7 ways teachers and parents can motivate kids on the autism spectrum

Brenda Kimble


Kids on the autism spectrum often have a limited number of interests and can lack the ability to respond to social feedback, which is essential for learning. This can make it challenging to engage kids in classroom tasks and leads to students feeling frustrated because their needs are not met. Also, traditional classrooms and teaching strategies are generally ineffective at encouraging kids with autism to learn.

However, there are many ways teachers and parents can help kids on the autism spectrum to stay motivated–both in the classroom and at home.

1. Beading Activities
Arts and crafts are a well-established method of engaging children on the autism spectrum. The structured step-by-step approach to creating beaded crafts helps to give kids a sense of control. The fine motor skills required to select, arrange and thread beads help them to develop strong hand-eye coordination, which can, in turn, assist them in other areas, such as writing and reading comprehension. Also, using bold, bright gemstone beads can create a visually stimulating sensory experience.

If you want to incorporate this beading activity into your classroom lessons, use colored alphabet beads to practice spelling or phonics. Beading can also be an effective transition task to calm agitated children.

2. Ice Painting
Combining STEM and art concepts into one fantastic activity is an excellent way to spark interest and get them involved in a task that is educational and gives them some gentle sensory input.

Art activities provide kids on the spectrum with an excellent outlet for creative expression. This is a particularly effective task for non-verbal kids who have trouble communicating needs and emotions.

3. Sensory Collages
Often children on the spectrum have sensory processing issues that can make them disengage from specific activities they feel to be over- or under-stimulating. Sensory collages provide them with a safe, non-threatening way to introduce unfamiliar sensations and textures, and can be easily incorporated into a variety of lesson plans.

Use a range of natural and artificial textures, such as rice, tree bark, aluminum, felt or cotton, and instruct your kids to cut or tear pieces of the materials to stick on printed-out templates.

If you have a child who is averse to messy activities, you must be sensitive to their comfort level during the task. Provide a clear, verbal or visual introduction for the task, and begin by having them try to use utensils to apply glue and arrange the scraps on the paper to avoid contact with the glue.

4. Sensory Boxes
Sensory boxes are a great way to encourage communication in autistic kids, and an effective way to increase their vocabulary. You can easily tailor the contents of the boxes to suit the interests of your kids or incorporate lesson content and concepts, making them an exceptional way to motivate kids to learn.

When creating your sensory boxes, make sure you don’t include articles that could be potentially dangerous for autistic kids. Seemingly innocuous items or small pieces can become choking hazards for kids who put things in their mouths. Work around this by creating a box with edible pieces.

5. Slimy Sensory Play
Slime provides an interesting tactile experience for autistic kids and can be used in the classroom as a “calm-down item” to squeeze and pull while completing other tasks, or you can customize the slime with topic-related items to create an engaging teaching material.

There are so many different textures of non-toxic slime you can create from runny cornstarch slime (a great material for a science lesson on non-Newtonian fluids) to soft, fluffy slime that is perfect for mess-averse kids since it doesn't stick to hands or surfaces. You can also make edible slime for kids likely to put it in their mouths (just avoid the food coloring for kids sensitive to artificial colors).

6. Calming Sensory Bottles
There are occasions when kids on the spectrum can get so overwhelmed it can be difficult to engage them in any task. There are many effective calm-down techniques available to teachers and parents, such as whole-body pressure, self-massage or sitting in a designated "quiet space." However, whole-body calming strategies aren't often available to autistic kids in the classroom, but calming sensory bottles are an excellent alternative for children who need a distraction from whatever triggered their meltdown.

The slow movement of the objects in the bottles acts as a visual anchor by drawing their focus into a single place to stop them from feeling out of control. This allows the kids to return to a state where they are no longer agitated, and they are more likely to re-engage in classroom tasks.

The bottles should be introduced first by an adult, and gradually the kids will learn to use them whenever they need to refocus, making these bottles an exceptional way to foster self-regulation in autistic kids.

7. Whole-Body Learning
Proprioceptive and vestibular sensory input is just as essential as stimulating the other senses for encouraging learning. Incorporating activities into your lessons centered around these sensory experiences can be a wonderful way to motivate autistic kids to try new tasks, as many kids on the spectrum enjoy and benefit from movement throughout the day.

Include whole-body learning techniques into your lessons or everyday routine by allowing the kids to use movement to explore concepts. Or, you can tailor the classroom environment to allow movement during class. Another way you can provide kids with movement opportunities is with sensory breaks from traditional seated learning, such as providing fitness balls or small trampolines for them to use to decompress.

Final Thoughts
Just like any other child, kids on the autism spectrum want to feel engaged and be stimulated by their lessons and activities–both at school and at home. Although it can be difficult for some autistic kids to find the motivation to try unfamiliar tasks, incorporating some of these activities into their daily schedule can be a great way to encourage them to learn and foster essential development skills.

However, there are huge variations in behavior and ability along the spectrum, and it is vital that you select activities within the capability, comfort level and interests of your child for them to be most effective.

Brenda Kimble is a writer and stay-at-home mother of two daughters and a son, plus their beagle named Duke! She loves blogging, crafting, and spending time with her family. She is also a strong advocate for those with special needs and writes to give a voice to the often unheard.


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