12 Things Parents & Professionals Must Understand About Educating Students With Autism

Working with parents and educators for over a decade has taught me some important lessons about what it means to provide a meaningful education to students with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. It is easy to get bogged down in the moment-to-moment challenges and lose perspective on what we are trying to accomplish. Too often we employ strategies that address an immediate problem, without figuring out how to build the foundations that are required for addressing the challenge over the long-term. In searching for the elusive “quick fix” we fail to implement some basic but powerful concepts that support learning for all students.


Here are 12 important concepts every parent and professional should consider when designing appropriate educational opportunities for students with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders:

  • Attitude: Your attitude is the most important tool you bring to your work with students. You do not need to have experience teaching students with neurodevelopmental disorders in order to be successful with them, but you do need to build trust through acceptance, patience, mutual respect, and a willingness to learn.
  • Remediation and Compensation: Solutions that solve a problem in the short term may not create foundational change in the long term. A balance of short-term and long-term strategies is needed for students to be truly successful.
  • Relationships are Essential for Growth and Development: We learn and grow through our relationships with others. Behavioral and emotional self-regulation begins with being able to regulate with others.
  • Our Communication is a Powerful Tool: Speaking and communicating are two very different things. The ways in which we use verbal and nonverbal communication has a significant impact on our students’ communication development.
  • Processing: Neurological disorders impact students’ abilities to take in, make sense of, and respond to information. We need to learn to slow down in order to speed up in order to support and improve their processing.
  • Promoting Independence, Thinking, and Problem Solving: The most important outcome of the educational process is to teach students to think. We need to create daily opportunities for students to think about and flexibly respond to what is happening around them.
  • Environments Make a Difference: The physical environment plays a significant role in student success. We need to take the time to observe and understand how the physical environment is impacting student functioning.
  • Promoting Competence: Students who feel incompetent do not learn and thrive. It is crucial to find ways to help all students have meaningful roles in the classroom, help them know they are supported, and send the message that we know they are capable.
  • Labels: The names we give students, classrooms, and programs are far less important than understanding their unique characteristics. It is easy to give children labels, and much more challenging to understand what really makes them tick so as to best support them. Labels should be viewed as a beginning, not an endpoint.
  • Obstacles: Everyone has obstacles-challenges that impact their ability to function at their best. The responsibility for identifying and resolving behavior obstacles and challenges lies much more with adults than it does with children.
  • Families as Partners: Parents are the primary players in the growth and development of their children. Professionals and families must be more than a team for the purpose of completing required paperwork. A working relationship based on trust and mutual respect is required for students to reach their highest potential.
  • Collective Visions: Having a vision of what constitutes a satisfying quality of life for students and their families allows us to create educational plans that accomplish meaningful outcomes. Shared visions created by parents and professionals provide a powerful map for moving forward.

Approaching the education of students with neurodevelopmental disorders with these 12 powerful concepts in mind provides a more meaningful and successful experience for everyone involved. Application of these principles allows us to best guide students to reach their highest potential in school and beyond.

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