Many children with autism tend to be visual learners and traditional methods of instruction can often be quite challenging. For example, while the average child learns language through social interactions by mimicking the words they hear in everyday conversations, children with autism spectrum disorder may not absorb speech and language skills as readily. Often, children with autism do not imitate others in the same way that average children do, making it necessary to take a more direct approach. Signed speech, which uses sign language in conjunction with spoken language to visually reinforce new words and concepts, is a hands-on approach to teaching speech and language skills.
Hands on projects use that same principle of multisensory learning, combining visual, tactile, and verbal stimuli to teach new skills and concepts, appealing to the learning characteristics of many autistic children. Hands on projects can be integrated into nearly any learning experience. For example, you can tell a story while working together to illustrate it with simple drawings that can aid in comprehension, while keeping children engaged in social interaction. Paper cutouts, used to act out a story as it is read can be great literacy and comprehension reinforcement, and having the child participant in creating them offers another hands-on activity.
• Drawing and coloring flashcards can help in the development of fine motor skills while teaching letter and number recognition, or decorating them with fabrics and objects of varying textures can add tactile elements to the lesson.
• Mixing instant puddings or homemade play dough can help children learn to follow simple instructions with the help of tactile stimulation to maintain attention.
• Older children can benefit from cooking or baking projects, learning math skills through measuring ingredients and gaining competency in following directions. Also, getting to eat the finished product is a tangible reward for a job well done.
• Art projects that correspond with lesson plans for the day can be very helpful in reinforcing academic subjects, such as making clay models of animals or objects learned about earlier in the day.
• Model building, painting, or drawing projects can bring history or social studies lessons firmly into focus for autistic children, and lessons on plant biology can be brought home with a plant growing project.
Short attention spans are common in children with autism, another issue that is often eased with the use of hands on projects for autistic students. Active learning can be a great help in keeping children focused, alert, and engaged, making it easier to stay on task. If attention span becomes an issue when hands on projects are underway, divide each project into small steps with breaks given after each one. Lengthening those intervals between breaks gradually can help the child slowly build a more appropriate attention span.
Hands on projects are a great way to teach children on the spectrum. In fact, all child can benefit from the combination of activity and education that these modalities offer. In an integrated learning environment, hands on projects can help children with autism interact and cooperate with other children, promoting understanding and fostering those vital social and communication skills. And of course hands on projects are much more fun for all involved.