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FOSTERING A FUN ATMOSPHERE WITH CARRIE HATANAKA – 7 of 8 Critical Growth Components in Autism Education

By Anthony KaDarrell Thigpen  


Fostering a fun atmosphere seems to come natural at Autism Academy for Education and Development. While the previously mentioned growth components seem to require a savvy sense of educational expertise, making learning fun is equally as important. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with repetitive behaviors, speech, nonverbal communication and social skills. These social skills often pose meltdowns that can potentially cause distractions that interfere with fostering fun experiences. As one of the nation’s leading experts in Autism education, AAED publishes proven strategies that promote best practice in Autism education nationwide. As a result, our ongoing weekly blog series contains 8 critical growth components. This seventh week features Fostering a Fun Atmosphere with Carrie Hatanaka. 

Critical Growth Components in Autism Education Blog Series:   

  1. Independent Living with Jennifer Sevier 
  2. Autism Academic Awareness with Kimberly Baltzley 
  3. Living Your Best Life with Katie Nieder 
  4. Positive Behavior Support with Darnell Cherry
  5. Curriculum, Coaching and Culture with Shawn Davis 
  6. Character Building and Development with Derrick Jamerson
  7. Fostering A Fun Atmosphere with Carrie Hatanaka 
  8. Speech, Occupational and Animal Therapies with Kalona Newcomb  

Carrie Hatanaka is the new director for the West Valley AAED campus.  

“I will foster an environment where students feel loved, are challenged, and will reach their highest potential,” Hatanaka said. “I have a strong passion for building a positive environment where all individuals can achieve greatness.” 

One of the single most important aspects to fostering a fun environment for students with Autism is coping with their meltdowns. This skill set creates an atmosphere that builds better bonds between students, parents and staff. If you see a meltdown coming, intervene – sooner is always better. Isolating a student from their peers can sometimes creates additional unwanted responses. When managing meltdowns professionals should seek the best solution based on the situation.  


  1. Keep Students Balanced 

General good life maintenance makes meltdowns less likely to take place. An adequate amount of sleep, regularly eating healthy meals and proper amounts of playtime reduces stress. Stress is often the leading cause of meltdowns amongst students with Autism.   

  1. Pick Your Battles Wisely 

If an unwanted behavior is not that important, ignore it. If students feel like they are unable to do anything the correct way, they are more likely to give up and blow up.  

  1. Stick to a Schedule 

Children with Autism need structure. Behavior is far less erratic when students know what is expected of them. Stick to classroom routines and schedules as much as possible. Spontaneity amongst students with Autism is almost a sure way to trigger a meltdown. Schedules empower students with a sense of certainty.  

  1. Set Repeated Expectations 

Warn students with Autism about routine shifts in classroom activities. For example, prepare them minutes before changing small group sessions, or give an advance notice prior to turning off classroom projectors, smart boards and televisions. These minor reminders, along with a clock, offers tremendous help in avoiding meltdowns.  

  1. Remain Calm 

When a meltdown is in progress, stay calm. Don’t allow students to get you worked up. Talk slowly and quietly. Shouting is sure to escalate the situation. When students witness normal behavior during meltdowns, it may help them to calm down quicker.  

  1. Be Understanding 

Do not hesitate to ask a student about their emotions. Asking a student, a question as simple as, “What’s wrong?” has the potential to redirect inner feelings of isolation. Acknowledge and seek to offer a sense of understanding as opposed to critique. Students with Autism find it reassuring when teachers understand their concerns.  

  1. Encourage Deep Breaths 

Deep breathing is relaxing. It relieves stress and has to ability to prevent and stop unwanted meltdowns. Breathing exercises is also beneficial for teachers. These tips will empower teachers with better classroom management and foster a fun atmosphere for learning.  

“In addition, I plan to have a lot of fun with staff and students,” Hatanaka said. “Children need a champion in their corner – someone to believe in them, build them up, show up, and ultimately never give up.” 

That is what educating students with Autism looks like on every campus at Autism Academy for Education and Development. AAED aims to spread this philosophy across the country to enrich Autism-only education nationwide. Learning starts with fostering a culture of fun, which begins with classroom management in Autism education.

ABOUT Carrie Hatanaka 

Hatanaka earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology from California State University Long Beach. She completed her post-baccalaureate program in Humanities from California State University, Dominguez Hills. Hatanaka started pursuing a career in special education as early as participating in a peer mentor program in high school. She volunteers with Special Olympics and has worked with special needs students over the past 14 years.  Her experience ranges from being a paraprofessional, self-contained classroom teacher, resource teacher, special education program coordinator, curriculum coach, AAED teacher, dean and director of West Valley campus.