Six Tips for Teachers Working with Students Who Are Visually Impaired with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Key Principles to Share With Your Child’s Teachers

cover image of Autism Spectrum Disorders and Visual Impairment: Meeting Students' Learning Needs, which depicts a grade-school-aged boy holding a small pumpkin The following is an excerpt from the book Autism Spectrum Disorders and Visual Impairment: Meeting Students’ Learning Needs, written by Marilyn H. Gense, and D. Jay Gense. We hope you will find it useful as we head back to school and get settled into new classrooms.

Students who have an autism spectrum disorder and a visual impairment (or what we have termed ASDVI) can be gifted, stubborn, endearing, behaviorally challenging, stimulating, and fun; indeed, the descriptions seem endless. Many are undoubtedly the most challenging individuals we have taught. At the same time, helping them to “make the connection,” gaining their attention, and assisting them on their path to learning has, and continues to be, inordinately rewarding.

We believe that each teacher has a responsibility to promote lifelong learning for each student. We also believe that the definition of teacher is best applied broadly to include all teachers, parents, service providers, paraprofessionals, and others who work with a student, in that each has a tremendous opportunity to influence and provide guidance to the child.

For children with ASDVI, the world can be a confusing mix of sensory inputs that make little sense. For many, the sensory inputs can be overwhelming and may impede learning. Each teacher has the unique opportunity and responsibility to help each child make sense of that input — to learn not to fear it, but rather, to learn to process it, to manage it, and ultimately to be motivated by and learn from it.

We consider the following to be a core set of principles that guide our work with these students. You can use them as a guiding structure to help make a difference in each student’s life.

1. Strive for small doable increments. Remember that you can not do everything at once. When you design and implement an educational program and break down tasks for the student, move forward with the small doable increments that will enhance the overall “big picture.”

2. Expect communication. If a student is able to meet his or her needs without communicating in a traditional sense, then he or she will not feel the need to communicate. Without the need to communicate, the student will have little need or desire for social interaction. Without social interaction, the student will become increasingly comfortable with himself or herself, which may lead to increased withdrawal, isolation, and self-stimulation.

3. Use positive reinforcements. Optimally, each student’s capacity for learning will be enhanced only when the learning leads to a positive personal gain. Thus, each teacher must be keenly aware of positive reinforcements, remembering that such reinforcers cannot be based on what you like or what you think the student likes, but what the student clearly demonstrates that she or he likes. It is essential to recognize that for many children with autism spectrum disorder, reinforcements may not be typical.

4. Nothing is free. Design the environment so the student needs to interact and communicate in order to obtain what he or she wants. Opportunities for success will be enhanced when the student understands you have to “give something to get something” (such as language, gestures, vocalizations, and movements). Each student’s curriculum must be developed to ensure that the expectations are clear and that a response is required.

5. Take responsibility for each student’s learning. If a student is not making progress, in all likelihood the problems lie not with the student, but with the instruction that is being provided. Each teacher needs to examine what is and is not effective in helping a student learn and to recognize that he or she is responsible for the student’s learning. The teacher must be constantly aware of the learning opportunities that are being presented through instruction and have a clear understanding of the expected outcomes.

6. Learning, teaching, learning. Teaching and learning are intrinsically enmeshed and ongoing. If the teacher is not experiencing the joy of learning, chances are good that the student will not either. Try to find the joy that inherently exists in the challenges you will experience.