seems more appropriate for a child, but then again sensory needs don’t cease to exist when a child grows up. Adults might like to swing too. As an alternative if no swings are available, consider certain types of exercise.

These are all activities for the sensory seeker. For the sensory avoidant person, you may need to eliminate certain stimuli. For example, a person might want to choose dim lighting in their house (I realize this is not an option in schools or public places). There are lamps that shine upward to provide a more even lighting experience.

Most SPD people have trouble integrating multiple stimuli. Avoid having the radio or TV on when talking to them for this reason. It may seem like an inconvenience, but please realize most SPD people are already overwhelmed by the lighting in a room and ordinary sunds that cannot be eliminated. Note please that thoughtless exposure may ultimately teach a sensory person to avoid meltdown, but will not get them to avoid overload.