In a bustling classroom, addressing the diverse learning needs of all students can be overwhelming and complicated. It can be even more daunting when you are also tasked with implementing instructional accommodations and modifications in the individualized educational programs (IEPs) of your students.
Here are the most important principles to remember when implementing accommodations and modifications for your students.
Keep in mind that accommodations and modifications are not interchangeable terms. An accommodation aims to alter how students access and learn the same material as their peers, without lowering the academic expectations. On the other hand, a modification involves changing and adjusting what students are taught or what is expected of them in terms of learning outcomes.
Transitioning between tasks and activities can be challenging for students across the autism spectrum. Therefore, it is crucial to have a daily class schedule that outlines the different activity categories for the day. A detailed schedule will greatly assist with smooth transitions between the classroom, lunchroom, schoolyard, and other destinations throughout the day.
A significant percentage of children with autism (up to 95%) struggle with regulating their sensory system, commonly known as sensory processing disorder.
Therefore, sensory aids, or fidgets, can help alleviate the resulting stress and enhance focus for autistic children as they navigate a busy classroom environment.
Fidgets empower these children to self-regulate their emotions and stay on task, even when distractions compete for their attention. For many kids who engage in repetitive behaviours, having a fidget in hand or underfoot can help them manage their typical motions.
There are various types of sensory aids that are suitable for classrooms, such as stress balls, pencil toppers, tangle puzzles, clay, wiggle cushions, weighted lap pads, chair bands, and foot rollers. Since fidgets are enjoyable yet discreet, they can be made available to all students to prevent anyone from feeling singled out or left out.
The principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) advocate for providing multiple tools for expression, communication, composition, and construction in inclusive classrooms (CAST, 2011).
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines emphasize the importance of providing options for self-regulation to facilitate personal coping skills and strategies for individuals with ASD (CAST, 2011).
In addition, sound dampening accommodations such as placing tennis balls on chair legs, using floor carpeting, and using vent covers can be helpful in reducing background noises in the classroom (Myles et al., 2000; Murray et al., 2009; Yack et al., 2002).
Classrooms are filled with distractions that students with autism often find challenging to block out. The sound of chairs scraping across the floor, students moving around, intercom announcements, flickering lights, and school bells can all be bothersome distractions that are nearly impossible for children with autism to ignore. Even strong smells can overwhelm the senses and dominate the minds of students who are sensitive to such stimuli. These distractions can become overwhelmingly taxing on the sensory system, particularly as the day progresses, leading to meltdowns. To prevent sensory overload, teachers can create a quiet corner in a low-traffic area of the classroom, providing students with a place to escape the constant barrage of noise and visual stimulation. This corner should offer a comfortable spot for students to rest and allow their sensory system to calm down. Noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs, sleep masks, and weighted blankets can all help students overcome sensory overload and prepare to resume the learning process with renewed focus.
Teachers can greatly improve the school day for students with autism by incorporating regular breaks into the schedule. Allowing for a brief five-minute break every hour can provide much-needed time for transitioning between tasks and recovering from the demands of the classroom environment. Additionally, breaks should be available on an as-needed basis to enable students with autism to learn how to recognize internal cues and take appropriate actions to regulate themselves. Without an adequate number of breaks throughout the day, students may be more susceptible to meltdowns due to sensory overload and fatigue from constantly trying to self-regulate. Guided breaks also offer an opportunity for students to discover which activities during break time provide the most benefit for them. Some students who seek sensory stimulation may prefer listening to music, while others who feel overwhelmed may benefit from quietly working on a jigsaw.
Students with autism often have difficulties with visual or auditory learning styles. Teachers should provide multiple options for media to accommodate each child’s specific learning style. For visual learners, a combination of literature, videos, pictures, and charts can effectively convey lesson information. On the other hand, auditory learners may require audio tapes or recordings of the written information for the lesson. For students who struggle with both visual and auditory learning styles, tactile tools can be provided to convey information. Tactile tools may include flashcards, board games, notetaking pads, computer games, and craft projects. While it can be beneficial for students to try different types of media from time to time, the best progress is often made when using the child’s preferred learning style.
It’s important to note that while eye contact can be useful, it is not essential, and educators should be mindful of cultural differences and individual preferences. Some children may find prolonged eye contact uncomfortable or painful, and alternative strategies, such as directing attention to chins, noses, or foreheads, may be more appropriate when trying to engage with students (Howlin, 2005)