Help Them Thrive: Training Teachers to Spot Autism

When my girls started school, I didn’t have a lot of fears about it. Both Emily and Caitlyn were social butterflies who had shown me that they would thrive and flourish in a school environment, and I was mostly worried about things like making sure they had the “cool” backpacks, lunchboxes, and clothes; I didn’t want them to be made fun of or shut out because they weren’t up on the latest trends. I look back now and shake my head at how shallow and silly those fears sound now, but to a parent without a special needs child, those are pretty much the norm.

By the time Sawyer started school in the fall of 2017, my fears had changed and grown exponentially. At the time Sawyer started preschool, he could only say about 6 or 7 words, and even those weren’t always clear to people who weren’t around him much. He would often meltdown over the smallest things, even occasionally hurting himself or others. He didn’t react well to change, and he had a lot of sensory aversions to certain fabrics, textures, and sounds. My fears morphed into things like:

  • Will his teachers and peers be able to understand him?
  • Will he be able to communicate if he needs help?
  • Will he be able to tolerate sitting for long periods of time to learn new skills?
  • Will he be able to make friends- or even interested in playing with the other kids? 
  • What happens if he has a meltdown and hurts himself or one of the other kids?
  • What if he can’t handle it and they kick him out? 

My fears were put to rest pretty quickly once Sawyer started school. In our small town, I know pretty much all the teachers in the school district; they either taught me or my sister, or I went to school with them. Most of them are friends of mine on social media, so they knew Sawyer by association and immediately made him feel safe and welcome, and it helped that my sister is an aid at the school so he could see her every day. Sawyer seemed to love his teachers and the school, and with the help of his teachers and therapists for speech and occupational therapy, he began to thrive. After two years in the special needs preschool room, his IEP team informed me that Sawyer was doing well enough academically and socially to move into a “regular” classroom for kindergarten. We were over the moon with excitement! He did have to spend time in remedial classrooms for parts of his day, but by the time he began second grade, he barely needed additional help anymore; he was absolutely thriving, and I couldn’t have been more proud.

By the time Sawyer started second grade, his speech had come leaps and bounds from where he began in preschool. He had an extensive vocabulary, and his sisters and I loved asking him about his day and hearing him tell us what he did at school and what his favorite part of the day was. He had always loved school, and his teachers had always bragged about how well-behaved he was and what a sweet and kind student he was, so when he started coming home upset because he had to “walk the fence” or miss recess, I was concerned. When I asked him why he had to walk the fence one day, he said “I don’t know. I don’t think (his teacher) likes me.” He was so sad, and he genuinely didn’t understand why he was being disciplined and made to miss recess. Before speaking to his teacher about things, I decided to talk to my sister. My sister was a personal aid for a special needs student in Sawyer’s class, and she spent a significant amount of time in the classroom with him. I wanted to get her input about what was going on before talking to his teacher, so I could fully understand the situation. What she told me made me so sad; my sister explained that a lot of the time he was seen as being disruptive when he was actually stimming. She told me that she had spoken with his teacher, and explained that some of what she thought was Sawyer being disruptive was actually things he did as a reflex to cope with being overstimulated or upset, such as constantly clearing his throat, moving around in his seat a lot or talking to himself, etc. My sister also told me about a time when he was being made to sit “on the wall” at recess because he didn’t finish his work in class. She noticed that Sawyer was coughing and clearing his throat a lot, and looked very distressed. My sister recognized the signs of an impending meltdown, so she went over to try to calm him down. Sawyer’s teacher tried to keep her from talking to him, telling her, “He’s just upset that he’s missing his recess. He’ll be fine”. My sister said “Actually, he’s not fine- he’s about to have a meltdown.” She went over and talked to Sawyer, trying to calm him down and prevent his meltdown. While talking to him, she found out that he had lost his pencil on his way out to recess. Instead of asking his teacher for another pencil so he could finish his work during recess, like he was supposed to, he began to panic because he lost his pencil. My sister explained to the teacher that something like that could set Sawyer off, because his thought process was much different than a child who would simply ask for another pencil. In his mind, Sawyer needed his pencil to do his homework, and any other pencil wouldn’t do. My sister and his teacher looked for his pencil, and found it lying in the hall right inside the door to the playground. Once he had his pencil back, Sawyer calmed down. Sawyer’s teacher admitted to my sister that despite teaching for years, she knew very little about autism spectrum disorder and didn’t know what to look for to realize that Sawyer was struggling. My sister and I then both made efforts to help her understand Sawyer’s “tics” a little better, and things got much better for him. 

The more I thought about the fact that a teacher that worked with my child and others like him every day and didn’t know much about autism irritated me. Special needs teachers are trained to spot the signs, but some kids (like Sawyer) are able to be placed in a “regular” classroom- what about all the other teachers who have children with autism in their classrooms who haven’t been trained to notice signs and symptoms of autism? When Sawyer was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, 1 in 69 children in the US were diagnosed with autism. Today, that number is 1 in 44. Not only that, but oftentimes children with autism have other neurological disorders as well, such as sensory processing disorder or ADHD. I thought to myself “Any teacher working in a public school needs to have training to recognize stims and other trademarks signs of autism. They need to know how to recognize when a child on the spectrum is struggling.” 

I’ve talked to many, many other autism parents over the years since Sawyer was diagnosed. We have shared many stories about our children struggling to cope in certain situations, whether it be in a classroom, a sporting event, or in a grocery store and how our children reacted to it. The signs in each child can vary, but here are a few examples:

  • Rocking back and forth
  • Pulling their hair
  • Scratching at their skin
  • Humming or other verbal tics, such as clearing the throat or talking to themselves
  • Putting their hands over their ears or eyes

Someone who doesn’t know a person is autistic may see them doing these things and think they’re acting out or being disruptive; these are actually signs of distress and a warning that a meltdown could happen. If you see a child with autism doing one of these things, the best way to handle the situation is to try to soothe them and if you can, communicate with them to ask how to make it better. Maybe the lights are too bright, or they need to move to a quieter space. Maybe they need a fidget toy to help them focus better. Maybe they need a break and a short walk down the hall would help. The trick is staying calm, and not expressing anger or exasperation. 

In my opinion, autism spectrum disorder training should be a mandatory part of every school district’s orientation. Each year teachers are required to sit in on multiple trainings before the school year starts, and I believe autism training should be one of them. I realize that funding is an issue for many school districts, but as autism diagnosis rates climb, so should education and awareness.  At the rate that autism spectrum diagnosis’ keeps growing (autism prevalence has increased 178% since 2000!!!), I’d be willing to bet that almost every single teacher has had and/or will have a child in their classroom who is on the spectrum. Teachers need to be able to help all children thrive in the classroom, so schools need to find room in the budget to include this at no additional charge to their staff.

There are lots of resources out there that help train teachers to spot the signs and symptoms of autism:

  • Autism Spectrum Teacher offers a lot of resources for parents and teachers to help educate them on what to expect or look for if they will have an autistic child in their classroom.
  • Autism Education for Teachers was created by a special needs teacher during the COVID-19 pandemic and offers 3 online courses to help train and educate other teachers.
  • The Autism Project is a private professional development workshop that has been around since 1997, and aims at inclusion, support, and creating safe spaces for those on the autism spectrum.
  • The University of North Carolina created TEACHH, a 5-day training to help provide a theoretical foundation as well as hands-on opportunities to assess and teach individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). They offer both in-person and online certification courses.
  • Autism Speaks has created an awesome toolkit for teachers, which is free to download and includes specific resources for teachers, classroom aids, school nurses, and more. Get it HERE.

At the end of the day, if you are a teacher and you have a child in your classroom with autism spectrum disorder, the best thing to do before school starts is to speak with their parent(s) to learn their individual needs and signs that they may be struggling. As a parent, it’s a great idea to fill out this form and send it to school with your child or give it to your child’s teachers or other school officials to give them important info on your child.


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