Teaching Self-Regulation to Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Many students on the autism spectrum struggle with different aspects of self-regulation. This lesson discusses why self-regulation is important and offers some strategies for teaching it to this group of students.

The Importance of Self-Regulation

This year, Ms. Black's inclusive fourth grade classroom has three students who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Ms. Black is so excited about getting to know these children as whole people, including them fully in the classroom, and helping them learn and grow.

As Ms. Black learns more about these students and their diagnoses, she comes to understand that self-regulation is a major issue. Self-regulation refers to a student's ability to know themselves, manage their own feelings, behaviors, and learning, and stay in control of what they are doing.

Ms. Black understands that self-regulation can be particularly challenging for students on the autism spectrum. These students may have less access to language than typically-developing peers, stronger reactions to sensory stimuli, and less intuitive grasp of subtle social and behavioral cues.

They may also be less flexible and more anxious about transitions, challenges, and changes. Ms. Black understands that teaching self-regulation will be an important part of her work with these children.

Cognitive Self-Regulation

First, Ms. Black learns more about cognitive self-regulation, or the management of the self needed in order to learn and to approach academic tasks. Ms. Black sees that her students with autism often have little executive function, or organization and ability to manage the big picture. They also struggle with understanding what questions to ask.

To help these students develop self-regulation on a cognitive level, Ms. Black uses the following strategies:

  • She provides them with visual checklists that show them what they will need for each lesson or activity.
  • She previews new material with them and talks through what they might ask or say in a whole group lesson or discussion.
  • She gives them cards with common question words like 'when,' 'where,' and 'why,' showing them how they can use these words to prompt questions about academic topics or tasks.
  • She teaches them to make time lines organizing how they will approach a particular task.
  • She provides ample, concrete positive reinforcement for growth she sees in the domain of cognitive self-regulation.

Behavioral Self-Regulation

Ms. Black can also see that her students with autism struggle with behavioral self-regulation, or managing how they act in class. This can make classroom management very challenging, so Ms. Black knows she will need to take it on.

She realizes that behavioral self-regulation can be broken down according to different categories:

  • Can students regulate how they behave with their hands?
  • Can students regulate how they behave with their voices?
  • Can students regulate how their bodies are behaving?

Ms. Black begins, therefore, by assessing exactly which aspects of behavioral self-regulation her students need to work on and is explicit with her students about what she expects.

She creates visual cues, like an icon of a hand, that she can display to remind students to keep their hands still and to themselves. Sometimes, Ms. Black develops behavior charts and contracts to focus on particular behaviors with her students. She finds that when it comes to behavioral self-regulation, it is important to have consistency in approach with everyone on a student's team.

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