Online Degrees Blog Early signs of autism spectrum disorder—A guide for educators

Early signs of autism spectrum disorder—A guide for educators

14 March
Young female teacher explain, talk at desk with an autistic schoolboy.

With one in 36 children now diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), there is a need for educators with advanced training.1 Autism spectrum disorder encompasses a range of neurodevelopmental conditions that can affect social interaction, communication, and behavior for many children. 1

Temple Grandin, an animal scientist and author, has contributed to acceptance and new understanding of autism and neurodiversity. Officially diagnosed with autism when she was three and a half, Grandin faced multiple challenges, including delayed development of language skills, sensory problems, difficulty recognizing nonverbal cues and other complications with social interactions.2,3 Early intervention helped her overcome these challenges, and a teacher nurtured her interest in science. She went on to earn a doctoral degree in animal science and found international success designing livestock equipment.2

Grandin’s story underscores the important role of educators in supporting children with autism spectrum disorder. Studies indicate that early treatment has a significant impact on children with ASD—it can mean the difference between suffering and thriving in school and in life. With the right training, early childhood professionals can learn to recognize the signs of ASD in their students and make sure they get appropriate services.

In this post, we delve into the key signs to watch for, the importance of early diagnosis, and strategies to support students with ASD in the classroom.

Challenges with social interactions

One of the hallmark features of ASD is the challenges with social interaction that Grandin experienced. Early childhood educators, in particular, should look for early signs of autism spectrum disorder symptoms. For instance, students on the autism spectrum may struggle with maintaining eye contact during conversations, which can impact their ability to engage effectively with teachers and other children.3

Additionally, they may display limited interest in interacting with other children, preferring solitary activities or having unique interests. Making friends might be particularly difficult due to challenges with social skills and nonverbal communication, hindering the formation of meaningful connections.3

Communication signs in the classroom

Trouble communicating is another common feature of ASD. Educators may observe delayed speech or language development in students with ASD, as well as echolalic speech patterns, meaning they mimic sounds or repeat other people’s words or sentences.5 Understanding and using gestures might also pose challenges for these students, affecting their ability to communicate effectively in the classroom.

Behavioral signs in students

Behavioral signs, which can range from hand-flapping to avoiding touch, provide insights into a student's potential ASD diagnosis. For educators, recognizing these behavioral signs of autism is a first step to better understanding the needs of students with ASD. With this knowledge, you can provide your students with appropriate support and accommodations, so that they can succeed in the classroom.

Watch for behavioral early warning signs of autism spectrum disorder:6

  • Repetitive behaviors: Hand-flapping, rocking back and forth, spinning objects and other repetitive movements are coping mechanisms for sensory overload
  • Fixations/special interests: Abnormal intensity in focus on interests—such as trains, dinosaurs, or numbers
  • Sensory responses: Loud noises, bright lights, and even certain textures can trigger strong reactions, such as covering the ears
  • Resistance to change: Tantrums, meltdowns, and withdrawal all signal distress or anxiety in response to perceived disruptions in routines

Developmental milestone delays

Students with ASD may be delayed in achieving typical developmental milestones, including motor skills, play skills, and cognitive benchmarks. They may not respond to their name being called, display limited social smiles, or show unusual attachment to objects. Recognizing these delays can aid educators in providing appropriate support and interventions.

Evaluating a child's development: Support for parents

Experts say early identification and interventions can make a big impact on the quality of life for individuals with ASD. While a diagnosis often happens between the ages of two and four, a new study suggests this should happen even earlier. The Society for Research and Child Development has documented that, by age nine months, there are visible social-communication differences for infants with ASD.4

If parents have concerns about their child’s development, the good news is that they don’t have to wait for an official diagnosis. They can reach out to their pediatrician or a child psychologist to get connected with services. But they can also complete developmental and autism screeners, such as the Infant Toddler Checklist, ASQ, or M-CHAT.4 Another option is for parents to self-refer their child to an intervention system.4

Early intervention and support for students

Early intervention paves the way for infants and children with autism to receive specialized therapies and services. Research has found that applied behavior analysis (ABA), when introduced before age five, improves cognitive and adaptive skills. The goal of ABA is to help children with ASD become more independent and bring sustainable change to their lives. However, this therapy can be expensive, hard on young children, and is somewhat controversial within the autism community.6

One alternative to ABA is the parent-led Relationship Development Intervention approach, which promotes flexible thinking, social skills, and understanding of different perspectives.7 Others include cognitive behavior therapy, music therapy, and play therapy.7

Because individuals on the autism spectrum can range from being a math genius like Einstein to having no language ability, each child needs a personalized treatment plan in a school, home, or community setting.7

Spectrum disorder treatments may include multiple and overlapping services:8,9

  • Speech therapy: Improve speech, language, and social communication abilities, facilitating positive social interactions
  • Physical therapy: Develop motor skills, coordination, balance, and overall physical functioning, which promote independence and participation in activities
  • Arts intervention: Provide opportunities for self-expression, creativity, social interaction, sensory exploration, and emotional regulation
  • Nutrition services: Address sensory sensitivities related to food and nutritional deficiencies that may impact physical and cognitive health

Coping and resources for parents

Parents of children with ASD also require support; they experience more stress than parents of neurotypical children.10 Parents can find support through family therapy or online or in-person support groups. Additionally, teachers can be valuable resources offering insights, guidance, and support. By fostering open communication and collaboration between home and school environments, you can work with parents to create a supportive and inclusive educational experience for students with ASD.

Finally, organizations that specialize in ASD also provide advice and resources for students, families, and educators.

Top organizations include:

  • Autism Speaks
  • Autism Society
  • Autism Research Institute (ARI)
  • Council for Exceptional Children (CEC)
  • National Autism Association (NAA)
  • Organization for Autism Research (OAR)

Elevate your career and impact with KU's online special education master’s programs

Ready to master cutting-edge teaching methods for diverse learners? Enhance your career and make a lasting impact on your students with a top-ranked online special education master's degree in ASD* from the University of Kansas. KU’s School of Education and Human Sciences is a national pioneer—and leader—in ASD education for today’s educators and offers three practicum electives to help online master’s students become effective classroom leaders.

Admissions outreach advisors are here to answer your questions. Schedule a call today and start building master’s-level expertise in the ASD specialization you want to excel in most.

*Master of Science in Education (M.S.E.) in special education with an emphasis in autism spectrum disorder (ASD)