Serving Youth With Autism: 26 Sample Adaptations Plus NEW Toolkit!

April is National Autism Awareness Month! Get some information about what may trigger challenging behaviors and 26 sample adaptations for your Club from our partner Kids Included Together and Autism Speaks. Read on for more information on BGCA’s all-new Serving Youth With Autism Toolkit

One in 68 children have Autism Spectrum Disorder, so chances are there is at least one youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) attending your Club. Autism Spectrum Disorder is one single diagnosis that affects social communication, social interaction, and behavior including understanding social-emotional situations, using nonverbal cues for social interaction, developing relationships, flexibility, and sensory processing. These skills are on a spectrum. Some youth with ASD may be non-verbal, but be able to read social cues. Other youth may be able to recite rules, but are unable to have a back and forth conversation with a peer. Positive youth development involves seeking to understand and know each youth personally. All youth have individual strengths and needs, and youth with ASD are no different. In fact, many of the unique strengths that are sometimes associated with ASD can be highly valuable in certain careers, as this recent NPR article explains.

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Youth with autism may exhibit behaviors that can be challenging to navigate. An important concept in understanding challenging behaviors exhibited by youth with autism is to know that these behaviors are a result of the child not being able to adapt to something in their environment. The stimuli in their environment are often called triggers.

By taking the time to learn and observe each youth’s unique triggers, you can learn how to prevent them and in turn greatly reduce the number of meltdowns the youth may experience at the Club. Youth with autism may exhibit challenging behaviors that can be triggered by a variety of things that may include but are not limited to having their regular routine interrupted, experiencing a new situation, and sensory overload. The video below gives an example of what sensory overload can feel like. For four others, check out this link.

The first step in understanding the youth’s triggers is to have a conversation with the family/caretakers about their child’s known triggers. Each youth with autism is unique and will experience triggers differently. Secondly, you can observe patterns in behavior. If you notice a specific stimulus causes a behavioral interaction from the child (for example loud speaker announcements interrupting sessions) you can begin to make steps to find an alternative for announcements or prepare the youth for their occurrence. The most common triggers are routine interruptions and sensory overload. Check out the Case by Case checklist on to gather about sensitivities and strengths for a youth that needs support. Below you will find a table adapted from Life Journey Through Autism: An Educator’s Guide on how to make adaptations for specific sensitivities.

Sensitivity Club Adaptation
Need for sameness and difficulty with transitions
  • Define areas within the Club spaces like individual work areas, open areas for discussions, and free time areas using signage.
  • Keep each room consistently organized
  • Keep a visible daily schedule in place
  • Develop a visual schedule to help the child understand their structured activities in the club in advance
Easily distracted by sights and sounds
  • Keep child in a low traffic area of the Club space (e.g. not near doors or pathways)
  • Use rugs
  • Face the child away from windows or doors.
  • Designate a “home base” or safe space area to escape stimulation for a while
  • Help them learn how to handle distractions over time
Sensitivity to touch
  • Avoid touching the child initially
  • Teach tolerance to touch
Sensitivity to smells
  • Avoid using perfumes or heavily scented lotions
  • In the art room, seat child close to an open door or window to avoid strong smells.
  • Use unscented cleaning supplies
Sensitivity to sounds
  • Move child away from sounds
  • Use soft voice when possible
  • Have them use earplugs or comfortable headphones when appropriate
  • Use rugs
  • Put material under table and chair legs to prevent screeching
  • Prepare child for sounds (before fire drills, etc.)
  • Gradually teach tolerance to sounds.
Sensitivity to light, particularly fluorescent lights
  • Lower levels of light
  • Turn off overhead lights
  • Try different colors of light
  • Have child use sunglasses or baseball cap
  • Use bulbs that do not flicker

Once you learn the youth’s unique sensitivities and strengths, you can organize and adapt your Club environment to best suit their needs and highlight their gifts. Being intentional about learning the needs of each youth, providing a consistent environment, and creating opportunities for youth to share their unique strengths is an important part of ensuring a high-quality Club Experience for ALL.

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Boys & Girls Club staff can find an all-new toolkit called Serving Youth with Autism on now! You can also find all of our resources on inclusion at


Morgan Mabry is Director of Youth Development, Health and Wellness at BGCA, and is a frequent contributor to the ClubX Blog. And her puppy is still the cutest!

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