If you are working within the education or child-care sector, chances are you have cared for or taught a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Children with autism have difficulties in three areas; social communication, social interaction and social imagination (for example during imaginative play). Some children with ASD also have difficulties processing sensory input.
As part of a 2021 survey by the National Autistic Society, 4000 parents and carers were interviewed and;
74% said their child's current school did NOT fully meet their needs
44% of parents/carers said they were satisfied with the SEN support their child was receiving
70% of autistic children and young people said school would be better if their teachers understood Autism more.
So how can you, as a teacher or teaching assistant, ensure that your classroom practice is well set up to support students on the spectrum? Here are 10 tips you might find useful for creating an autism friendly classroom.
1. Establish Routine
Autistic children can feel a lot of anxiety if they do not know what is going to happen or what is expected of them throughout the day. Establishing a clear and strict routine will help ease this anxiety. For example, if lessons always begins with lining up outside, hanging your coat on a peg then moving quietly to your desk to sit down, this will help to reduce feelings of fear and allow any students with autism to start each lesson in the least stressful way possible. Using visual timetables is also extremely helpful so that students can see the full day ahead and refer back to it when needed, removing any lessons or activities that have already taken place. It is also helpful to have a 'Now and Next' visual on the students desk so that it reduces the anxiety around the next upcoming activity.
2. Keep Instructions Short and Simple
You may have noticed that children with autism have difficulty following instructions in class. This could be due to a verbal processing difficulty or that the child is simply taking in too much information for them to effectively understand what is being asked of them. Instead of using long, complex sentences or instructions, try to limit your language to the essential words. For example, instead of "Please can you come over here and sit on the carpet?", try simply saying "Sitting on the carpet". When it comes to offering choices, try to ask closed questions as well, such as "Orange squash or water?" rather than an open ended question like "What drink would you like?" They could ask for something you don't have and then they could become distressed!
3. Do not rely on body language or subtle messaging
As a former TA, I have often used facial expressions to indicate something subtle to a student. I may have raised an eyebrow if they were being too loud or altered my tone of voice when needing to give discipline. These non-verbal cues may well be lost on students with autism due to a deficit in social communication and understanding. When needing to give feedback or redirect a behaviour, you must speak clearly to the student 1:1, using their name to direct their attention. Remember point 2 - use simple language to communicate your main need.
4. Visual aids everywhere!
Autistic students learn incredibly well with visual aids. Not only can it focus their attention on one form of sensory input, but it can also help with communication. Wherever possible, use visual aids, highly visual worksheets or include physical demonstrations. Where you can, try to use impressionistic or realistic images, abstract ones can be difficult to process.
5. Create a quiet space, especially for learning
Often, children with autism can get overwhelmed, especially when there is lots of sensory input. Imagine what a typical classroom is like - lots of noise, smells, sights, demands etc. For a child with sensory needs, this can become a bit too much at times and they can go into a 'meltdown'. This could display in challenging behaviour, crying, screaming, anything so it is important for the child to know there is a safe, quiet space they can escape to when it all becomes too much. This could be a corner of the classroom, a separate room in the school or even just the hallway. It's also important to ensure that the student's learning area is distraction-free and quiet. This will allow them to stay focused and on-task.
6. Transition gently
Although you may have established a clear routine, transitioning from one activity to another may still be quite anxiety inducing for a child with autism. Children will typically need a heads up before a transition is about to take place so that they can prepare themselves, especially if they are engrossed in the current activity. An easy way to help with transitions, along with Now and Next boards, is the use of timers. You can give the verbal heads up such as "Ten minutes, then snack time" and then place a sand timer or stopwatch in front of the child and explain that when the time runs out, it will be the next activity.
7. Outline clear rules, rewards and sanctions - but be flexible!
Having a clear set of rules for your class is usually a given anyway, and most teachers will have a clear, visual list of rules somewhere in the classroom. However, the sanctions that you may give to the rest of the class may not be suitable for a child with autism. For example, a 'time out' may actually be quite rewarding as it results in a sensory break, and could thus reinforce a behaviour you do not want. Similarly, it would be unsuitable to use something which is known to make a child stressed as a sanction. For example, if you know that lots of noise can trigger anxiety, taking them out of class and into a noisy environment may be a poor choice.
For rewards, try to allow the child to pick their own desired reward at the start of each day. For example, you could have choices of 3 rewards (iPad time, 10 minutes in the playground or 2 YouTube videos) and the child picks which one they can have providing that the do X, Y and Z throughout the day.
These should be in line with their individual targets.
You need to be flexible on your rewards and sanctions. If you are able to make rules exceptionally clear, by using pictures, this can also be helpful for a child to understand what they should be doing/how they should be behaving.
8. Allow physical movement
Kids have a lot of energy! It is important for them to take regular movement breaks, which will aid their concentration and focus skills. When you start to see fidgeting, this can be an early sign that some excess energy is building up and the children need a break. Something that worked well in my classes was at the end of each lesson, we would do a quick 2 minute 'workout' and stretch. All the kids would stand, shake it off, do some child-friendly yoga poses and go for a little walk around the classroom. It really helped with transitions and to settle into the next activity. Some teachers also allow for some fidgeting with sensory toys or small physical movements during lessons as long as it is not too disruptive for others.
9. Create sensory boxes
I love sensory boxes and they can be an absolute life saver. At the start of the school year, I would create a small crate of sensory toys (calm tubes, squishy toys, poppits etc) that children can access at any time during a lesson if they were feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Whilst some may think this creates an encouragement to take advantage of 'playing' instead of working, children actually really respected this sensory box and used it when they really needed it. If you are making a box for a specific child, you can include their favourite items or ones that tie into their special interests.
10. Remember, no 2 children are the same
Autism is such a broad condition and no two children are affected in the same way. Even two children who may present very similarly will need different levels of support and different methods of support in order for them to access materials. This is why it is SO important to take time to understand the individual needs, triggers and motivators for any child with autism in your class. This is likely to involve discussions with teachers, parents, carers and the school SENCo, as well as any additional support staff who work with that student.