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Supporting Children with the Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Preschool Classrooms

child playing with toy cars

On this podcast, we are joined by Dr. Emily Dorsey. She joins us to discuss strategies for helping children with the characteristics of autism spectrum disorder succeed in inclusive early childhood classrooms.

More About Our Guest

Dr. Emily Dorsey is the project director of the Illinois Early Learning Project.


Note: When this podcast was recorded, Dr. Dorsey was serving as an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


Dr. Swartz: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast we share information about how young children grow and learn as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Rebecca Swartz, and I am one of the project staff members.

Dr Swartz: Today we welcome Dr. Emily Dorsey. Dr. Dorsey is an assistant professor of practice in the Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She joins us to discuss strategies for helping children with the characteristic of autism spectrum disorder succeed in inclusive early childhood classrooms.

Dr. Swartz: So hello Dr. Dorsey, we’re excited to have you on the Illinois Early Learning Project podcast, and we’re especially glad to have you here to discuss a topic many of our listeners have questions about. Many families and early childhood practitioners are eager to get more information about autism spectrum disorder, which is a common condition affecting children. And we’re really looking forward to learning more with you. So could you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in learning more about children who exhibit the characteristics of autism spectrum disorder or ASD?

Dr. Dorsey: I’ll go back a few years, when I got my undergraduate degree, it was inclusive early childhood education tech degree, and I happened to have my very first job in a preschool classroom that had two students with autism in my class, they were preschoolers. They were very interesting to meet, and I was not very prepared to work with them, I learned right away. But I felt endeared to them, kinda fascinated by their learning styles. I enjoyed their presence and I really wanted to learn more after having met those two kids. And also was sort of young and just getting out of college and had some room for adventure in my life and decided to take a job at a residential summer camp for individuals with autism, all through the age span, near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, called Camp Royal. And so I spent a summer there, where I just got to interact with, oh, probably close to 100 people with autism. Each week I had one or two campers myself who were my responsibility, and I got some really great training, some really great interaction with those people. I really learned to appreciate individuals with autism.

And that kind of started my work with individuals with autism that I just have kind of carried through my career even if it has not always been my main focus. I always would have students with autism in my class, I did a lot of part time work and even some independent work consulting with families who had children with autism, helping them be included in private school and private child care environments, and now as I’ve moved on to a faculty position, I regularly teach a course about how to work with individuals with autism in educational settings. And so it’s just been kinda continuous interest throughout my career, and I try to kinda stay up to date on learning and always be kind of interactiving with that population of people. And so it stems back to right after graduating from undergraduate.

Dr. Swartz: That’s so interesting. A lot of our listeners are teachers of young children, and they may find themselves in this same position where they meet a child who is perplexing or different or just fascinating and fantastic, and they want to learn more. They can really relate to the kind of story that you’ve had. So why don’t we start out by just talking about the characteristics of children with autism spectrum disorder?

Dr. Dorsey: Sure. So, the diagnostic criteria and things you would look for in a child with autism. The first big idea is sort of two characteristics lumped together in one, which we would call social communication. Sometimes people try to pull apart social and communication, but really it’s much easier to kind of consider them the same thing. So if you think of a thing like greeting, that’s a real social communication skill. Like on the one hand, there’s sort of this social construct of greeting where it’s like, you should look somebody in the eye, you should shake their hand, you’re expected to have a turn-taking exchange. So there’s a social component, and there’s also that communication component of like, what are the words I’m gonna say? How do I understand the language someone else is using? So if you think of just social communication as sort of one thing that encompasses two big components of how we interact with each other, that is one key characteristic. So individuals with autism will have trouble with social communication skills.

Dr. Swartz: Sure, and so for teachers who are new to working with children with these characteristics, could be really challenging, ’cause so much of teaching especially in the early childhood years depends on this social communication!

Dr. Dorsey: Absolutely, and so that is probably the thing you’ll see right away if you’re a teacher, you’ll notice those differences. And then the other characteristic is what we would call restrictive or repetitive behavior. So, a good example of this would be maybe, you have a center in your classroom and there’s a garage with cars, and some of the kids are using those cars to pretend that the cars are racing and crashing and that there’s people in them, and other children are taking those cars and are lining them up against the wall and making a pattern. Or they’re just doing one motion with those cars over and over again, maybe they’re turning them over and spinning their wheels. And so when we see children doing those kind of those restrictive behaviors like where maybe they’re not playing with the toy to its full ability because they’ve just really restricted their play to like lining things up or repetitive things, so I’m gonna do the same action with this toy over and over again. Or with my body, I’m gonna flap my hands, I’m gonna jump up and down, I’m gonna make the same sound over and over again. Those are the other example of restrictive and repetitive behaviors that you often see and that are part of the diagnostic criteria. 

Dr. Swartz: Why is it useful for us to think really about characteristics, rather than focusing on a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder in the preschool years?

Dr. Dorsey: It is important if families are seeing characteristics of autism to encourage them to look for that early diagnosis because there are some things, some types of therapies that they may want to seek out that are appropriate and evidence-based like ABA Therapy, that they might choose to do on their own or part of early intervention. But when we think about why characteristics are important, there’s a couple of reasons. The first is that the adaptations, the teaching strategies we would use in the classroom really are tailored to meet those characteristics, and we can talk about some of those strategies soon. For example, if somebody is having trouble with greeting, like that example that I gave before, we would just have a teaching strategy to address that skill set.

So in that scenario, it doesn’t really matter if that child has official diagnosis of autism or not. We just see a need, based on their characteristics, and we address that need. So often in the preschool classroom, a specific diagnosis is really not necessary for us. And the other idea is that often, as we’ll see in preschool settings, especially in preschools for students maybe who are at-risk for other academic needs, is so students will enter and they don’t have a diagnosis at all. And I think that many early childhood teachers are familiar with scenarios like that and will discover that those children will be diagnosed with a developmental delay at a later date. Maybe not even during that school year and as teachers we know we just meet those needs, as children have them, we don’t really look for labels, we just say what is this child’s need in this learning environment, and we kind of go for it.

Dr. Swartz: So what kind of strategies or experiences are helpful for children exhibiting these characteristics?

Dr Dorsey: That’s a great question. I wrote down a couple of things. One of them is sort of my go-to strategy for any learner that I tell all of my preservice teachers is, don’t do anything yourselves that you can let your environment do for you. So, especially if it’s something that you would have to give verbal directions for. So for an example, if you are going to tell the children to come line up at the door, and then you’re gonna stand at the door and give a whole bunch of verbal instructions about how do we stand, where do our feet go, where do our hands go, how far apart do we need to be from our neighbor? That’s a really hard direction for a person with autism to keep understanding. But if you tape a bunch of footprints to the floor of your classroom, that are all placed apart, just as far as you want them to be, so that a child knows exactly where to stand and you even tell him, maybe with a visual, that you’re gonna stand on footprint No. 1. And you’re even maybe gonna have a visual at the front of the line, that’s a model of how people stand. Well that’s a lot of work done for you to give that child some direction, and you haven’t had to use any language at all, and you’ve actually catered to their learning style, which is a visual learning style.

Dr. Swartz: Well, that’s so interesting because then, all the children can benefit from that, right? So even the child who has the characteristics of autism spectrum disorder really needs this very visual teaching, but it’s gonna help all the children have something to know what to do.

Dr. Dorsey: Absolutely, it’s extremely universal, and what it does is then creates a whole bunch of great peer role models. So that child can look around and see everybody else doing exactly what they need to do, and there’s not a lot of language about it kind of cluttering up that experience. So it’s very ideal, so you can put lines on your floor to say how far you stand away when you’re waiting for your turn to wash your hands. You can have little visual schedule over the sink that let people know what to do. You can have carpet squares with names on them at circle time, to let people know where to sit. So a lot of structure, it kind of ties in with that, but a lot of structure that’s provided through the environment itself and not through verbal direction, the more that you can do, the better. Those cues are there, they’re consistent, they are easy to follow, they cater to the visual learner, and I think everybody in the class benefits.

Dr. Swartz: Yeah, it frees you up as a teacher to do the kinds of content teaching that you want to do while also giving that support to children who need to be able to read the environment, in a more explicit way.

Dr. Dorsey: Absolutely.

Dr. Swartz: So any other strategies that you’d like to share with our listeners?

Dr. Dorsey: Yeah so a second one is visual schedules. Individuals with autism, just like the rest of us, want to have a good sense of where their day is going. What’s gonna happen first? What’s gonna happen next? For a lot of us, someone can just tell us that and we take in that information orally, and that’s perfectly fine. You know a lot of the kids in your class, you can say, hey, we are going to do circle, then we’re gonna wash our hands, have breakfast, and then head out to recess. Some of the kids can really take that in and handle it. Kids with autism that’s gonna be really hard information to process and maintain, and also they’re not gonna be able to hold onto that in a way that is meaningful, and those transitions could stress them out if they don’t know what’s coming.

So, you have to kind of experiment a little bit with which kind of visual schedule is most appropriate for each child. Some kids can handle just two events at a time, and you really need a photograph or a video to show what’s gonna happen. Some kids can handle five or six events at a time, and you can use line drawings, but it’s really important to convey to the kids what is gonna happen and in what order in a way that they can understand and then can have continual access to. And so a visual schedule, maybe on a clipboard that they can keep with them or nearby or post it on the wall, is something that is very calming and they can always look to, and they can see kind of when their preferred activities are coming up, when their nonpreferred activities are coming up, and they have that real sense of purpose and independence in their day cause they’re aware of the information about what’s coming.

Dr. Swartz: And I love that these strategies really are the kinds of strategies we want all early childhood professionals to use, just like we want them to use the environment as a teacher, we want them to do preliteracy-type activities and a visual schedule is a great prereading activity for all the children in the classroom.

Dr. Dorsey: Yeah, one thing I say to teachers a lot is when they say, well, you know, people may not need a schedule. You know, everybody else can handle it without a schedule, an analogy I like to use is: Well, how would you feel if you didn’t know what you were gonna do today and people were just doling out events one at a time and you were just supposed to or expected to follow their instructions. You know? Go from here to there on somebody else’s whim, that’s what it feels like to a person with autism, and so it gives them a much greater sense of control and then, of course, their behavior is gonna be much better when they feel like they can handle themselves in that day.

Dr. Swartz: And I think that’s lovely ’cause it also builds independence of all the children in the classroom to understand what’s going on and a sense of order and belonging. I think those are really great strategies, so even teachers who don’t have a child with autism spectrum in their class or autism spectrum disorder in their classroom might decide that they might want to try some of these strategies ’cause it would benefit all children.

Dr. Dorsey: Absolutely, a third one I have is what we call social stories. These are a little more specialized, maybe not something you see every day in an early childhood classroom, but again they can be pretty universal. And social story is just a tool that prepares somebody for an event that may be unexpected so that they can feel confident and competent heading into that event. So you might have a social story for a child about, how do we use the bus when we’re on a field trip, how do we do a fire drill?

Dr. Swartz: I was thinking fire drills! Those can be unexpected and stressful for children who are just typically developing.

Dr. Dorsey: Yeah, and so having that narrative with some positive directions, maybe some even, some scripting type examples of things that they can say to themselves like: When the fire alarm goes off, I line up at the door right away. That can really help people be successful in situations that can otherwise be pretty stressful and not enjoyable, and could maybe cause someone to have some undesirable behavior, you know. Especially when you think about if a person is having trouble with communication and with transitions, what we see in a preschooler is maybe just what we would ordinarily call a meltdown. You know somebody sitting on the floor screaming because, hey, this alarm has gone off, I don’t know what to do, and so this is how I’m going to act to show you that I’m stressed out. And so a social story can help prepare people to be successful in advance of those situations, and so it can be for fun things, like I said for a field trip, you know, trip to the zoo, trip to the farm, how to handle yourself in the lunch room. Basically anything where there’s some expectations about behavior that really someone could benefit from learning about those in advance.

Dr. Swartz: Awesome, those are three great strategies that our listeners might want to try in their classrooms or programs. So what can families and professionals do to ensure that children displaying the characteristics of autism spectrum disorder get the supports that they need in preschool? Like you said many of them will come in, perhaps without a diagnosis, or with a diagnosis just of a developmental delay. So what can families and professionals do to ensure that children displaying characteristics of autism spectrum disorder get the supports they need in preschool? You told us some of the strategies teachers can use, but what about teachers and families working together?

Dr. Dorsey: Sure, I think the key word you had there in your question was just “and.” So families are always the experts on a specific child. They are gonna know that child inside and out, and they’ve probably kind of done a lot of detective work, especially when you consider that child has some social communication difficulties, that family really knows, okay when this child, you know, turns his back to the wall, this means he’s upset. They’re gonna have some insider information, and I think teachers being really open to communication with families, taking a little extra time to ask those questions of what can you tell me about your child? What are some cues that he shows? And then having a communication system so that dialogue can happen more frequently maybe than you would have for other kids in your class. So that you can stay on top of that child’s successes, areas where he’s having difficulty, and the parent and the caregiver can really work as a team to kind of problem-solve and help that child be successful is really probably gonna take both people in that relationship to sort of problem-solve together, and, individuals with autism are pretty unique. So while we have some universal strategies, each person is gonna have some unique interests, maybe things that bother them a little more than others, things that they really respond well to, and so that communication piece can really yield a lot of success for that child.

Dr. Swartz: And I guess that’s a good opportunity for us to just point out that autism is not just one type of behavior or child or one particular characteristic. It’s this spectrum disorder, so we’re gonna have a variety of differences so …

Dr. Dorsey: Absolutely! There’s sort of a phrase that, oh it gets a bit of a bad rap, but people will say, “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.” While there are those universal characteristics, you really do need to be prepared for a pretty, I would say interesting level of uniqueness among the individuals with autism that you’re gonna meet, and every time just be prepared to learn something new and different and be prepared that they are gonna show you something that you probably have not seen before.

Dr. Swartz: That’s awesome, and that takes us back to your story as a preschool teacher where this was interesting to you, and that if teachers can view this as a challenge that’s exciting and fun and has possibilities, then maybe they can have more success in the classroom.

Dr. Dorsey: Absolutely! And those kids with autism that will come in your classroom, they have a lot of strengths, and I think that one, a really important thing for a teacher to do, is while you view those strengths within the context of maybe some of the difficulties you have, you just stay focused on those strengths. Because that’s how that child is gonna shine in your classroom and contribute, and you kind of have to balance that with maybe some difficulties that they’re having. But you kind of have to do that same thing you do with all kids in your class and say, you know: How are they showing successes? How can I build on those things? How can I show that child’s peers that he’s also a role model? And teachers are really good at that, the seeing strengths. And so, just, you know for teachers who even maybe are struggling, don’t forget to do that ’cause that’s really your best strategy in the long run.

Dr. Swartz: Awesome, so you’ve given our listeners a lot of good strategies and a lot of a sense of hope that they can do this, that this is something that they could include children with autism successfully. Is there anything else you might like to share with our listeners about children with the characteristics of autism spectrum disorder?

Dr. Dorsey: Yeah! One thing that I’ve sort of learned through my career is that, you know kids, especially young kids can be very accepting of individuals with differences, and preschoolers are the perfect audience to become an inclusive environment. But it’s on us as teachers to make sure they understand what’s going on. So sometimes a child with autism in your class might do something or act in a certain way that’s confusing to the other kids in your class. And while you don’t need to talk about that child in particular, it’s important that your classroom is a place where you have dialogue about how people have differences, and how people might act differently, and how people might feel stressed out by different things, how they might show their strengths in different ways. And that that is just a conversation that the kids are comfortable having of like, some kids get really upset when the fire alarm goes off and that’s okay. Like that’s hard for some people. Some kids are really good at making patterns with the cars, like that’s a great thing about them.

And so one tool you can use is storybooks that are about kids with disabilities. Actually, authors are getting better and better at writing children’s books that positively portray individuals with disabilities such as autism. And that can be a great tool to use in your classroom, to just read a book that has a character with a disability in it, and then have a conversation with the kids in your class about: “So here’s what we saw in this book. What do you have in common with this character?” And really starting with a place of having the children see how they are just similar to people who maybe act differently, is a great way to bring people together, kind of remove the mystery.

And another thing I do is, anytime you’re using a tool specifically for a person with autism, I just make that available to everybody, ’cause it kind of removes the mystery and makes them one of the crowd. So if I’m gonna write a social story, I’m not gonna write it for one person, I’m gonna write it and make it available to the class. If I’m gonna make a visual schedule, I’ll make five of them. And I’ll just set them out and kind of casually say “Hey if anybody else wants to use one of these, go for it!” It really kind of reduces that level of difference among the kids in the class and just says this is a tool, see if you need it, see if you like it. Some people need it, you know and it really just normalizes that experience. And so kind of building community and trying to make the experience of students more similar than different is kind of a big idea I would want people to take away.

Dr. Swartz: Awesome! Well thank you so much for joining us on the podcast and for giving us such great ideas, and I will look forward to speaking with you again in the future maybe more about children with the characteristics of autism spectrum disorder or another topic.

Dr. Dorsey: Aww thank you for having me!

Dr. Swartz: The Illinois Early Learning Project website at www.illinoisearlylearning.org is a source of evidence-based, reliable information on early care and education for parents, caregivers, and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening and for helping children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Home
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers
  • Faculty / Trainer

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2020