Strategies to Support Students with Autism MCS

Tracy Huckell & Tammy Taypotat
GSSD Student Services
September 2013
Autism/Asperger Syndrome Definitions
Characteristics of Autism or ASD (Autism
Spectrum Disorder)
Proactive Strategies for the Classroom
Rage Cycle and Strategies to Support
Students and Staff - video
Understanding Students with ASD
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a pervasive
developmental disorder characterized by:
◦ impairments in communication, social interaction,
and sensory processing
◦ repetitive and stereotypical patterns of behavior,
interests and activities (American Psychiatric
‘Spectrum’ indicates the symptoms can be
present in a variety of combinations and can
range from mild to severe
According to DSM-IV (1994) criteria, an
Asperger’s diagnosis must meet criteria for social
impairment and repetitive actions, but have
normal cognitive and language development.
Characterized by impairments in social language
◦ appear socially awkward, have difficulty with empathy,
and misinterpret social cues.
◦ Often talk incessantly about a favorite topic and have
difficulty switching to another topic
◦ Conversation can appear overly formal
◦ Individuals with AS want to interact with others despite
their lack of skills
May have difficulty with motor coordination,
balance, dexterity, and handwriting
May be hypersensitive to some stimuli and
engage in unusual behavior to regulate
Average or above average intelligence and may
appear quite capable, but have relative weaknesses in
abstract thought, problem solving, and making
inferences or judgements. This rigid thinking causes
difficulty in adapting to change or failure, and
difficulty learning from mistakes or errors.
Students with AS often give the impression they
understand more than they do due to their advanced
vocabulary, formal tone of voice, and rote-like
May be inattentive, easily distracted and be
diagnosed with ADHD at some point
Severe social anxiety is also commonly associated
with AS.
Appear overly controlling to those around them but
that is their strategy for reducing anxiety and the
Impairments in Communication
◦ Range from being non-verbal to having extensive
vocabularies with deficits in the use of social language
◦ Difficulty with facial expression, use of gestures, imitation,
eye contact, shared focus of attention
◦ May have repetitive speech patterns and perseverate on a
favorite topic
◦ Difficulty with pragmatics (social use of language) –
problems initiating conversation, maintaining a topic,
interrupting, rigidity, multiple meanings of words, and
understanding subtle social messages and rules
◦ May talk with exaggerated inflections or a monotone style,
stand too close or too far away, stare intently for long
periods of time or fail to make eye contact, or fail to use
gestures or facial expressions that accompany verbal
◦ Difficulty explaining how they feel or why they did
◦ Interpret phrases very literally – ‘pull up your socks’
Impairments in Social Interaction
◦ Difficulty reading and understanding social situations
◦ Limited social interaction does not necessarily reflect a lack
of desire to interact with others, they just don’t have the
◦ Difficulty attending to relevant social cues and shifting
attention when necessary
◦ Difficulty with appropriate use of nonverbal behavior and
reading this behavior in others
◦ Difficulty understanding their own feelings and sensing
what others are feeling
◦ Difficulty understanding different points of view or the
perspective of others – struggle to understand others’
feelings, desires, and intentions (easy targets for teasing
and bullying)
◦ May engage in excessive or inappropriate laughing or
◦ Difficulty connecting their actions to other’s reactions
◦ Difficulty with turn taking and politeness
Unusual Behaviors and Interests
◦ Restricted range of interests with preoccupations
◦ Repetitive motor mannerisms such as hand
flapping, rocking, spinning, walking on tiptoes,
spinning objects – often due to hyper or hypo
◦ Resistant to change
◦ Excitement in a student with ASD often causes the
same reaction as stress. When overly excited the
student cannot monitor his/her behavior and may
lose control/escalate
Attention Difficulties
◦ Difficulty disengaging and shifting attention from
one stimuli to the next
◦ Impairment in ability to share attention – joint
◦ May have a short attention span and be distracted
by stimuli that doesn’t bother peers
Cognitive Deficits and Learning Styles
◦ May have deficits in:
 attending to relevant cues and information
 receptive and expressive language impairments especially in
abstract and social language
 concept formation and abstract reasoning
 ability to plan, organize and problem solve
 Often select one problem solving strategy and use it
consistently regardless of the situation or outcome – can
trigger escalations when student becomes frustrated or
confused as to why the strategy they chose is not working
◦ May have strengths regarding:
 Rote memory and ability to recall simple information but
difficulties applying more complex information
 Putting puzzles together and often perform well with spatial,
perceptual and matching tasks
 Remembering information presented visually – some ‘think
in pictures’
Unusual Responses to Sensory Stimuli
◦ Responses to sensory stimulation vary from hyposensitive
(high tolerance for pain) to hypersensitive (aggravated by
tags in clothing, preference for sweat pants over jeans,
seams in socks hurt their toes)
◦ May crave pressure which often has a calming effect
◦ Some are hypersensitive to odors, bright lighting, and noise
(even the hum of florescent lights)
◦ Individuals with severe sensory processing problems may
go into total shutdown or experience escalations when they
become overstimulated. Self-stimulating behaviors are
often used to help the individual calm down by generating a
self-controlled, repetitive stimulus
◦ Many individuals with autism experience anxiety due to
their difficulties with:
being able to express feelings, thoughts, emotions
processing sensory information
fear of some sources of sensory stimulation
the need for predictability and having to cope with changes
they may not have been prepared for
 understanding social situations
 a sense of a loss of control
 misperception of social events
 rigidity in moral judgement that results from a very concrete
sense of right/wrong
In contrast to peers, students with AS often do not reveal their
stress through voice tone and overt agitation which can result
in escalation to the point of crisis because others are unaware
of their discomfort or anxiety, and because of their inability to
predict, cope, and manage uncomfortable situations
Use of visuals
◦ Aids for organization such as daily schedules, activity
checklists, day to day class agenda, choice boards,
first/then routines, steps to complete a task/problem,
written instructions for learning new info, story maps
◦ Strategies for organizing the environment such as
labelling objects, containers for homework etc.
◦ Supports for social development such as posting rules
and routines, and using social stories to teach social
◦ Allows decreased reliance on teacher or EA – gradual
release model to teach use of visuals to complete tasks
Key is to consider when planning ‘how can this
information be presented in a simple visual format?’
Provide a structured and predictable
classroom environment
◦ Provides consistency and clarity
◦ Reduces anxiety as students know what to expect
and can anticipate what comes next
◦ Alternate familiar successful activities with less
preferred activities
◦ Alternate large group activities with calming
◦ Implementation of a sensory diet that allows
student to decrease sensory overload and calm
before becoming anxious or escalated – proactive
vs. reactive
Provide positive specific praise about what
the student does right or well
Use concrete examples and hands-on
activities when teaching abstract ideas
Avoid long strings of verbal information –
break down instructions and use visual aids
Provide opportunities for choice - ways to
show what they know, order of activities etc.
Use first/then
Use meaningful reinforcers that student can
choose from
Plan and present tasks at an appropriate level of
difficulty – too difficult leads to anxiety and
sometimes escalations due underdeveloped
coping skills
Note tasks and activities that create frustration
and examine environment for sounds and
activities that result in sensory overload
Provide a calm, quiet designated area the student
can go to relax when they are feeling anxious or
beginning to escalate – set this up ahead of time,
discuss expectations and practice using this
space and be consistent from teacher to
teacher/class to class with this
Plan for transitions and prepare the student for
change through use of visual schedules (that
highlight changes and what comes next) and social
stories (that teach the student about new situations)
Give ample time warnings (5 min left, 2 min left etc)
and use visual timer
Ensure all teachers set and uphold similar
expectations to provide structure and consistency
Expectations need to be translated into rules and
routines students understand
Reduce the amount of visual stimuli in the classroom
especially in direct line of view of student with Autism
or AS
Social Interaction
◦ Provide opportunities for meaningful contact with
peers who have appropriate social behavior
◦ Teach appropriate social behavior, problem solving
and coping skills explicitly like academic skills –
step by step with gradual release and lots of
opportunity for practice
Managing Challenging Behavior
◦ ABCs of Behavior – Antecedent (what happened
before the behavior), Behavior
description/frequency/intensity, Consequence
(what happened as a result of the
◦ Data collected should be analyzed to identify
patterns, triggers, and possible reinforcers
◦ Consider the function of the behavior:
Gain attention
Tangible – get something
Escape from an unpleasant situation or task
Self-regulation or tension release
Behavior Strategies
◦ Provide clear expectations for behavior and use visual
aids to help student understand what is expected along
with reinforcement
Teaching and Reinforcing Alternate Behaviors
◦ Once the function of the behavior has been identified,
the team should identify an alternative/more appropriate
behavior that serves the same function
 rather than escalating and storming out, the student
identifies he is escalating and uses a break card to request a
 Instead of yelling or whining when frustrated, the student
learn to say, “I need help with this”.
Observe the student for signs of increasing
anxiety and environmental factors that could
be contributing to the anxiety
Teach the student to say “I need a break” or
use a break card.
Provide opportunities for relaxation in brief 5
– 10 min periods. Student can go to a break
area in class or another room, listen to music
that is calming, use of fidget. Discuss with
student what is calming for them.
Students with AS sometimes exhibit a sudden
onset of aggressive or oppositional behavior
Seem to escalate without being provoked and
appears to come out of nowhere - students with
ASD struggle to communicate verbally or
nonverbally the early signs of stress
Meltdowns do not occur without warning – the
pattern of behaviors are there but are often very
subtle (what have you noticed?)
The rage cycle is not a time to teach new skills –
only to support the student in utilizing skills
he/she already knows and can use fluently
Escalations follow three-stage cycle:
◦ Rumbling Stage
◦ Rage Stage
◦ Recovery Stage
Initial stage
May clear throat, grimace, lower voice, tense muscles, tap
feet, bite nails or lip, or erase paper until a hole appears –
easy to ignore these seemingly minor behaviors
May emotionally or physically withdraw
May challenge authority, swear, and attempt to engage in
power struggle
Imperative that staff intervene at this stage without
becoming part of the struggle
◦ Staff need to be flexible as the student cannot
◦ Interventions at this time are band-aids to allow the student and
staff to survive the cycle – this is not a teachable moment
◦ It’s imperative that staff know which behaviors/reactions are likely
to escalate the child from the rumbling stage to the rage stage
◦ Staff must remain calm, project calmness, minimalize
verbalizations, use a quiet voice and avoid power struggles
◦ Primary focus is preventing occurrence of the rage stage and may
mean leaving an assignment unfinished
Remove the student from the environment they
are experiencing difficulty in – send them on an
errand, use break card etc.
Move near the student in a non-confrontational
supportive way
Using a prearranged signal to let the student
know you are aware he/she is under stress
(tapping desk) as a cue to employ a strategy
(such as squeezing a stress ball, deep breathing,
or taking a break)
Redirect student to their schedule to remind
them of a preferred activity or reinforcement that
is next on the schedule
Redirect the student by discussing something that is
of special interest to the student which can often be
Diffuse tension through humor or a joke the student
would like and understand
Signal student to take a break or go to home base
room – should be calming positive and neutral
environment with a selection of items/activities that
are calming to student
Students can also take class work to home base to
complete after a brief respite to calm
Home base can also be used for check-in/check-out
and to introduce changes to the typical routine
Acknowledging student difficulty – staff briefly
support the verbalizations of the student and help
them complete the task they are struggling with to
avoid an escalation eg. “Yes, this problem is tough.
Let’s start with the first step” and provide the
scaffolded support the student requires.
Just walk and don’t talk – silence is important as the
student in a rumbling stage will likely react to any
statement and may misinterpret it. The child can
vent at this time without fear of discipline and the
adult should remain calm, show as little reaction as
possible and never be confrontational
Goal is to avoid rage stage and help them regain
control of emotions while retaining respect and
Use of the Incredible 5 Point Scale to identify
where they are at between 1 and 5 and prompt
them to choose a prearranged strategy (this need
to be taught and practiced prior to use in
rumbling stage)
Self calming – when calm/stabilized, work with
the student to develop a calming routine that
works for them and have it available visually
(pictures or words) to refer to. eg:
Take three long breaths
Stretch your arms over your head, down and up again
Rub your hands together and count to 3
Rub your thighs and count to 3
Take another long breath
Raising voice or yelling
Making assumptions
Acting superior
Preaching or nagging
Backing the student into a corner
Pleading or bribing
Insisting on having the last word or that the adult is right
Bringing up unrelated events
Using sarcasm
Using tense body language
Holding a grudge
Making unsubstantiated accusations
Using unwarranted physical force
Commanding, demanding, dominating
Using degrading, insulting, or humiliating putdowns
Student acts impulsively, emotionally and sometimes
explosively, and can include hitting, screaming, biting,
kicking, self-injury or destroying property
Once it begins, this stage often must run its course
Emphasis should be placed on student, peer and staff
Get the child to home base before this occurs if possible.
If not, remove other students.
Redirection at this stage often escalates behavior as the
student can’t process the demands placed on him/her
Refer to previously developed behavior plans that outline
NVCI team and protocol regarding who to call, removal of
other students, and providing restraint only if the child is
hurting others or him/herself.
Staff should disengage emotionally so as not to escalate as
well and should remain calm and quiet
Protect the student, others and the environment
Don’t discipline or be confrontational – be calm
and quiet
Remove the audience
Follow the plan and obtain assistance
Use few words – remember less is more
Prevent a power struggle
Be flexible – the student cannot
Don’t take things personally
Disengage emotionally
Be conscious of your verbal cues
Take deep breaths
Allow to sleep if necessary
Support use of relaxation techniques
Do not refer to rage behavior
Support with structure
Consider the student ‘fragile’
Determine appropriate option for student:
◦ Redirect to successful activity or special interest
◦ Provide space and further rest time if needed
Monitor to see if student is ready to learn
Do not make excessive demands
Students with AS/Autism often cannot fully remember
what occurred during the rage stage and become
Some become sullen, withdraw or deny that inappropriate
behavior occurred, while others are so physically
exhausted they need to sleep
Students are not ready to learn at this stage – discussion
of behavior at this time could lead to further escalations
Focus on helping them get back into the day’s routine
beginning with a highly motivating task that can easily be
completed (activity related to their special interest)
Some may require engagement in further relaxation
techniques or sensory activities
Teacher needs to take time to regroup and discuss what
occurred with a colleague (debrief)
It’s essential for school teams to recognize the
fragile emotional state of students on the ASD
spectrum and adapt the environment to meet
their needs
◦ Become skilled at recognizing the initial behavior signs
of stress and anxiety
◦ If the student is doing fine during the day but parents
report they fall apart at home frequently, stress may be
building during the school day and when they get home
they let go of the pressure that is bottled up
◦ When student is in a fragile emotional state
(precipitating events), temporarily reduce expectations
to help them through a difficult day without escalating
Determine stressors in the school environment
(substitute teacher, changes to regular schedule,
unrealistic demands, long assignment with no idea
how to begin, information presented to fast or not in
visual format, difficulties working with peers etc.)
Increase supports and reduce stressors
Identify specific situations that routinely lead to
tantrums, rage, or meltdowns and modify
environment to reduce these situations
When in fragile emotional state, provide more
opportunities to engage in high interest activities or
those that emphasize strengths
Increase use of home base or break room if needed –
proactive rather than reactive
Balance stressors and learning – as student
becomes more stable, gradually increase
regular demands while consistently
monitoring emotional state
Always consider whether the student has the
skills to perform a task. If not, develop a
plan to teach the prior skills required.
Students with ASD do not want to engage in
escalations, rage or meltdowns.
The rage cycle may be the only way they
know how to cope with stress and other
The best intervention is prevention – breaks,
adequate support, clear and appropriate
expectations, teaching the skills that are
lacking, motivators/reinforcement for
completion of tasks and learning new skills
Ministry of Education (1999). Teaching
Students with Autism: A Guide for Educators
Myles, B. S. & Southwick, J. (2005). Asperger
Syndrome and Difficult Moments: Practical
Solutions for Tantrums, Rage and Meltdowns
Myles, B.S. (2005). Children and Youth with
Asperger Syndrome.

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