Autism in the Classroom

Practical Techniques for Teaching Students with ASD

Helpful strategies that create better opportunities for learners with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to get the most out of your lessons.

It may sometimes seem as if pupils with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome live in their own world, one that is remote from other learners. It is easier than you might think to reach them. Any of the following ideas can be used with a group comprising exclusively ASD students, or in a mainstream class with one or more such learners.

Starters (Do-nows)

Starters (Do Nows in the USA) are short introductory activities. They can have everything or nothing to do with the remainder of the lesson. They usually last around five minutes but may go on longer (don’t worry if this happens. Many learners on the autistic spectrum need to be able to finish tasks and this is more important than your lesson timing!).

The main requirement is that they are fun: quizzes, anagrams, hangman, and odd one out puzzles all set a positive tone for the lesson. Students should ideally begin this activity the moment they walk into the classroom, so make sure that beforehand you prepare your whiteboard or lay answer sheets and pens on desks. The message is: we don’t mess around here; we get straight down to work!


The importance of visuals cannot be underestimated in teaching this group of learners. As Temple Grandin, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, explains in Thinking in Pictures (Vintage, 1996): ‘Words are like a second language to me’. Fortunately, we live in a visually orientated world and the plethora of such teaching resources on the Internet reflects this. Supporting a text with colorful pictures and highlighting various phrases is straightforward with the aid of PowerPoint and a data projector.

Show, Don’t Tell

One of the ways that autism and Asperger’s Syndrome manifest themselves is in difficulty sequencing tasks. In practice, this means that the instruction ‘Look at the article and fill in both sections of the answer sheet’ may as well be given in Klingon for the ASD pupil. Before you reprimand the pupil who sits staring into space, humming to him or herself, ask yourself if they have understood your instructions. Instead of telling, show your pupil what to do and guide them through the start of the activity.


Every pupil responds to positive feedback from the teacher, but any learner with ASD is especially in need of some tangible measure of success. This is not a condition conducive to high self–esteem, and we as teachers should constantly strive to bolster our students’ confidence. Try any of the following techniques: give out points for appropriate (not just “good”) behavior and effort at completing tasks. The points can be recorded on a chart. When each student gains five points they get a small reward. In addition to this, every point gains them a raffle ticket. At the end of every week, draw one ticket out to win a bigger prize.

The good thing about raffle tickets is you can use them as behavioral bargaining chips, unbeknownst to the class. For example, if you feel the noise level is unacceptable, this is the time to announce: ‘now, this next bit is really important. I’ll be giving away two extra raffle tickets to anyone who listens carefully.’

Try these ideas out. Did they work for you? What about the students? This is a useful opportunity to open up a discussion (if appropriate) about what activities they think to help them learn. This in turn makes for a happier classroom where pupils feel more engaged and empowered.