Developmental delays and Autism in a childcare classroom blog header

Developmental delays and Autism in a childcare classroom

Children with autism and developmental disabilities benefit from increased visual aids and structure. It is so important to have a schedule in their classroom and home environment to minimize distractions.

What are autism and developmental delays/disabilities?

Both are catch-all terms. Autism spectrum disorder involves social communication impairments alongside repetitive behaviors, restricted interests, and insistence on sameness and dislike of change. Developmental delays/disabilities involve motor, language, or behavioral skills that are not at the expected level given a child’s chronological age. 

A common saying I use as a psychologist is if you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism. Meaning every child with autism and development disabilities are different.

Cara Goodwin

Early signs for autism & developmental delays/disabilities 

Signs of Autism: 

  • lack of eye contact
  • limited response to their name
  • delayed language
  • difficulty understanding the feelings of others
  • loss of skills (regression)
  • difficulty with change
  • preference for solitude/lack of interest in other children
  • repetitive behaviors
  • sensory differences (more interest or adverse reactions to stimuli) 

One of these symptoms is not a cause for concern, be aware of patterns and experiencing many symptoms at once on an ongoing basis. For signs of developmental delays and disabilities, refer to the CDC Developmental Milestones or consult with your pediatrician.

Always remember, early Intervention is KEY! This is how we have the biggest impact on the child’s later development. Intervention is important at any stage but the earlier the better. Therefore, do NOT follow the wait and see approach to see if the child catches up. This can miss an opportunity for early intervention. There is no harm in evaluation, follow your intuition!  

Setting a child up for success in a classroom and at home 

Firstly, use visual aids and structure. We live in an auditory world where so much information is exchanged auditorily and that is not how children with autism learn. 

Structure the classroom or home environment according to a specific activity, minimizing distractions. For example, if you always read books in a certain place, your child will eventually know what to do in that space. Also, use what are called first-then boards. They have a picture with first on one side and then on the other side. You fill the board with pictures of behaviors marked with first or then (e.g. first you put your toys away and then get to play on the computer).

Another great tool is visual schedules. These break down different activities into a schedule that is posted in a place your child will see. This is useful even if your child does not read yet. If your child is old enough it can be set up as a checklist they can check through themselves!  

As they are going through their day, use social stories. Explain to a child a new situation or behavior they will encounter before they go through it (e.g. going to the dentist for the first time). You can also use peer models, especially in the classroom if you have another child who is a great model they can sit beside each other and learn from each other! 

Secondly, follow predictable schedules and routines. Plan and prepare the child for transitions (e.g. using a timer, visual markers, physical counter tokens, or verbal warnings if you cannot use visuals). Explain the classroom or house rules and expectations in advance. Be sure to not use vague indicators such as be kind. Be as explicit as possible. For example, use gentle hands. Gradually expose the child to change through their visual schedule once they are ready (this allows teaching that schedules can be flexible). 

Engaging the child 

Engaging a child with autism can be challenging because they often do not have the social motivations that other children have. Therefore, we have to use specific strategies to get their attention. 

The best way to get a child with autism’s attention is to get into the spotlight of their attention.

Imagine that where they are looking, they have a spotlight attached to their head. You want to be wherever that spotlight is shining on. Once you are in the spotlight, imitate the child’s actions, follow their lead and engage with the toys they are engaging in. Remember to use “active listening”. If the child is verbal, repeat and expand on what they say. If they are only making noises, repeat and expand on that. If they are nonverbal, you can imitate their actions as a way of active listening. 

It can be tricky to find the motivation of a particular child. You can start by finding their smile! This can be hard as children with autism have decreased social smiling. Try to use any learning materials that you see appear to make them happy and motivated. We all learn better when we experience positive emotions. 

You can also complete a preference assessment. This involves presenting different toys and seeing which one seems to motivate them the most. Don’t be afraid to incorporate strong interests. Often parents and teachers can be worried about bringing in something children are obsessed with, but these materials can absolutely be brought into the learning experience and enhance social learning. 

Challenging behavior 

Every instance of challenging behavior in children is different. Children are not being difficult just to be difficult. 

Keep a chart to understand what is happening before, during, and after the challenging behavior. Assess this for a few weeks if possible and then you can analyze it.

Cara Goodwin

You want to determine, what is the function of the behavior? Choose from the following: 

  • Attention seeking 
  • Tangible – to obtain an object or activity 
  • Escape – to get out of an activity 
  • Sensory – seeking or avoiding specific sounds or textures

Once we figure this out we want to find a way for them to gather what they need in a different way (for example, learning to say help me instead of throwing a tantrum). 

Teaching new skills 

This is more challenging with children with autism and developmental disabilities. Always break learning down into small steps and use what is called chaining. Chaining is the practice of teaching one step at a time so that children do not get frustrated. Do not show all steps at the same time as it will overwhelm the child and could cause frustration. Use prompts and lead them to start the learning process. Then, gradually fade the prompts and they can start to gain independence 

Encouraging language and communication 

These children are often delayed in language and communication, which is so important for preventing challenging behaviors. Try to use the following tips to encourage the learning of language and communication: 

  • WAIT – we often step in because we know what they want. Instead, take the time to wait or pretend that you do not know what they want until they make a communicative sign. 
  • Narrate and label everything. The more language input the children receive, the more they will be able to produce. Speak as much as possible around them, showing different objects and activities. 
  • Imitate the child whenever they are at so that they can see you as a role model for growth.
  • Use songs and highly motivating tasks. For example, say the tickle monster is going to get you (assuming they know what this means), then pause and wait for them to do an action, then tickle them. 

Encouraging social development 

Play is a great way to encourage social skills in a natural environment. Ensure you are practicing the following: 

  • Eye contact. Try bringing toys or objects they are interested in near your eyes so that they eventually look up and engage in eye contact. 
  • Turn-taking. Start in play, then move to conversation. Start gradually and always reward children. Start with less engaging objects so that it is easier for them to be successful. 
  • Imitation. The first step is imitating the child in hopes that they imitate you.  
  • Play skills. Children can get stuck playing with toys in the same way. Show them a variation of their play skills that they can imitate! 

It can be very challenging working with children with autism and developmental delays. However, it can also be extremely rewarding. If you practice meeting the child where they are at, with confidence and compassion, using the skills discussed today you can facilitate growth and learning opportunities in a safe environment. 

If you are lucky enough to find yourself a part of a family’s autism journey, please be patient, open, understanding, and bring your sense of humor!  As you get to know these children you will find individuals full of love, intelligence, honesty, and pure happiness.  You will be reminded that all that matters is our love and acceptance of one another.


To learn more about early childhood education and the many influences that make the field what it is today, check out our post on the history of early childhood education

Cara Goodwin

Dr. Cara Goodwin, Ph.D., is the founder of Parenting Translator, a mother to three young children, and a licensed psychologist with a Ph.D. in child clinical psychology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *