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Autism Teaching Strategies for Student Support Officers

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Autism Teaching Strategies

Supporting students with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

If you are interested in or have recently started a role as a student support service officer, then you will be responsible for supporting a young person who has individual support needs. The student will be in higher education, attending college or university. This week our focus is on supporting students with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). We will look at key autism teaching strategies which are effective in building good relationships with students. Aside from ASD, when working in a support service, student’s individual needs could include:

  • dyslexia or other specific learning difficulties
  • a physical disability or long term health condition
  • a mental health difficulty, depression or anxiety

What are Autistic Spectrum Disorders?

Autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental disabilities that affect communication and social skills. This set of disorders also encompasses Asperger syndrome and PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance). Sometimes people with an autism spectrum disorder may also have other difficulties such as learning disabilities. They may have average or above-average intelligence.

Working in a student support service, your role responsibilities will include helping young people to study effectively, to access and understand all relevant information and make the most of student life.

Below, we start by exploring the possible characteristics you may encounter in a young person with ASD. We then look into a few key autism teaching strategies:

 

How might having ASD affect a student at higher education level?

Firstly, we want to share an important quote from Stephen Shore: “If you’ve met one individual with autism… you’ve met one individual with autism.” Meaning that, of course, every individual is unique. We mustn’t make assumptions about people with specific needs. Every student we work with should be treated as an individual, with our approaches and strategies reflecting their individual needs.

Below are some of the characteristics that may be associated with a person with an autistic spectrum disorder:

  • Finding social interaction difficult 
  • Talking at people rather than sharing a two-way conversation
  • Struggling to communicate non-verbally (body language, eye contact, facial expressions etc.) 
  • Lack of awareness/interest in other people
  • Inability to adapt the tone of speech to suit different social situations
  • Not always responding to own name
  • Repetitive movements such as flapping hands or flicking fingers 
  • Prefer routines and becoming upset if these change
  • Being hypersensitive to sound, light or other sensory information
  • Using repetition as a response rather than being able to formulate own sentences 

General Advice when using Autism Teaching Strategies

Below are some general autism teaching strategies to consider using with your student. Importantly, you may find some strategies very effective, while others may not be right for your individual student. The best approach is to be reflective and adaptable when building a supportive relationship with a student:

  • Refer to the student by name regularly so that they know you are speaking to them. 
  • Make sure the student is paying attention before asking a question or giving instructions. 
  • Wait for students to respond to previous questions or instructions before repeating them or giving further instructions. It may take a person with an autism spectrum disorder longer to process information than you might expect.
  • Using a stress scale with students can help them to express their emotions visually e.g. traffic light system or 1-5 scale of “I’m calm” to “I’m angry.” 
  • Follow a consistent study routine that the student can become familiar with. 
  • Use visual supports where appropriate to help students process information.  
  • Use your student’s interests and hobbies to engage them in communication.
  • Initially, limit environmental stimuli where possible (for example noisy rooms, lots of people moving around). Students with an autism spectrum disorder may find it difficult to process lots of different sensory information simultaneously. 
  • Consider using ‘time-out’ cards to allow students to take a break from any potential stressful situations. 

 

Key Autism Teaching Strategies and Support Advice

 

1. Be approachable, be friendly 

Of course, this is an important characteristic for any education professional. However, It’s especially important when using autism teaching strategies that you are supportive, approachable and friendly. This open and positive approach is key to ensuring you can be receptive and responsive to meet your student’s individual needs.

 

2. Get to know your students 

Try to find out about your student’s interests and hobbies. This will help with building rapport and enable you to make suggestions on student clubs or activities they could get involved with.

Remember to ask your students what support they have received previously at school and college to discover more background on the needs of the student and their targets.

 

3. Be prepared to communicate information clearly and confidentially 

A key responsibility in the role of student support officer is to deliver efficient and professional information, advice and support to meet the needs of students on a range of personal, pastoral and academic issues. It is the right of all students to be able to access all the relevant information at their place of study.

You will be communicating with other staff members across several different departments, including:

  • Student Services
  • Safeguarding Team
  • Counselling Services
  • Students’ Union
  • Academic Staff
  • Education Managers.

Consequently, you will probably have access to information about your student that is private and confidential. Ensure that you protect this information carefully. Additionally, speak to your team about any records that you are expected to keep and monitor regarding your student and their progress.

 

4. Safeguarding your Student

Alongside using autism teaching strategies, it is important to reflect on your student’s emotional well-being. Crucially, if you notice anything that concerns you or your student’s behaviour changes quickly, ensure that you inform the appropriate services with urgency (this will include the departments mentioned above). It could be that your student is finding an aspect of student life difficult, and requires collaboration across a few different service teams for support.

Seek advice on safeguarding your student from your student support service to ensure that you are clear on who to approach, and where concerns are recorded should you need to.

 

5. Build on your SEND knowledge to inform autism teaching strategies

There is always new research being published (see useful links below). Beginning at a student support service is a fantastic opportunity to learn from and collaborate with new colleagues. A great starting point would be Prospero’s free online course ‘An Introduction to ASD.’

In addition, read about the different behaviours and support associated with ASD, and remember: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Every young person we work with is an individual who deserves their own individualised care and support.

 

6. Maintain A Calm Manner 

Universities can be stressful environments and working with students with ASD can at times add pressure. Accept that this is reflective of how important your role is. Try to focus on the positive impact you can have on your student and their well-being. This is what makes roles in Student Support Services especially rewarding.

 

Useful links:

National Autistic Society

Autism Toolkit

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