Autism In The Classroom

What is Sensory Integration?

Starting Sensory Integration Therapy
Starting Sensory Integration Therapy

Sensory Integration is a theory originally developed by Dr. Jean Ayers an occupational therapist with training in neuroscience and educational psychology.  Dr. Ayers described sensory integration as a “neurological process that organizes sensations from one’s own body and from the environment thus making it possible to use the body effectively within the environment”.  This theory attempts to explain the relationship between sensory experiences and behavior.

Many children with autism have unusual responses to sensory stimulation that can cause them to react to their environment in unusual ways.  This can affect learning, self-help skills, social skills and more.  Some common signs of problems with sensory integration include:

  • Over reacting or under reacting to common sensory
  • Fear of noises, frequently covering ears or an acute awareness of background noises.
  • The child may respond to normal touch sensations as if they were painful.
  • May crave or refuse to touch certain textures like paint, play dough or sand.
  • They seem to have little awareness of pain or temperature.
  • Unusual activity level, the child is either very hyperactive or under active.
  • A child may have an extreme dislike of certain grooming activities, such as washing their hair, brushing their teeth, washing their face or having their hair brushed.
  • A child may seek out or crave sensory sensations like touch, rocking or spinning movement, or have a fascination with lights, fans, water or spinning objects.
  • The child may avoid certain tastes/smells that are typically part of children’s diets or constantly seek to smell non-food objects.
  • Coordination problems: they may have trouble on play equipment, seems to tire easily, hesitate going up and down steps, frequently bump or crash into things.

If you suspect your child may have sensory integration problems make an appointment to have them evaluated by an Occupational Therapist trained in sensory integration.

How to Help a Classmate with Autism


By: Daniel Stefanski

If you have an autistic kid in your classroom, it would be nice if you invite them to play during recess. Playing with a classmate on the playground is something most kids take for granted but autistic kids often struggle with making friends due to communication issues and not understanding social cues. Your autistic classmate may prefer to play one-on-one or side-by-side like younger kids do so be patient and understanding. Group play may be overwhelming for your autistic classmate because of sensory issues. For example, loud sounds such as laughing and shouting may hurt his or her ears.

If you are a parent of a an autistic child and you aren’t sure if your child has friends, you might talk to your child’s teacher to see if he plays or talks with other kids at school. Ask if your child sits alone in the classroom, at lunch, recess, or school events. When I was in third grade, a neighbor told my mom that I usually sat alone in the lunchroom. My mom felt sad when she heard this but appreciated the information and then spoke with my teacher about having a “buddy” sit with me at the lunch table.

You might want to ask your child to if he has friends at school. If he doesn’t have friends, you can come up with ideas together about how to make friends during and after school. Kids with autism and other disabilities may have difficulty participating in sporting events, but there are other places where your child may make friends. Introducing your autistic child to other kids with similar interests can be a great way to find friends for your child. My local library has story time, a chess club and a Lego club. These activities are educational and fun. Plus, it’s quiet at the library and the other kids aren’t loud or rowdy. I like going to art class too and I’ve learned how to make ceramics, draw, and paint with other kids who enjoy the same.

If your autistic child continues to have trouble making friends, it might be a good idea to enroll him in a social skills group. I attended one and it helped a lot. The leaders were professional counselors and I learned how to behave in social settings. We practiced proper social behavior by “role playing.”

So classmates, parents, and students, continue to give kids with autism, opportunities to make and keep friends.

Daniel Stefanski is an autistic teen, for more advice check out his book, How to Talk to an Autistic Kid.

Behavior Solutions for Students Who Won’t Keep Seated


By: Beth Aune, OTR/L, Beth Burt & Peter Gennaro

Today, more than ever, educators are faced with teaching core subjects for longer periods to prepare the class to master state standards.  This requires the students to sit at their desks for long periods, and they may lose focus.  Many students may have challenges with sustained sitting and have a sensory need for movement to help them maintain an alert state.  The student may leave his seat to pace, invent reasons to get up (sharpen pencils, get a drink of water, get some tissue), or stand up at his desk.

Here are a few behavior solutions:

  • Schedule movement breaks for the entire class inside the classroom, such as standing to “stretch and wiggle.”
  • Allow the student to help pass out papers, clean the board, or assist the teacher with technical media.
  • Let the student stand at the back or perimeter of the classroom or at his desk.
  • Allow a very motor-restless student to have a movement break outside the classroom.
  • Use oral strategies.  When the mouth is kept bus, often the body will feel calmer and the student can sit still.yhst-13171632195427_2197_2659997
  • Provide hand fidget tools, such as squeeze balls, tangles, rubber bands, and paper clips.

Was this behavior solution helpful for you?  If so check out Behavior Solutions in the Inclusive Classroom and the companion book More Behavior Solutions In and Beyond the Inclusive Classroom.

Excerpt from More Behavior Solutions In and Beyond the Inclusive Classroom, copyright 2011 Beth Aune, OTR/L, Beth Burt & Peter Gennaro. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Is it a Reading Problem or a Sensory Vision Problem?

Sobroken-lower much of learning depends on a person’s vision.  As a matter of fact much of the brain’s activity centers around vision.  Many children on the autism spectrum and those with sensory processing issues have problems with their vision that is not picked up by a typical vision test.  This can affect reading and concentration.

If the child you are working is experiencing reading problems here are a few things to look for that may point to a sensory problem rather than a reading or learning problem:

  • The child complains that letters seem to wiggle, blur, move or disappear on the page.
  • Reading is difficult when reading with fluorescent lights or flickering lights.
  • When the child reads they squint, close one eye, or move their face abnormally close to the page.
  • When the child reads they frequently rub their eyes, blink their eyes or eyes become teary.
  • While reading the child begins to complain that their eyes are burning or itching.
  • The child frequently loses their place while reading or needs a guide such as a finger or ruler while reading.
  • The child complains of double vision.

If the child you are working with exhibits any of the behaviors above make an appointment to see a developmental optometrist.  A developmental optometrist is trained in vision therapy which may be able to help the child improve eye muscle control.  If lighting is a problem have the child wear a hat, sun glasses or sun visor while reading.

Calming Vibrating Toys & Gifts for Autism & Aspergers


Did you know gentle vibration can be extremely calming and soothing for people on the autism spectrum?  A simple vibration toy or product can calm and sooth an autistic person who is feeling overwhelmed or in the middle of a melt down.  They can also sooth an autistic person who is feeling anxious.  Sometimes parents and therapists will give a child with autism a vibrating toy to help with a situation that usually causes a melt down to help keep the person clam during the stressful situation.  While some vibration furniture can run into thousands of dollars here are a few vibrating toys and items for people on the autism spectrum that won’t break the bank!   Vibration products make great gifts for people with autism, Asperger’s or PDD-NOS.

Vibrating Pillow

Click here to View

Click here to View

Vibrating pillows are often nice options for the home or classroom.  Some have switches and some are pressure activated.  If you are working with a child who is particularly self injurious it’s best to try and find a pressure activated pillows with no outside switches or hardware that could potentially scratch or harm the autistic person when in the middle of a melt down.  Again remember to avoid the shiatsu style pillows.

Vibrating Toys

Fortunately there are a wide variety of vibration toys to choose from.  Often you can find these toys in the baby section of a store.  Many of these toys are soft, plush toys that are activated by pulling a string such as the Wiggly Octopus.  This egg is small and easy to carry and it doesn’t look like a baby toy so it looks more socially appropriate for children and teens.

Hand Held Massagers & Mini Massage van

There are a variety of hand held massagers and mini massage items you can buy online.  The large variety of styles and shapes make it easy to find something in a favorite color or style, best of all most of these units only cost between $6.00 – $35.00 so they won’t break the bank.  You can even find animal massagers that are fun and engaging for children.

Vibrating Mitt

A newer vibration product that is working well for parents and therapists is the vibrating mitt.  This soft mitt features a soft sheep skin cover.  To use it just place the mitt anywhere on someones body and push down for instant on the spot massage.  This device is pressure activated so there is no on and off switch to worry about.  Also, because it is pressure activated it conserves battery life.

Vibrating Snake

Finally believe it or not, flexible vibrating tubes or “vibrating snakes” are also very calming and work well with people on the autism spectrum.  These flexible tubes can be positioned almost anywhere on the body to provide soothing vibration.  They work well when someone is sitting or laying down too.  The soft rubber cover of these tubes make them a good choice for someone who is agitated.

Autism & Language Series Part 4 of 4:

head shotBy: Angela Nelson

Labeling and Requesting are the most basic of all full sentence activities, and provide a basis for your student to understand that communication requires more than single word utterances. The following list of activities offers just a few examples of the many lessons you can use to help build full sentences and a more complete system of communication with your child.


You can use picture cards to discuss adjectives or descriptive words. Some adjectives are clear from the pictures, such as “the apple is round” or “the frog is green.” Other adjectives draw more on a child’s real-world experience, like “the bunny is soft” or “the banana is sweet.” To teach adjectives, you can start with a receptive task. Place cards in front of your child and ask them to “find something green” or “point to something that is round.” This receptive language activity will allow your student to hear some of the adjectives you use, before trying to come up with their own descriptive words when you start to build sentences with them.

To transition this activity to expressive language, you can hold up a picture and ask your student, “What color is the frog?” You will need to prompt your student at first either verbally or using a cue card method as described above.

Wh question

Use a picture of a common item to teach adjectives and WH questions.

Use a picture of a common item to teach adjectives and WH questions.

Picture cards provide a great opportunity to practice “Wh” questions. You can show your student a picture and ask him or her to answer questions such as “What color is the frog?” “Where would you find a plate?”  “When do you use a pillow?” “Why do you use soap?”

To start, some of these questions will fall easily out of the adjectives lessons you have already practiced, such as “What color is it?” Other questions will provide a new challenge for your student.

Tell me about

Use pictures with which your student is already familiar. The best pictures will be the ones you have practiced extensively on the Adjectives and Wh Questions. Show your student a picture and ask him or her to tell you about the item in the picture.

The first things that your student should be able to tell you about the pictures are the responses that they learned in Adjectives and Wh Questions. The difference with this drill is that you student has to generate the content themselves rather than respond to your question. When you ask your student “What color is it?” they know color is the relevant detail. In the Tell Me About lesson, students have to decide for themselves that color is a relevant thing to tell you about the picture.

You can start with scripted responses, using the picture to cue your student. Then you can progress to more creative responses that might not be so obvious from the picture. For example, show your student a picture of a duck. Ask your student, “Can you tell me about a duck?” By looking at the picture, your student can get some basic answers. “A Duck has feathers.” “A duck has webbed feet.” “A duck has a bill.” As your student becomes more familiar with this activity, you may progress to things about a duck that are not readily apparent from the picture. “A duck can swim.’ “A duck says ‘quack quack,’” “A duck lays eggs.”

The Tell Me about Lesson also gives you the opportunity to increase the length of your student’s verbal activity. Start by requiring the student to tell you only one detail about the picture. Then move up to two, or three or more details. Of course, if you ask your student to tell you three things about the picture, you may have difficulty if they haven’t mastered counting skills. Here’s a trick: hand your student three blocks and have them toss a block into a bucket with every detail they tell you. This is a great way to help your student count their answers, and it makes it fun for them!


The next step in this language building series is Storytelling. Again, this activity builds on the previous lessons. Show your student a familiar picture card and ask your student to “Tell you a story” about the picture. The first elements of the story will likely be familiar from the Tell Me About lesson. For example:

“Tell me a story about a duck.”

“There was a duck, it had webbed feet, feathers, and a bill. The duck went for a swim in the pond, then it laid some eggs and said ‘quack quack’”

As your student’s language skills grow, so will the creativity of the stories!


The setting in which you begin to teach language skills is very structured and formal. However these new skills will become more valuable as they generalize across time and setting, and with various communication partners. To help promote generalization, you can start by moving your therapy session to different places – starting even with different rooms in the house.

Next, it is important that the skills your child has learned in the formal therapy session be practiced throughout other aspects of the child’s life, such as during family time and at school. Make sure to bring the cards (or have second sets) to dinner, to the store, to school, etc. Whenever you communicate with your child, require the same full sentences that are expected during therapy. Stop and take the time to use the prompt cards if necessary.

Finally, keep good records and good communication channels open with all of the other professionals and family members in your child’s life. You should send a notebook back and forth to school, or perhaps start an electronic communication log to make sure teachers are requiring the same sentences, using the same words, and bringing in the same prompts as you are at home and in therapy. Consistency is a major key to building and generalizing successful language skills to help your child interact with the world around them.

Angela Nelson received her BA and JD from UCLA where she studied and practiced behavior psychology under Dr. Ivar Lovaas. As Founder and CEO of Stages Learning Materials, Angela has created autism and special needs curriculum products since 1997.

Autism and Language Series Part 3 of 4: From Basic Vocabulary to Building Sentences

head shotBy: Angela Nelson

We talked in the last post about building vocabulary, now it’s time to teach your child with autism how to speak in simple sentences. Last post we talked about the importance of using a set of realistic photos as visual prompts to help students learn various nouns, occupations, and emotions. This stage of language development can feel repetitive and basic, focusing only on learning single-word responses. However, when a child with autism begins to gain expressive language skills, it’s an exciting time to watch language emerge and leads the way for speaking simple sentences.

Labeling Sentences

After a child can say several single words when presented with a picture, the next step is to take these single word answers and turn them into complete sentences.

To develop sentences the key is to start simple. As a first step teach the child to use an article along with the word. For example, when showing the child a picture card move toward an answer of “an apple” or “a car.” Once the child has mastered this step it’s time to teach them “It is an apple” or “It is a car.”

As you begin to teach your child to use  full sentences, you will need to use prompts in the beginning. The most common method is verbal modeling.  But it is important to fade the verbal prompt as soon as possible. To help your child answer in full sentences without using a verbal prompt, you can make some simple visual cues.

Teaching simple sentences with the Language Builder Cards

Teaching simple sentences with the Language Builder Cards

Written cue cards are a great method to remind your student to use full sentences. For example, if you show your child a picture of a car, and ask “What is it?” your child is likely to answer “car.” To prompt your child to use the article “a” with the word car, you can start by putting a cue card in front of the picture with the word “a” on it. Have your child touch each card (the “a” card and then the picture card) as they say the words “a car.” The next step would be to add cue cards for “It is a car.” When your child starts to grasp the concept of speaking multi-word sentences, you can begin to fade the visual cue card prompts.

Requesting Sentences

Another important type of sentence that your child will need to learn to use is a Requesting Sentence. When your child learns to use communication to make requests and get their needs met, it will reduce their frustration level, which will in turn reduce the frequency of tantrums and outbursts.

To teach this skill begin by sorting through your picture cards to find pictures of items your child likes and that you have available to give to them. Food items are often the most successful to start with. For example: Cheese, Raisins, Juice, Popcorn, and Apple. Stick a magnet to the back of each picture and place the pictures on the refrigerator. Write the word “I” on one index card and the word “want” on another and place those on the refrigerator also. When you know your child wants a specific food (as most parents often do), pull the corresponding picture down into the “I want” sentence. Use the visual cues as a prompt to help your child remember to use the full sentence to request their desired food. As always, you should fade the prompts as your student begins to master this full sentence activity

Using cue cards to teach simple sentences.

Using cue cards to teach simple sentences.

A Note on Using Cue Cards to Prompt

You may think: Why am I using written words to prompt my child? He can’t speak well, so what makes anyone think he can read?

The cards are not meant for your child to read. They are merely place markers. It makes as much sense to use the words as anything else. However, you could also use something as simple and nondescript such as blocks or blank cards for your child to touch as they say the words. The idea is to give your child a visual reminder to speak the extra words. In fact there are schools of thought suggesting that if you tie spoken words to physical activity that it creates more neural pathways for the words to attach to. Regardless, you can choose to use the word cards, or to use a more neutral object. Decide what works best for your child.

Angela Nelson received her BA and JD from UCLA where she studied and practiced behavior psychology under Dr. Ivar Lovaas. As Founder and CEO of Stages Learning Materials, Angela has created autism and special needs curriculum products since 1997.

Autism and Language Series Part 2 of 4: Building Vocabulary

head shotBy Angela Nelson

Building Expressive Vocabulary
Expressive language is the step where your child learns to actually say words out loud. All of the tasks we talked about in Part 1 come into play when building your child’s expressive vocabulary. Picture cards are a useful tool again, because it just isn’t feasible to bring every object directly to your child. We certainly want them to learn the words bus and airplane, but it’s difficult to get those items into your living room!

The basic idea for building expressive vocabulary using picture cards is just to hold the card up and ask your child “what is it?” The intricacy comes in knowing how to prompt your child and how to fade that prompt. We talked in Part 1 about the importance of your child being able to imitate the words that you say. Imitation is the basis for the prompts you will use to build your child’s expressive vocabulary.

The first several times you ask your child the name of a new picture, you will likely have to model the word for him or her. For example, you ask your child “What is it?” If you do not get a response, you say “apple.” Ideally your child repeats the word “apple.” After a few tries, you can shorten your prompt to “app….” And then to “aaaa…….” And then perhaps to just opening your mouth as if to say “aaaa…” but not making a sound.

woman and child(2)

Building Vocabulary Using the Language Builder Card Set

A Comprehensive Picture Card Library
It is a good idea to have a large selection of pictures ready to go when you start to teach the lessons we just described. Here are a few tips to help you choose or take appropriate pictures:

  • Start with words that are familiar to your child. Words like apple, cup and cookies may be better than saxophone or stethoscope.
  • Start with pictures on a plain white, or a distraction free background.
  • Make sure to have duplicates available for the matching tasks when you first start out.
  • Consider taking multiple pictures of the same item (6 different apples for example) to help your child generalize their newly learned words.
  • As your child becomes more comfortable learning new words move to more natural settings for your pictures.
  • Have a broad range of pictures, across multiple categories, ready for when your child is ready to move forward!
  • If you take the pictures yourself, consider having them laminated for durability.

If you would like to purchase a set of photo cards to meet the needs of your new language program we recommend the  350-Card Set of photo flash cards called the Language Builder Picture Card Set, developed by Stages Learning Materials which is specifically tailored to meet the needs of an early language vocabulary building program.  This set is currently on sale at the National Autism Resources autism store.

Angela Nelson received her BA and JD from UCLA where she studied and practiced behavior psychology under Dr. Ivar Lovaas. As Founder and CEO of Stages Learning Materials, Angela has created autism and special needs curriculum products since 1997.

Autism and Language Series Part 1 of 4: Encouraging Emerging Language and Receptive Vocabulary

head shotBy: Angela Nelson

Language development varies from child to child, and there are wide ranges of expected “normal” language development in young children. If you have concerns about your child’s language development, you should discuss this with your pediatrician.

By the age of two a child should be able to:

  • Follow simple commands or instructions
  • Point to an object or picture when it is named for him or her
  • Recognize names of familiar objects, body parts and familiar faces
  • Repeat words spoken by others
  • Use simple phrases and 2 – 4 word sentences by 18 – 24 months

As we all know, there is no “typical” child with autism. Children on the Autism Spectrum may meet some of these objectives, all of these objectives, or none of these objectives. The goal is to identify your child’s specific language deficits (the areas you see them falling behind) and takes steps to help them catch up.

The first stages of language development,  involve listening to words, imitating words, and building a basic vocabulary. In your child’s education program you may have heard professionals use terms like Receptive Language, Echolalia, Modeling, Matching, or Expressive Language. Don’t let these terms intimidate you. Really, they just mean… listening to words, imitating words, and building a basic vocabulary.

Encouraging Emerging Language Skills

A basic step in typical language development is imitation. Many parents are surprised to learn that a parent imitating their child is almost as important as the child imitating the parent! When a 12 month old child looks at his or her mother and says “mamamama,” the mother almost instinctively replies back, “that’s right ‘mama.’” This feedback reinforces the child’s vocalization and encourages them to keep on chatting. Although children with autism may have delayed onset of this type of behavior, or may have some setbacks along the way; it is important to remember to continue to imitate vocalizations with your child to encourage verbal behavior.

Imitation will also provide the first steps in the formation of words for your child. This time I mean your child imitating you! While you are hoping to hear your child imitating full words, remember, this starts with imitating vowels, consonants and syllables. If you say “aaaaa” and your child responds back with “aaaaa,” this is a cause for celebration. You are one step closer to your child saying “ma” or  “apple” than you were before they could (or would) imitate your vocalization. Eventually, modeling words will become the way you build your child’s expressive vocabulary!

identical matching

Language Builder Picture Cards: Identical Matching

Developmental Psychologist, Jean Piaget, observed that a child first becomes aware of a concept and then acquires the words to convey that concept. Think about this for a moment: a child has to know that an apple is a distinct and separate item, before they know they should give it a name. They have to realize that the apple is different than, say, a cup. This is where matching comes in.

To teach this concept you can use pictures of objects.  Place two pictures on the table in front of your child, one picture of an apple, and the other of a cup (or some non-apple picture). Hand your child an identical picture of an apple. Ask your child to “match” the apples, or to “put with same.”

When your child can consistently match the two cards, regardless of the position of the cards, they likely understand that the apple is a distinct object. Now we are one step closer to giving that object a name!

Building Receptive Vocabulary

Receptive language refers to the thought process involved in hearing, processing and comprehending spoken language. When we mentioned above that a two year old child should be able to follow simple commands, point to objects when they are named, and recognize names of familiar objects; these objectives were examples of receptive language skills.

There are a number of ways to help build your child’s receptive vocabulary. Using photo cards, like the Language Builder Picture Cards,  is one basic and concrete vocabulary building tool that you can do at home. Place pictures of common objects on the table in front of your child. Ask your child to “touch the cookies” or “give me the hat.” When your child can follow the command and consistently select the requested picture, you have added a new word to their receptive vocabulary.

It is likely that your child will need help selecting the correct card… especially the first few times you try this task. Here is a trick to help make picking the right word easier. Start with just one card on the table and increase the number of pictures slowly. For example, if you are trying to teach the word cookies

  1. Start with just the picture of the cookies on the table.
  2. After your child has learned to touch the cookies picture on request, add a blank card to the table. Ask your child to touch the cookies picture several more times, rotating the position of the two cards each time.
  3. Then, add a second picture to the table, and a third, and a fourth.
  4. Once your child can select the cookies picture each time, introduce new words using the same method!
language builder 4 scene

Language Builder Picture Cards: Receptive Labeling Can Progress from One Card to Multiple Cards

Angela Nelson received her BA and JD from UCLA where she studied and practiced behavior psychology under Dr. Ivar Lovaas. As Founder and CEO of Stages Learning Materials, Angela has created autism and special needs curriculum products since 1997.

5 Back to School Sensory Strategies for Teachers

_wsb_155x186_Britt+Collins+Autism+One+Radio+PictureBy: Britt Collins M.S., OTR/L

Its back to school and the children are arriving and you have spent all this time decorating your classroom.  During the first week, you notice that one of your kids is squinting at the board and doesn’t seem to be paying attention.  You notice another child is staring off at the busy bulletin board looking at the bright colors and you have another child who cannot sit still in their seat and is constantly bouncing around.  What are you supposed to do?!?!

  • Try to give all the children in your classroom sensory movement breaks throughout the day.  Incorporate these into your lesson plans.  For math, have the children jump to count and go through an obstacle course to read sight words (i.e. walk across a balance beam, jump over a log, climb up onto the bean bag, call out the flash card sight word and throw a bean bag into the bucket) Children will learn to love learning and we have to MOVE in order to learn.
  • If you have a child who is visually distracted by stimuli, maybe move their seat, or make sure your classroom is not overloaded with stuff on the walls.  It doesn’t have to be boring white, but too much in the classroom can be overwhelming for a sensory sensitive child.zzz
  • For that mover and shaker, have them sit on a therapy ball, or a move-n-sit in his/her chair.  Give them a fidget toy to squish to help them pay attention and create rules around not throwing it, or pulling it out to distract other children.
  • If a child is having trouble copying from the board, give them a slant board to write on and have them copy from their desk. They may have visual perceptual issues that make it difficult to transfer what is written on the board to their paper.  Consult with your OT to see how you can help any child that is struggling in the classroom.
  • For a child that may seem like they are not listening, see of the OT or Speech therapist can help with possibility of auditory processing issues.  That child may need 30 extra seconds to process what you are saying to them, or it may be hard for them to filter out what you are saying from the lawn mower outside.

Don’t be afraid to call in your Occupational Therapist to help provide sensory strategies for your kids in your classroom.  If you do not have an OT that is available, feel free to check out the OT in the School DVD for more helpful advice.

Britt Collins is the co-author of Sensory Parenting: Newborns to Toddlers and co-creator of an award winning OT DVD series.

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