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10 Scenarios a Volunteer Might Face While Teaching a Child with Autism

At the Orange Conference Special Needs workshop this year, Stephen “Doc” Hunsley, M.D. offered excellent practical pointers on training volunteers and helping kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience success. He defined ASD as characterized by:

• Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts;
• Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities;
• Symptoms must be present in early developmental period (typically first two years of life);
• Symptoms cause significant impairment in social, occupational or other areas of current functioning.
The term “spectrum” refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills and levels of impairment or disability that children with ASD can have. Some children are mildly impaired by their symptoms, while others are severely disabled. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) no longer includes Asperger’s syndrome; the characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome are included within the broader category of ASD. Almost half (46%) of children identified with ASD have average to above average intellectual ability. (Sources: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/ and http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html)

Dr. Hunsley also provided coaching on the following 10 scenarios a volunteer might experience while teaching a child with ASD.

Agitated Student 

  • Get on child’s level.
  • Stay calm, talk them through what is going on.
  • Use simple language.
  • Let them know what is expected using “first, then” language: “First we are going to listen to the story, then we are going to have a snack.”
  • Have student repeat the statement back if they are verbal.
  • Give the student a choice as part of the solution “You can choose the red chair or the black chair for story time.”

Overstimulated Student

  • Take note of factors when student is agitated.
  • Give the student warnings ahead of time: “Two minutes left for this activity.”
  • Give student the chance to acclimate/cool down ahead of time (remove from activity ahead of others).

Large Group Challenge

  • Student appears upset, hands over ears, squinting eyes = sensory overload
  • Look for the trigger(s): overcrowded room, lights, noise, smell
  • Try moving student to another part of room, e.g., nearby volunteer might have on irritating perfume.
  • Provide a sensory toy such as a squish toy or fidget. This gives them something to focus their energy on.
  • Massage on shoulder. Deep pressure for some students is relaxing. (Ask parents for guidance.)
  • Keep noise reduction earphones on hand and provide as needed.
  • Allow student to participate in a more controlled environment while still feeling part of what is going on. (For example, student may be in a nearby room where they can still see and hear, but they have some distance from the intensity. Also consider going to a room that provides a livestream of what is happening in the large group.)

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Amy Fenton Lee is a writer and speaker focused on helping churches successfully include children with special needs. She is a regular contributor to children’s ministry publications and a variety of other Christian and secular magazines. Amy is a passionate children’s ministry volunteer and the daughter of a church senior pastor. Amy is a frequent speaker at children’s ministry conferences. Amy blogs about special needs inclusion at The Inclusive Church.