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Teaching Preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorder

This guide provides an in-depth look at the signs of autism spectrum disorder in young children and the benefits that early intervention can have on their development.

Teaching Preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Teaching Preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorder

April is Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month. For many, it is a time to recognize, remember, and celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  

However, for parents and educators of children with ASD, every day is an opportunity to support and embrace learners who have been diagnosed with ASD and provide them with access to inclusive and individualized learning experiences that help maximize their cognitive and physical development, social relationships, and sense of acceptance. 

If you are looking for ways to better support and teach children with autism spectrum disorder in your classroom, use this article as a resource. It will provide an overview of teaching strategies and activities for children with autism and offer some ways for you to celebrate Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month all through April. 

What is autism spectrum disorder? 

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. People with ASD often struggle with social communication and interaction and might display restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. People with ASD may also have different ways of learning, moving, or paying attention. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some examples of ASD symptoms in young children might include: 

Social communication and interaction skills

  • Avoiding or not maintaining eye contact
  • Not responding to their name by 9 months of age
  • Not showing facial expressions like happy, sad, angry, and surprised by 9 months of age
  • Not playing simple interactive games like pat-a-cake by 12 months of age
  • Using only a few or no gestures by 12 months of age (for example, does not wave goodbye)
  • Not sharing interests with others by 15 months of age (for example, not showing you an object they like)
  • Not pointing to show you something interesting by 18 months of age
  • Not noticing when others are hurt or upset by 24 months of age
  • Not noticing other children and joining them in play by 36 months of age
  • Not pretending to be something else, like a teacher or superhero, during play by 48 months of age
  • Not singing, dancing, or acting for you by 60 months of age

Restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests

  • Lining up toys or other objects and getting upset when order is changed
  • Repeating words or phrases over and over (called echolalia)
  • Playing with toys the same way every time
  • Focusing only on parts of objects (for example, wheels)
  • Becoming upset by minor changes
  • Having obsessive interests
  • Following only certain routines
  • Flapping hands, rocking their body, or spinning in circles
  • Having unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel

Other related characteristics

  • Delayed language skills
  • Delayed movement skills
  • Delayed cognitive or learning skills
  • Hyperactive, impulsive, and/or inattentive behavior
  • Epilepsy or seizure disorder
  • Unusual eating and sleeping habits
  • Gastrointestinal issues (for example, constipation)
  • Unusual mood or emotional reactions
  • Anxiety, stress, or excessive worry
  • Lack of fear or more fear than expected

Why is early intervention important for autism? 

According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), early diagnosis of, and interventions for, autism are more likely to have major long-term positive effects on symptoms and later skills. ASD can sometimes be diagnosed in children before they are two years of age. This is important, as some children with ASD, whose development has seemed typical up to that point, may start to regress after they turn two. 

Early intervention is vital for children with autism, and other developmental delays, as it not only gives the children the best start possible but also gives them the best opportunity to develop to their full potential. With early intervention, some children with ASD can even make so much progress that they are no longer on the autism spectrum when they are older.

Some examples of early intervention include family training, speech therapy, hearing impairment services, physical therapy, and nutrition services. The NICHD suggests starting integrated development and behavioral interventions as soon as a child has been diagnosed with ASD or when autism spectrum disorder is strongly suspected.

A female counselor holding pictures of a red sad face and a happy blue face during a meeting with a young patient. The patient is pointing to the blue happy face.


Autism teaching strategies

Preparing your classroom and lessons to support the needs of all children is important, and this is especially true if one or more of your learners have been diagnosed with ASD. Here are some teaching strategies to consider if you are working with children on the autism spectrum. 

Make a visual schedule

Children with ASD usually have difficulty understanding the language they hear. However, they often possess strengths in processing information visually. Creating a visual schedule and posting it in a prominent place can provide structure and increase understanding of basic activities or events in the classroom. Visual cues can let children know what is coming up and how they should move from one activity to another which can help minimize anxiety.

Have a consistent routine

Children who find moving from one activity to another difficult will feel more settled if they are aware of what to expect ahead of time. Keeping a consistent routine while changing small tasks throughout the day and providing clear instructions about upcoming transitions can help children with ASD feel more at ease throughout the day.

Link activities to the child’s interests

Adding a child’s interests into the learning process is a great way to keep them engaged. For example, if a child likes dinosaurs, make dinosaurs a part of the lesson through songs, reading, games, counting exercises, and playtime.

Give consistent positive feedback

Giving positive feedback to children when they follow the rules or achieve key developmental goals makes them feel supported and increases the likelihood that they will engage in similar behavior in the future. Being consistent and descriptive when applauding a child’s behavior while conveying sincerity and enthusiasm is critical to children’s improvement and success. 

Create plenty of opportunities for practice

Children may need to practice a task or behavior many times before getting it right. Giving them opportunities to practice in different settings and with different materials can help children learn to use particular skills in other situations and places. When first introducing a task, it is also best to provide one-to-one lessons with prompts and demonstrations. 

Provide opportunities to work with others

Children can get to know each other and build relationships through playing together. Children with autism, especially, can also learn through watching and imitating others. Consider ways in which you can facilitate a child’s interactions with others in a group.

Activities for children with autism

Children with ASD have varying levels of sensory processing skills. They learn, move, interact, and pay attention in many different ways. Some may be more visual learners, while others may succeed best with hands-on activities. Providing multisensory instruction that engages multiple senses is the best way to create an inclusive learning environment that meets the needs of all children. 

Here are a few activities to consider for children with autism in your classroom. 

Finger paint

Let children get hands-on (and a little messy) by using their hands or feet to make art with non-toxic paints. 

Create a sensory ocean

Fill a shallow storage container with sand on one side and water on the other. You can add in things like shells, toy fish, plants, and other ocean-inspired items. Children can splash in the water, dig their hands into the sand, and play with the undersea toys.  

Make your own slime

Mix cornflour and water together in a bowl to make a safe and gooey slime ball. Add in food coloring and glitter to create an extra sensory experience.

Make music with instruments

If you have access to drums or maracas, bring those in for children to shake, rattle, and bang on. You can also create your own instruments, like by putting rice inside a plastic bottle or using wooden spoons on pots and pans. 

Play with food

Edible sensory activities can be great for engaging children with autism. Choose soft and squishy foods, like chocolate sauce, blackberries, apple puree, or yogurt, and let them create a piece of art that looks, smells, and tastes amazing. 

Create a water pouring station

Pour water into different size bottles and add various food coloring to each. Then set up various tubs and containers to pour the water into. As the water pours, children will see the colors mixing together to create new colors. You can also give the children the opportunity to pour the water themselves, which can help support fine motor skill development. 

If you are looking for other engaging, challenging, and state-approved lesson ideas, brightwheel’s Experience Curriculum can save you hours every month by pairing digital lessons in the brightwheel app with hands-on learning materials mailed to you. The lessons are aligned to all 50 states' early learning standards and NAEYC and can be customized to fit the needs of your program. 

April: Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month

Finding ways to celebrate differences and create an inclusive learning environment is so important to helping children feel understood and supported by their caregivers. If you are looking for ways to celebrate Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month this April, consider:

  • Learning about and teaching some of the histories of autism
  • Reading books about ASD by authors with autism or featuring characters with autism
  • Wearing blue (a color associated with calmness and acceptance), as it is the primary designated color for Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month
  • Giving out multisensory toys that children can play with by popping, twisting, spinning, or squishing
  • Organizing an autism awareness spirit week
  • Simply speaking to your preschoolers about autism—what it is and why it’s important to treat others with kindness and understanding


With April serving as Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, now is the perfect time to review your teaching approach to ensure that it is inclusive toward children with ASD, or any other learning or developmental delays.

Keep consistent routines, make children’s interests a part of learning, give consistent, positive feedback, and provide plenty of opportunities for practicing new skills. Doing this will allow you to provide the best support for all children in your classroom.

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