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Autism Awareness Month: Tips and Information for Teachers and Parents

It is estimated that 2% of South Africa’s population has Autism Spectrum Disorder [1]. There are proven ways for parents and teachers to help children who are on the spectrum develop to their full potential.

With guidance from our occupational therapists, we have developed this resource to give a brief introduction into Autism Spectrum Disorder and offer some tips for development.

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

ASD is known as a developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates with others and relates to them and their surroundings. They also tend to follow unusual patterns of activities and behaviours. For instance, they can get stuck on one activity and resist moving to the next one. They can also focus on the details of something and have unusual reactions to sensations.

The term ‘spectrum’ is used because every person with ASD will be affected differently by it and will therefore present with a range of different signs/symptoms. Some can be more severe than others.


This refers to the way the brain develops in a person and influences the way they function. There are two different ways in which the brain can develop – neurotypical and neurodivergent. Neurotypical development refers to development with no known disorders, as this is the “typical” developmental path that we expect a child to follow. “Neurodivergent” refers to someone who behaves, thinks, and learns in a different way compared to those who are neurotypical. This can be someone whose brain functions differently to what we think of as “typical” or “normal”.

Behaviour Tips for Teachers and Parents

1. Transitioning/moving from one task to another

The child may experience challenges transitioning or moving from one task to another. It is important to find a way to transition that the child will be able to cope with and to not FORCE the child as it may be stressful for them. If you force a child who is on the spectrum, it may lead to emotional outbursts. Forcing them can make them “act out” and make them resist the move even more.

Strategies for transitioning to a new task:
1.1. If the child is still small enough, pick them up from the task to communicate they are finished.

1.2. Use a visual timer for the activity. (For instance, the timer on your phone, a clock, or a cooking clock.) When the buzzer goes, time is up, and you move to the next activity.

1.3. You can also give verbal reminders, such as warning that there is 5 minutes left to play outside, for instance, then 3 minutes, then one minute. You can also use “transitional song” to signal a change in routine, such a song about cleaning up, for instance.

1.4. Pictures can be the used to display the activities/tasks the child will participate in and helps them to understand what will happen next, especially if the child struggles to communicate verbally. 

2. Form a routine

Routines help the child to know what is expected of them and this helps them cope better in their environment. Use pictures to explain the routine and especially when you are moving from one task to the next.

3. Set boundaries and be clear about them

Use very simple, straightforward instructions that are clear. Rewards can be an effective way to strengthen certain boundaries.

4. Use special interests as a gateway to teach skills

Use interests, strengths, skills, areas of expertise and gifts as tools for teaching. For example, if a child is really interested in rocks, then use them to count, stack, play hopscotch, sort and even shape letters. Or if your child is interested in dinosaurs, use them to arrange from biggest to smallest. Also allow the child some choices when it comes to doing the activity. For example, they might prefer to use farm animals instead of dinosaurs.

5. Use their senses and movement to teach sounds and numbers

Children on the spectrum often love to move around and need to move a lot. They also love to explore by looking at things, or touching things. One example is by taping letters to the wall and having the child run and touch the right letter when you call out the letter sound, like the initial sound of their names. You can also tape letters on the floor and ask the child to jump on the correct letter.

6. Create opportunities for social skills practice in a playful manner

Children on the spectrum often struggle to express their emotions correctly, especially when they are feeling stressed or anxious. Use games to help children practise their social skills, such as listening, turn-taking, and following directions while playing games with them. Look at pictures and talk about feelings or pull faces and read stories about feelings.

7. Create a comfortable space

Sometimes children can feel unsafe or uncomfortable and become irritable as a result. Create spaces that are not too bright, or too noisy, where a child can sit and be comfortable. You can even create a quiet space by placing a big cardboard box in a corner and place a big soft toy or a blanket inside. If you are a teacher, remember that some kids are very sensitive to smells and textures, so they might not like your blanket. It may help them if they are allowed to bring something that comforts them from home.

Floor time as a technique to connect

This is a technique developed by Stanley Greenspan [2] that is used to interact with the child by coming down to their level (as in the floor, if that is where the child is) and following the child’s lead. It helps us to join their world, share it, and follow their emotions and interests in a warm and pleasurable way. By sharing their world, we hope to also pull them out of their own world and help them to challenge them to master new milestones.

For 20 minutes, we get down on the floor and follow the child’s lead to explore what makes them interested or happy. We also try to gently create challenges that help the child move up to higher levels of relating, communicating, and thinking.


Children that struggle to use language, like listening to an instruction, will understand better if you make your instruction short and clear. It also helps if you always say it in the same way. You can stress the important words by saying them a bit louder, like “We are now going to PLAY OUTSIDE.”
You can also add a gesture, like pointing to the door, or putting your hands next to your face to show “sleep.

Potty Training

A toilet timetable can be made for the child to get them into a routine for going to the bathroom. You can also use pictures for the routine to show/demonstrate as they are more likely to learn it that way. Pictures can be of a child using the bathroom, showing the steps to follow.

It is important to note that it may take children with ASD time to be able to follow basic instructions that are given to them. You should start introducing the concepts of instructions regardless and be consistent about them. You can model what is required from them at first and as they get used to it allow room for independence.

Most importantly, always be patient with neurodivergent children. Often they are not "being naughty" they are simply overwhelmed and you can help them through their big feelings by letting them know that you are there for them!


[1] www.gov.za. (n.d.). World Autism Awareness Day 2018 | South African Government. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.za/speeches/world-autism-awareness-day-2018-30-nov-2017-1112#:~:text=A%20leading%20researcher%20in%20Sout [Accessed 17 Apr. 2023].

[2] Floortime, G. (2023). About Floortime – Dr. Greenspan Floortime. [online] Stanley Greenspan | The Greenspan Floortime Approach. Available at: https://stanleygreenspan.com/resources-about-floortime/#:~:text=The%20Greenspan%20Floortime%20Approach%20is [Accessed 17 Apr. 2023].