Professor Stephen Shore smiling at the camera

Stephen M. Shore is Clinical Assistant Professor of Special Education at Adelphi University, USA and lectures across the globe to raise awareness and understanding about autism. He explains how making a socially-inclusive change in your classroom can make a big difference.

I find that many educators get lost in a sea of possibilities when making changes to the curriculum for people with autism.

In class, it is important to make changes for a pupil with autism in a way that matches their needs and promotes social interaction. The more we can incorporate modifications into the general instruction of the class, the more all pupils will benefit.

Attaining true inclusion means that both students with autism or having other special needs as well as those without them mutually benefit from meaningful instruction and social interaction for all.

Example: John

Let's examine how to customize time to the needs of an individual on the autism spectrum, and how instruction in this area can be used to benefit and meet the needs of the entire class.

Our case study, John, is a Year 3 student with limited verbal ability. He likes to know his daily school routine in advance. Often the teacher or education professional will review the day's schedule with John in the morning before circle time with the rest of the students.

At 10am one day, John asks his teacher when maths will be taking place. Ordinarily, John’s teacher will give him the time for maths class.

However, today there is a change in the schedule due to a school assembly taking the place of maths at 11am. John's teacher realizes that he does not have the time to explain this modification to John and tells him that maths will be later today – thinking that he can address the change in greater detail in about 15 minutes.

But this indefinite answer serves only to ratchet up John's anxiety. A meltdown, including biting, ensues.

Work out the causes and how to adapt

Most educators and others familiar with children on the autism spectrum would understand the two causes of the meltdown.

First, a review of the schedule – especially with the modification – should have been done in the morning before classes began. Second, when John asked when maths was that day, it was imperative to explain the situation immediately.

At the same time as providing for John's needs, reviewing the day's schedule on a communal board at the start of the day benefits the whole class, whether they are on the spectrum or not.

Putting John in charge of setting up and making changes to the schedule board allows him to process the change kinesthetically – meaning he can be a part of the class rather than being isolated with one-on-one instruction.

Handling the change in this way may also reduce, or even eliminate, the amount of time spent by staff on supporting John.

Value special interests

Individuals with autism commonly develop deep or highly-focused interests. Usually, interests are considered as interfering with learning.

However, with some creativity on the part of the educator, these passions can be used as powerful motivators for teaching a curriculum, working on the activities of daily living or preparing for a career.

Stephen's story

Black and white photograph of Stephen Shore as a young boyI was struck with the 'autism bomb' after 18 months of typical development. My parents were at a loss of what to do. At that time, there were no organizations or other resources to help parents and professionals support individuals on the autism spectrum.

A diagnosis of autism was tantamount to a life sentence in an institution where the most positive outcome might be a menial job in building maintenance or food services.

Attempts by my mother to get me to imitate her were met by blank stares. But one day, she flipped the interaction around and began imitating me. Suddenly a connection was made and I became aware of her.

Using today's terminology, my mother used an intensive home-based early intervention programme emphasizing movement, sensory integration, narration, and imitation at a time when the concept of early intervention did not even exist.

Building on our connection, my mother got me to a point where speech began to return at four.

Even then, I had special interests. Rather than discouraging these activities, my parents provided a variety of different objects for me to explore.

My mother's strategy suggests it is necessary to make that initial connection and develop a trusting relationship before any meaningful teaching can take place. Furthermore, encouraging special interests when they occur can lead to educational and vocational possibilities.

At age six, I started kindergarten where I was a social and academic catastrophe. I was bullied and I was about a grade behind in most of my subjects. However, I had my interests – which were satisfied by reading books, taking notes, and copying diagrams until the next interest took over.

In many ways, a special interest is a gift to educators because it provides a path for teaching many subjects at school. Fortunately, my parents were aware of and supported my special interests. Parental involvement in education is important for all children and vital for those with autism or with other special needs.

At Middle and High school, things were easier partly because I was able to engage in my special interest of music. I joined the band, which gave me a structured activity to mediate my interactions with my classmates. People on the autism spectrum are more successful in gatherings that are structured and activity-based.

If educators had today's knowledge back then, I would have likely divided my learning between a resource room and regular education settings with a paraprofessional.

Stephen is the author of Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome, Ask and Tell: Self-Advocacy and Disclosure for people on the Autism Spectrum and co-author of Understanding Autism for Dummies.