Addressing Preschoolers with Special Needs: Autism
Communication and acquisition of information for preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is usually different from that of their peers. Frequently preschoolers with ASD have heightened interest in a type of toy or topic such as trains or dinosaurs. Others may use an object in a way other preschoolers might not, such as spinning a train’s wheels rather than pushing the train. Changes in environments, even small ones, can cause them to become distraught.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 44 children in the US is diagnosed with ASD.¹ Autism Spectrum Disorder is defined as “a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.”²
What does all this information mean to you? It means that you will likely have the opportunity to work with a child with ASD in your Mission Friends classroom. The more prepared you are, the more likely you are to succeed. Start with these ideas.
Talk with parents.
Talk with your preschooler’s parents and find out what signs you can look for. Ask parents to share their child’s interests and what strategies and communication styles work best at home. Use the shared information to tailor your classroom to the child’s needs and help him succeed and enjoy Mission Friends.
Know each child—typical and atypical.
Learn each child’s likes, dislikes, fears, and joys: toys, snacks, sounds, textures, and smells. A strong knowledge of your preschoolers allows you to specifically plan to meet their needs.
Basically, this means that you should prepare to stock your room with key items for preschoolers to share, such as balls, dinosaurs, and trains. If a child with ASD has an affinity or attachment to a specific item, be sure to have that item available for the preschooler. Having items that address each child’s need shows the child that you care and want to understand her. By doing this you take the “fear of the unknown” and the “need to struggle” out of your time together.
Provide visual supports.
Preschoolers do not read and those with ASD often process images better than spoken words. Both benefit from picture cues to help them with instructions and with acting independently. Label various areas of your room with images — the art area with crayons, the book area with a book, and the snack area with a juice box. Preschoolers will quickly identify those areas because they understand the pictures.
Now use those images to create a schedule chart. By using the same images, preschoolers will figure out what is next and where to go for it. This association helps all of your preschoolers, not just those with ASD.
Give notice of transitions—keep the schedule consistent.
This approach helps preschoolers self-regulate. While all preschoolers benefit from a consistent structure, ASD preschoolers need it. They function best when they know what to expect. Use a familiar sound to alert students that a transition is coming. For example, say: When we hear the bell ring, we have two minutes until Group Time. Ring the bell, wait two minutes, ring it again, and say: Now it’s time for Group Time.
Use upbeat sounds to help preschoolers identify transition as a good thing. This can also provide a clear instruction to a child with ASD: I hear the bell one time and I still have time to finish. I hear the bell a second time and it is time to move.
These are just starting points. Check out trusted resources about autism for more information. Then, enjoy growing and learning together.
by Gina Smith
Note: This article is the first in a quarterly series for the 2022–23 church year. Each article focus is designed to help leaders as they teach preschoolers with special needs. The information provided includes tips and strategies but in no way equips leaders to diagnose preschoolers, as preschoolers may not be diagnosed with special needs until they reach elementary school and then only by a mental health professional. Use the information and suggestions to help you lead preschoolers to enjoy Mission Friends.