Students generally live up – or down – to your expectations so, regardless of the student’s apparent ability, it is always helpful to assume intelligence – even in those who are non-verbal. 


In order to help your students fulfil their potential, you will need to determine their strengths, differences and weaknesses; bearing in mind that their skills may differ between home and school/college.  The list below will enable you to identify some of the differences but do note that female students can be particularly good at “masking” their difficulties with a veneer of competence.





Anxiety is common in students with ASD, so some students may:

·         freeze in certain situations or when under pressure or be unable to speak.;

·         try to avoid or leave a particular situation;

·         have obsessions and/or compulsions. 



·         “Time out” – in a quiet space – can often pre-empt difficult situations.

·         Many obsessions/special interests provide a springboard for learning and can be used in a variety of subjects like math, geography, biology etc. 




Visual Stress can affect the way they see and is often worse under bright or fluorescent lights. It can give rise to:

·         headaches and migraines;

·         affect their ability to read (visual dyslexia); 

·         distort the way they see faces - which can make other people seem frightening.


Tip: Such students may benefit from using colored paper, colored overlays or precision tinted lenses.




Auditory Differences have a variety of effects.  Some students:

·         mishear words, lose parts of sentences or be unable to tell where sounds are coming from;

·         have hyperacusis - be hypersensitive to specific sounds they find painful; 

·         have supersensitive hearing;

·         are unable to modulate their voices e.g. talk too loudly/are expressionless.  


Note: Those two sensory differences interfere with the way the student hears and may make it hard for them to process sounds quickly.   They can also affect their receptive language i.e. the ability to understand what is being said correctly.




·         Talk slowly and clearly, emphasizing key words.

·         Focus on one instruction at a time.

·         Give them plenty of time to respond to questions.

·         Don’t talk about him (even if you think he is out of earshot) unless you want him to hear.



Information Processing can mean the student can only process one piece of information at a time (mono-processing) e.g. cannot look and listen/walk and talk at the same time – so never force eye contact when talking.    Mono-processing can lead to:

·         a slowed response – a delay between a question being asked and the reply - which can then sometimes seem meaningless;

·         “shut down” so that the student switches off or falls asleep (sometimes mistaken for a seizure).  This happens when the brain is overwhelmed by an “information overload.”




Attention Problems affect some students who may be:

·         hyperactive, fidgety and easily distractible – finding it hard to focus or concentrate;

·         lack the ability to pay attention for any length of time – daydreaming/in a world of their own.


Thus they may:

·         talk at inappropriate times/interrupt others;

·         have difficulty finding words;

·         lose track of the conversation;

·         hyperfocus on a specific topic;

·         find it hard to change tasks.




·         Some students who seem to be daydreaming actually assimilate the information and “replay” it when on their own: learning by stealth. 

·         Background music could help them tune out background noise and free them up to learn.





Different ways of thinking


1.       Some students sense and feel through movement but are unable to interpret their feelings. 



·         This student learns best through physical (kinesthetic) learning methods using the body and movement or musical (rhythmic) learning/song.  

·         The downside is that they may pick up on other peoples’ feelings and be happy, anxious, sad or negative whenever you are. 



2.       Other students think in pictures, building up a picture and adding to it as more concepts arise which is a great advantage in the arts, design and computing.


It can be hard for such students to learn to read for, while it is easy to visualize nouns, verbs etc. but pronouns and adverbs like “I, you, it, with, if” etc. are harder to visualize.  That means they will find it hard to:

·         Follow a spoken sentence correctly.

·         Understand abstract concepts.

·         Respond easily and fluently or follow a conversation due to the time-lapse as the words are “translated” into pictures and then back into words.


Tip: Such students learn best through visual (spatial) learning using pictures, images etc.




Language skills fall into three groups which include:


1.       Receptive language (understanding what is being said).  This includes a basic vocabulary which could include an understanding of concepts like “above,” “between” etc.  Students who have problems in this area may simply stare at or through you with a blank look.



2.       Expressive language is the ability to talk and to convey our thoughts into meaningful words.  Some students understand what is being said but either can’t speak or speak in an unusual way as shown below:

·         Selective Mutism (SM). This inability to speak is an anxiety disorder over which the student has no control.  They are not being stubborn, disrespectful, willful, attention seeking or controlling; merely so anxious they cannot speak.


Each student is affected differently so that some:

o   never talk at all – unless alone or when under stress;

o   are unable to talk (or smile) in social settings and look away when spoken to;

o   talk when relaxed and secure so speak to selected people/at home/in a whisper.


·         Echolalia – can include conversations or things heard on TV, videos, songs, etc.  It can center on one or more words said repeatedly or an entire conversation using the same inflections and tone of voice as the original speaker.  Sometimes it indicates the student’s ability to process information - as when a repeated conversation relates to an event (or feeling) that is currently happening.

·         Extreme literalness.  This can cause great confusion for the student may worry about seemingly innocuous comments.  Unthinking comments can sometimes cause real worry or distress, as with the child who had a tantrum when offered “marble cake” because he thought of it as full of marbles.


Be aware that the student:

·         Can easily be confused by words or phrases that have more than one meaning.

·         Will not understand sarcasm.

·         May respond better to indirect praise than direct praise.

·         Could find text to speech apps or augmentative communication helpful.



3.       Pragmatic Language is the ability to use language to interact with others. Even students with  good language skills can have difficulties in this area.


This is the student who finds it hard to:

·         understand non-verbal communication;

·         follow conversational “rules” – e.g. does not take turns; interrupts etc;

·         make and maintain friendships easily;

·         be flexible (i.e. likes concrete facts and has rigid thinking);

·         extract the meaning of a story; predict its course or make inferences.


Some students also have:

·         poor comprehension; 

·         hyperlexia an exceptional or precocious ability to read alongside a lack of – or limited – understanding of words/concepts;

·         poor organizational skills which overlap with Executive Dysfunction, shown below.




Executive functioning (EF)

EF encompasses our ability to plan, organize and complete tasks.  To do it well it requires:

·         Working memory. 

·         Flexible (cognitive) thinking.

·         Inhibitory Control.


Those skills develop over many years and enable the student to:

·         Pay attention.

·         Organize and plan.

·         Initiate tasks and stay focused.

·         Regulate their emotions.

·         Keep track of tasks (self-monitoring)


Students with ASD often have problems in this area.  That’s because:

·         their working and poor short-term memories are poor – although they generally have good or very good long-term memories;

·         they tend to be inflexible and think in concrete terms;

·         they may have limited self-control.


Help and support the student by providing help in the following areas:

·         Liaise with parents.


·         Structure, routine and consistency.  

o   Give the student a study area free of distractions

o   Labeling drawers so everything has a place.

o   Provide the equipment needed.

o   Use different colored folders for different topics.

o   Schedule a regular time to clear out the clutter.


·         Planning, time-management and initiating tasks.

o   Post a class schedule on the wall so that it can be referenced during the day - using pictures where appropriate.

o   Make your expectations clear by creating a “to do” checklist.

o   Check his/her understand of each task. 

o   Get them to write the tasks in a notebook that can go between home and school – or provide a printed handout on colored paper.

o   Give positive verbal or visual cues to prompt him/her to begin or to change tasks


·         Concentration and attention span:

o   Break tasks into achievable parts and give short breaks between each.

o   Boost his confidence and sense of achievement by asking the student to check off each completed tasks.


·         Memory aids.

o   Use a Buddy (a classmate) to remind the student of important tasks/expectations.

o   Use prompts e.g. a timer, alarm on a watch, visual aid etc.

o   Provide notebooks and sticky notes or a tape recorder.


·         Increase self-monitoring behavior

o   Model appropriate behavior.

o   Use relaxation techniques.  


For more tips see:


Other resources include:



Stella Waterhouse


NadiaLorna Selfe

The Gift of DyslexiaRon Davis

 Larry Silver, M.D. tells us in his article “Executive Function Disorder, Explained!”

Autism and Sensing: The Unlost Instinct  Donna Williams

Increasing Expressive Skills for Verbal Students with Autism Susan Stokes under a contract with CESA 7 and funded by a discretionary grant from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. "


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