When I ask people to describe a particular student with autism that may be on their caseload or in their classroom, I often hear about the student’s challenges. I might hear about the fact that the student isn’t motivated to learn or that they have significant behavior challenges.  While I recognize (and respect) that these challenges are very real, I long to hear about the student’s amazing sense of direction or about how they are really good at following the steps in a sequence.  Those who work in the school setting are faced with juggling students with diverse needs and abilities.  There never seems to be enough time or support to get things done.  It can be very easy to slip into the swamp of negativity.

I started a new job several years ago.  It was a completely new role for me and required me to move across the county to a new city where I didn’t know a single person.  I can definitely say that I was outside of my comfort zone.  I remember sitting at a coffee shop talking on the phone with the phone company trying to get my internet set up (You can’t start a new job without internet!!).  The stress must have been written all over my face.  I’m sure the woman sitting next to me overheard most of the conversation.  When she walked by to leave, she placed a Post-it note on my table.  It simply read, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.  This too shall pass.”  To quote Oprah, I had an “aha moment.”  From that moment on, I decided not to worry about all of the potential challenges I might face with the new job, I decided to focus on the positive and to use my strengths to get me through the challenges.  I jumped in and did what needed to be done and didn’t allow myself to become overwhelmed by the things that didn’t really matter.  I am happy to report that the job experience was one of the best I’ve ever had and I learned to be a positive thinker.

By applying these same strategies when working with students on the ASD spectrum, we can begin to focus on their strengths instead of their challenges.  While skills and abilities vary from student to student, it is important to think about the fact that many students with autism understand concrete concepts, rules and sequences very well.  They also often think in a visual way and are able to recall visual images and memories easily.   In addition, they can typically understand context specific language (language that can be directly related to an experience) and be extremely focused during pleasurable tasks.  These students can also understand better when he sees something vs. hear it (Thank goodness for visual supports!).

If you really think about it, it is the strengths of our students that can lead us to a solution to the challenge.  For example, if the student is not motivated to participate in social interaction with others (challenge), but is really good with following a routine (strength) then we can potentially address the challenge by making the social interaction with others a part of the routine (solution).

You’ve probably heard the saying “it takes way more facial muscles to frown than it does to smile.”  Well I believe that it takes way more energy to “admire the problem” than to think positively and come up with solutions.  Try to follow every challenge statement with a strength statement.   By focusing on the strengths of the students we are promoting a positive communication and learning environment.  And don’t forget to repeatedly tell your students about their strengths (ex., “Wow, Jill.  You are really good at following directions!”).

For more information about the strengths and solutions for students with autism, watch the Behavioral Supports for Individuals with Autism video  on the DynaVox Implementation Toolkit.  This video will highlight some of the strengths and characteristics often demonstrated by students with autism.

Download FREE visual supports (and thousands of other communication/learning boards) at BoardmakerOnline.com.

The long-awaited DSM-V has been released, and with it “refreshed” diagnostic criteria for Autism.  Individuals with autism, families, professionals, and other stakeholders are weighing in with accolades, concerns and criticism.  Respected organizations like Autism Speaks Science are soliciting feedback from those affected by the changes and will be analyzing the data moving forward.  If you are interested in participating in the Autism Speaks survey, please click here.  I am interested in learning the results of their analysis once the dust has settled.

What I see when I compare the DSM-IV and DSM-V criteria is a streamlining and meshing of what used to be the separate social interaction and communication strands.  As a speech-language pathologist this makes sense to me, as communication, in one form or another, is the linchpin of our social interaction as human beings.  Communication/social interaction impairments have long been integral to a diagnosis of autism, just as interventions addressing communication/social interaction are keys to the treatment of individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

So how does AAC fit in with all of this?  The same way it always has.  AAC is a best-practice intervention for any individual who is unable to meet communication/social interaction needs with speech alone.  AAC intervention may be long or short term.  It may be needed all day long in every activity and situation or it may be needed in specific settings or situations only.  It may be no-tech, low-tech, or high-tech in nature.  The American Speech Language Hearing Association reminds us that AAC should be thought of as a system comprised of four components: symbols, aids, strategies, and techniques. (ASHA, 2004).

There is nothing inherently communicative or socially interactive about symbols and aids alone.  The key to functional, meaningful, social communication is the combination of symbols and aids with the strategies and techniques that are employed to teach and sustain their use in real life interactions with real life important others.  We should be using AAC (all four parts) to support communication for building social-emotional reciprocity and fulfilling relationships for individuals with autism.  That has not changed with the DSM-V!


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2004). Roles and responsibilities of speech-language pathologists with respect to augmentative and alternative communication: technical report [Technical Report]. Available from www.asha.org/policy.

Students with autism can benefit from an educational environment that is set up to assist them with the types of challenges they face. There are a few minor changes you can implement to make your classroom an optimum learning environment for a student with autism. Some of these changes consist of furniture arrangement and lighting, creating visual schedules and guides, and designating a quiet area. By making these few minor changes, the school day will be more enjoyable for both you and your students.

Because open spaces can be intimidating to students with autism, one of the most important things you can do in your classroom is clearly mark where different sections of the classroom begin and end. You can use furniture, such as bookcases, desks, and rugs, to create clear physical and visual boundaries. In addition, you may want to use blackout curtains on the windows so students are not distracted by the external environment. Classroom light filters are also great to create a relaxing atmosphere for learning and to help reduce eyestrain and to diffuse the harsh glare of fluorescent lighting.

Visual schedules and guides are very beneficial for students with autism. They can help to facilitate communication and therefore minimize behavioral issues. They can also help to provide predictability. When students with autism are able to better understand and anticipate what is going to happen next, it helps them to adapt more easily to their schedule and environment. Create a large, visual classroom schedule that students can refer to and make sure to include specific times and the activities that accompany each time slot.

A quiet area should be designated in a corner of your classroom. The quiet area will help to calm your student down if they begin to feel overwhelmed or anxious and this can help to avoid classroom meltdowns. The area should be free of visual distractions and excessive noise. Use a soft chair, like a beanbag chair, and provide headphones so your student can relax.

By taking into consideration the aforementioned changes, you will be creating an excellent learning environment for your students with autism. This type of learning environment will help your students succeed and stay on track. Remember, not every student is the same so feel free to tweak these changes to meet your students’ needs.

McCormick, Maggie. How to Design an Autistic Classroom. Ehow. Retrieved March 23, 2012, from: www.ehow.com/how_6515698_design-autistic-classroom.html

Renata, Rebeca. How to Set Up a Classroom for Autistic Students. Ehow. Retrieved March 23, 2012, from: www.ehow.com/how_7760988_set-up-classroom-autistic-students.html