What I learned from teaching students with autism

My students with autism have shaken the core of what I considered life to be. They have taught me things about myself and the world that I constantly reflect on. The lessons learned have forced me to examine my own behavior. This is what I learned and how it transformed my life.

 Routine is everything:

Learning involves repetition and reinforcement. The structure of routine creates consistent and predictable outcomes. Routine clearly outlines the parameters of success.  

When working with students on the spectrum, you must first establish a routine. What makes the routine so powerful is that everyone responds to it. The teachers, the paras, the related service all work more efficiently when there is a routine.

Consistency is achieved through repetitive routines. Skills are learned through engaging in an activity where the outcome is predictable. Incremental progress is achieved from building off learned routines. No matter what level of function, the process of routine is the same. Everything is visually based to enforce the expectations of a routine. Every step is reinforced, so that the behavior is integrated. Seeing how their routine brought about changes, it inspired me to create and respect my own routines.

The structure of a routine ensures that you accomplish all the things you need. That will make you healthy and fulfilled. We have things we want to accomplish and things we need to do. Routine is the only way to manage them. I created a morning routine that involves things I do every day. Routines are not monotonous, they are stable structures that enhance meaning.  


In order to manage a routine, you need to schedule the things you have to accomplish. A schedule enables you to focus on the present while managing the expectation of what the future is. Schedules reduce abstraction in what you will do with your time. They also keep you focused on what you are doing.

As I say to my students, “we are doing puzzles now, then we are going to lunch.” This enables focus on what is scheduled for now, with the idea of what is coming later.

This has helped me to manage my routines, my horrific phone addiction and spend more time doing what I love. If you make a schedule and stick to the routines within the schedule, you can maximize your time. There is always something that will come up, that isn’t the point. Sticking to your schedule reduces the distractions and the time spent guessing about what you should be doing.

Free time is a scheduled event, not a default state. You get more from it if you give yourself the freedom to do what you please for 45 minutes. The students love free time, but too much free time makes them complacent and disregulated. You can see this when the teacher is out and the sub comes in. No routine, no schedule, too much free time. This leads to overindulgence, distractions and difficulty returning to the routine.

 Incentives are everything

Everything is based on self interest. One of the primary features of autism is the lack of interest in social engagement. This means they need to have an incentive to communicate. It is often a matter of teaching the utility of communication. “You mean all I have to do is ask for the goldfish and you will give it to me?”

One of the observations I have made in my 8 years is that students on the spectrum would rather grab something out of your hand than ask for it. In order to make the connection between language, action and objects, you must use things that are rewarding. The best reinforcers are motivating and relevant. Food is often the best place to start, for obvious reasons.  This is why ¼ of an SLPs salary is spent on goldfish and Swedish fish.

Once you provide a reason to do something, then the incentive drives the learning.

The operant conditioning principle is behavior and consequence through positive or negative reinforcement. This is the context for learning.

He who has a why to live for can bear any how.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

This has caused me to examine my own incentive and rewards.

Why do I do the things I do? What makes me continue doing them?

It is a matter of understanding the reward in what you do. Fulfillment comes from balancing your hunger, accomplishments and satisfaction. You hold yourself accountable. You must earn it. You are the judge.

 The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
— Richard Feynman

Generalization is the real long term goal

Generalization is the consistent use of an acquired skill in different contexts and environments. Skills are taught through routine practice with strong incentives. But generalization is the long term goal of every skill.

It is no easy task getting kids who would otherwise not initiate communication, to go out of their way to spontaneously request a desired item of interest. Just getting to that level has its own challenges. But the main ambition is to get them to communicate with the world. What good is it if they can only communicate with me for two half hour sessions a week?

The point is, you want to apply what you learn. Too often, we stop at comprehension. What stops us from making the correct food, exercise and sleep choices? The same answer applies to why students don’t use their devices or communication books. There is no belief in the value of it. Therefore, there is no consistency with the behavior.

We know we should exercise, we know we should not consume refined carbohydrates, we know we should be reading more and scrolling less, we know we should be sleeping more. The list is almost endless.

It is generalizing this information into behavior which creates productive habits. We understand things, but we don’t integrate them. That is something we could all work on improving. It is a dynamic process, not a static one. Learn so that you may do, not so you can just say… unless we are working on verbal requesting – then you better learn to say.

 You must check progress.

One of more frustrating parts of working with students on the spectrum is the lack of consistency with progress. There are many variables to why a student progresses or regresses. A long school break, a new sibling, a change in sleep cycle, a new student, a new behavior. Most of which are not in your control. Regressions are simply a part of the process. A student can do something one day and then not show it again for weeks.

You must constantly evaluate yourself. The question is always: how can I make this better and more consistent? This is not something that should burn you out, but always keep you engaged on the upkeep of your life. You must examine what you are doing so that you can improve your systems.


There are no endpoints. There is no finish line. Every day is a new climb on a different mountain.

Yes, you can simultaneously feel fulfilled and exhausted by your job. Rest during your scheduled choice time. Transition seamlessly to the next item on the schedule.

The reward is the process, not the result.