Gina Miller's picture

The number of Autistic students has grown tremendously over the past thirteen years.   The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in the year 2000, 1 in 150 children were identified as autistic.  In 2008, the CDC reported that 1 in 88 children have some type of  autism spectrum disorder.  This video, made by the CDC, gives a great explanation on what autism is.  

Although there is only one name for this type of disorder, no two autistic students are alike.  This article will focus on giving you tips and resources on High Functioning Autistic students, also known as HFA students.  HFA students are just that; they are able to function better in everyday environments more so than the classic autistic student.  However, just because they are high functioning doesn’t mean we can teach them, or communicate with them, the same way as our other students.  

HFA students need a highly structured environment that is set up for them to succeed.  They want to please, but they don’t always know how.  Routines work very well for them and even if they don’t take to the routine immediately you need to keep trying it.  Through my experience I have learned, when trying something new, do it 7 to 9 times before changing it.  More than likely the student will start understanding and learning the expectations of that routine and will then be successful; which in turn pleases you.  A lot of praise, stickers, and smiley faces can go a long way in helping a HFA student succeed.  Keep reading for some great resources in helping you succeed with creating a successful environment for your students.

Give time for the student to comprehend.  As physical educators one of our highest priorities is to get our kids moving as fast as possible and for as long as possible during the short time they are with us.  If a student doesn’t comply with what you are saying, first assume that he/she doesn’t understand.  Restate the directions and allow him/her time to process and comprehend before making them participate.  Remember, Physical Education in his/her eyes is overwhelming; its a large space, noisy, and filled with a lot of people and this all can equal sensory overload.  I use to have a HFA student that would always hesitate to participate and I would push him to start trying, and I would even get a little frustrated because I knew he could do everything that I was asking.  In return he would shout at me and say “I don’t care!”  Inside I knew that he did care and that he wanted to do it, but I wasn’t giving him enough time to comprehend all of the instructions.  Shouting at me and telling me that he didn’t care was a stalling tactic to give him more time to process and comprehend.  I started to give him more time between instructions and participating and, wouldn’t you know, I haven’t been yelled at since.

I have another HFA student who always had his back to me.  I would constantly be calling this child’s name to turn and look at me while I was giving directions.  After weeks of this behavior I spoke with an Autism specialist teacher in my county and she helped me understand that Autistic students can’t always understand facial expressions and instead of listening to you, they are trying to figure out why your eyes are blinking so fast or why you might be smiling.  From that conversation on I have yet to tell that student to turn around, and I have yet to have to retell him the instructions.  Yes, I have to redirect him to get him back on task, but he hears the directions and knows what to do.  

Picture schedules or written schedules work great for students who need more structure and visual cues to help them comprehend what needs to be done.  The schedule also helps them understand the order in which things should be done and makes transitions predictable.  Schedules can be handwritten on a small whiteboard, post-it note, or piece of laminated paper.  Allowing them to see this visual cue can be very helpful.  

I have used a lot of visual cues from Boardmaker Software to help with classroom behavior and management.  I have several students who talk out loud, or need to be reminded when he/she should listen.  I simply hand them a cue card that says “listen”, or “quiet” and they immediately know what they should do.   Ask your special education department or Speech Pathologist at your school if they have this program.  Another amazing resource is  They have thousands of free resources including picture cards, schedules, and behavior management materials.  

Autism isn’t going away and we as teachers need to make sure we are educated on our students needs.  Please reach out to your fellow teachers, special education teachers, and the many websites and resources that are available.  I hope these little glimpses into my experience with HFA students will be able to help you in some way.  We, at Vitathread, would love to hear about your successes or struggles you may experienced with your  autistic students.