Bringing Attention to Autism Awareness Month

A short description of Autism Awareness Month and a few fun activities to engage your autistic learners.

By Ann Whittemore

puzzle pieces that spell out "Autism"

April is Autism Awareness month and Lesson Planet wants to help spread the word about autism and other related developmental disorders. Autism affects one out of every eighty-eight children in the United States alone, and that number is on the rise. According to Autism Speaks, children with autism experience social-emotional difficulties, communication challenges, and prolonged periods of repetitive behaviors. Early diagnosis can provide kids with effective interventions that can reduce these symptoms and increase their abilities and functional skill sets.

The intention of Autism Awareness Month is to educate the public about autism in order to promote early diagnosis and support for families with children with autism. The average cost of treatment is estimated at $60,000 a year. However, financial burden is not the only hardship for these families. They need emotional support and training as they deal with many of the behaviors that accompany autism. For six years, I worked with learners with autism between the ages of eight and sixteen. Consequently, I saw first-hand the strain, stress, and frustration many of these families experience every day.

How to Support Autism Awareness Month

People can support the Autism Speaks movement this April in three easy ways. One way is to “put on the puzzle,” the National Autism Society's Autism Awareness Puzzle Ribbon. Another way to support the movement is to write to your local representatives and ask them to Vote 4 Autism. This is a way to put autism into valuable legislation. You can also watch a movie. AMC Theaters is working to make the family film experience accessible to those with autism. The movie-going experience can be overwhelming for someone with autism, so AMC Theaters has created sensory-friendly films especially for autistic viewers and their loved ones.

How to Engage Autistic Learners in the Classroom

What can you do in the classroom? Having worked with autistic kids for as long as I did, I have a ton of suggestions for fun playtime and bonding activities. Most of the children I worked with were non-verbal and diagnosed with moderate to severe autism. The following activities are sensory-based and can have multiple applications. I suggest consulting with students' occupational therapists to get ideas that are specifically suited to individuals' needs.

  • Glitter Bottles: Have your student drop glitter, sequence, and bits of colorful plastic into an empty water bottle. Then, fill the bottle with half water and half corn syrup. Use hot glue to seal the cap, so it won’t spill. The resulting craft is fun for kids to shake and watch. Be sure to seal the cap!
  • Bean Box: For very small children, provide some sensory fun by filling up a large box with dry pinto beans. Kids can sift through the beans, pour them from cup to cup, and toss them. Depending on the size of the box, they can even bury themselves under the beans!
  • Reading: Since most of the time phonics and phonemic awareness activities don't work well with autistic kids, I stick mostly to sight words. These learners have an amazing ability to recognize patterns, so sight words are the best way to get them reading. Once, I spent an entire year focused on getting five kids to read. First, I made hundreds of laminated cards, each containing a word and picture. Then, I labeled the entire classroom. Literally everything was labeled. That way I could continually reinforce a functional sight word vocabulary all the time. For instance, I’d ask my kids to pass me scissors, and then point to the card and say “scissors.” They would then hand me the scissors. I also regularly incorporated flashcards. With this system, by the end of the year, four out of the five kids were reading.
  • Camping: Take your class camping. But be sure to prepare them for the experience by holding several mock camping trips in the classroom. Have your kids help set up tents in the classroom. Then turn out the lights, listen to nighttime nature sounds, and read stories while eating marshmallows in the tent. Honestly, even with all the preparation, when I took my kids camping, the trip was quite a challenge. However, it is also a cherished memory. 
  • Sensory Hunt: Every month or so, hold a sensory treasure hunt. Set up several stations around the room, each station should be dedicated to a different sensory experience. Kids travel from station to station exploring each one. When they finish a station, stamp their hand with a star. Five stars earns fifteen minutes of free-choice time. Important note: Some children with autism can't handle being stamped, or touching things like finger paint. Make sure your sensory activities are suited to your particular learners. 

Station Ideas for Your Sensory Hunt 

  • Olfactory Station: Use film canisters filled with fragrant items. Tip: Glue the lids and poke holes in them, that way the kids can’t get to the herb or fragrant item you’ve placed in the container.
  • Tactile Station: Glue sandpaper, cotton, fur, textured rubber, or other fabric to 3x5 cards.
  • Oral Station: Put mini spoons in small cups of pudding, pickle juice, or sugar. 
  • Brushing Station: Lay out several different types of brushes and allow kids to choose one. They can brush you (the teacher), brush a stuffed animal, and you can brush them. I found that sometimes my students liked me to brush their hair, but most often they wanted their arm or hand brushed. 
  • Heavy Station: This may sound odd but I also had a heavy station. The kids would lie down and I’d lay objects of various weights on them. First a bean bag, then a thick blanket, and for kids who liked it, a lead x-ray vest. You can buy an x-ray vest on the Internet, but they are not cheap. The best bet is to get a dentist or doctor to donate one. The X-ray vest is also a great way to help kids to calm down when they are experiencing a tantrum. Deep pressure can be very calming, and so can a big hug. For kids who would allow it, I'd "give a squeeze" at the heavy station. 

The time I spent working with autistic kids (and later adults) was one of my favorite jobs. It was rewarding, full of love, and always interesting. The best memory ever; plate spinning. One of my kids liked to spin.  When she would choose spinning for free time, I would take all the plates out of the cupboard and we’d work together to get them all spinning. Our record was twenty-five plates!