To get an educator’s view on teaching children on the autism spectrum, we sat down with Dr. Logan McDowell, director of the Tivkah Center K-5 Autism Program at the Gordon School in Miami. We asked her about common strengths and challenges of the population, what, in her experience, has worked well, and what advice she would give teachers. We left the conversation with both practical advice and wisdom, and we’re excited to share it with you.

Student Strengths and Challenges

“We always focus on strengths first,” says McDowell. Although every child with autism presents with different characteristics (and to varying degrees), she says it’s not uncommon for children on the spectrum to have fascinating ways of thinking about, perceiving, and processing information. “We’re the educators,” she says, “but we end up learning from them.”

When it comes to challenges, McDowell again stresses that every child with autism is different. That said, common challenges include difficulties with social communication/pragmatic language, language comprehension, and reading. In order to address these, they go back to each child’s strengths. If a student has trouble understanding oral language but does well with visuals, for example, they use visual aids to facilitate communication and learning.   

What Works Well

Creating a positive learning environment.

On a general level, McDowell says, two things that work well are keeping the student-to-teacher ratio low, and focusing on the physical learning environment. “Creating a positive learning environment can be as simple as not overcomplicating the classroom. We try not to have too many things going on at the same time, and we arrange the classroom (especially for younger students) into specific areas for different subjects. We have one area for math, for example, and another for reading.” This, she says, helps students know what to expect. It also supports self-regulation, because it helps students understand appropriate behavior for each situation.

Another key to a friendly classroom (for all children, not just those on the autism spectrum), McDowell says, is using visual schedules. “Whether you use images or words, visual schedules help lessen anxiety when it’s time to transition from one thing to the next.”

Supporting Social Communication/Pragmatic Language

The Tivkah Center approaches social learning in two ways, McDowell says: Learning the skills, and then practicing them through inclusion with neurotypical peers. To teach the skills, they use a video-based curriculum and other tools, assuring that their teachers have the freedom to adjust their approach depending on what the students need. “We choose a topic to focus on, watch videos, role play, and do worksheets. Then, when they’re ready, we move on to a new topic.”

Inclusion, McDowell says, is one of the most powerful social and emotional learning tools, and not just for the students with autism. “I’ve seen, and research backs this up, that for allchildren, inclusion creates opportunities for leadership, empathy, and understanding that the world is a vast place with many different kinds of people in it. The earlier we can instill the idea that we are all different, equal and valuable, the better.”  

Tips for Teachers

When it comes to inclusion, McDowell says, “I think it’s valuable for teachers to understand the nuances of stepping in and out as needed.” When children with autism interact with neurotypical peers they may need scaffolding, she explains, but there’s a sort of art to offering support without interrupting the natural flow of child-to-child interactions: Helping with initiation, standing back, observing from a distance, and briefly stepping in if a child gets stuck. Natural peer to peer interactions (without a teacher hovering) are rich learning opportunities, she says, and they try to respect that as much as possible.

Another thing McDowell encourages teachers to do is understand that the intention behind “misbehavior” often isn’t what you think. “A child may call out of turn, or say something inappropriate or that doesn’t make sense. But the reasons they’re doing or saying those things are more important than the things themselves. They’re not trying to be challenging. There is a motivation behind their actions, and if we can figure out what it is, we can help them find a better way of getting there.”

Finally, McDowell says, circling back to where we started, “It’s essential to know and embrace that all students with autism are unique.” It’s counterproductive to make assumptions based on a diagnosis, she says. Kids are kids, and they need to be seen for who they are, not the diagnosis they have.