As an educator, your lesson plans can be just as unique as your students—and they should be. There are sometimes special challenges for teachers who work with children on the autism spectrum. Considering the spectrum can be quite broad and many teachers have large classes, finding and designing the right curriculum can feel overwhelming.

However, there are some foundational approaches that will benefit almost every child on the spectrum. First, always prioritize task analysis. Ensure lesson plans are very clear and that steps are sequential. This is also usually the best approach for teaching every child. Keep the gray areas and blurred lines at bay. Little steps that lead to the next and ultimately to the end goal help children understand what you’re asking of them, why, and what naturally occurs next. It’s both straightforward and soothing.

Less is More

Simple language is a must when working with students on the spectrum, both in written and verbal communication. This is a natural complement to task analysis lesson planning. Less is more. It can be natural to want to fill silences or engage in small talk, but that isn’t conducive to learning for students. For some educators new to working within this demographic, such bluntness can seem rude or unfriendly—it’s not. It’s what your students need.

You’ll also want to teach social graces and rules alongside your lesson planning. Build these lessons into assignments if you can. Many students struggle with social norms such as maintaining considerate space between their peers and themselves or taking turns. If you’re not formally trained in working with students on the spectrum, teaching what many people learn and absorb naturally will take a conscious effort. Plus, “social norms” vary region to region. These “unwritten rules” need to be written and taught in order for some students to learn them.

Keep choices to a minimum. We live in a culture where there are endless options, and it’s common to want to give students so-called freedom and options, but this can be overwhelming. Give students a maximum of three choices (two is perfectly fine, as well). Too many choices can lead to confusion, and it’s not usually beneficial.

Adapt To Your “Norm”

Particularly for educators new to teaching this demographic, it’s common to want to brush past awkwardness. Resist this temptation. You’ll sometimes be met with a stare and no answer when you ask a question. There are a myriad of reasons as to why a student might not answer, and one of the most common is because they didn’t understand the question but aren’t asking for clarification. Instead of assuming or ignoring, restate the sentence and ask the student if they understand.

Special education teachers are constantly tasked with actively analyzing and changing their natural verbal communication. While sarcasm should never be used when teaching children, it must especially be avoided with those on the spectrum. You’ll also want to drop metaphors and idioms. Teacher “staples” like “Let’s brainstorm!” and “Zip your lips” can come across as nonsensical.

Get Used to Repetition

Special education teachers have incredible patience, empathy and compassion, which are all learned traits. To make classroom life easier for you and your students, forget about open-ended questions. It might feel counterintuitive to what you’re used to, but stick with questions that can be answered with one word. Yes/no questions are great, too. Instead of asking, “What do you feel like working on during study period?” ask, “Would you like to work on math or history?”

You’ll also find yourself including teaching “finished” in your lesson plans. How do students know when a task is complete? Don’t assume that it’s “obvious.” Demonstrate a finished assignment, take a picture and include it in the written assignment, and encourage students to use these models as a reference point.

If you’re transitioning to teaching special education, there will be major adjustments. For example, you’ll have to create an optimal learning space, just as the children require optimal living spaces to thrive. But the adjustments are all worthwhile. Ultimately, your lesson plans are crafted to make the assignments more accessible, enjoyable and beneficial to your students.

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