Supporting students with autism in the classroom

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Autism is a common developmental disorder that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them. It affects 1 in 100 people in the UK, though people on the autism spectrum can exhibit a wide variety of characteristics.

Whilst some children and young people on the autism spectrum go to autism-specific SEND schools, 71% of autistic children go to mainstream schools. Mainstream schools will have an SEND statement, Education Health and Care plan (EHC) and Individual Education Plan (IEP) for any diagnosed autistic children attending the school, and all teachers must follow the requirements laid out in the SEND Code of Practice when teaching these pupils.

Despite being such a common disorder in UK schools, 60% of teachers in England do not feel that they have had adequate training to teach children with autism. However, there are extra steps all teachers can take to ensure that pupils under their care who exhibit signs of autism – diagnosed or undiagnosed – receive the best possible education for them. With the vast majority of autistic pupils attending mainstream schools, you will undoubtedly encounter autistic young people in your school and classrooms. So it’s good practice to ensure you’re aware of everything you can do for these students. Along with joining our free CPD sessions which frequently cover autism awareness and relevant skills, here are 6 easy ways to make your classroom autism-friendly.

6 easy autism-friendly strategies you can incorporate into your teaching:

  1. Children on the autism spectrum benefit from predictable, structured environments with high levels of routine. You can work this into your teaching structure with the pupil in question. For example, a pupil on the autism spectrum might like to always sit in a particular spot in the classroom, or benefit from the use of a timetable or timer to better cope with the day’s routine.
  2. Many children with autism are highly visual learners, so this can be worked into your teaching. Giving instruction in a visual manner, using pictures, objects, or animation, can help the autistic pupil process the information in a more helpful, less stressful way. This is an especially helpful tool to use with nonverbal autistic young people.
  3. Establish good communication with parents and carers. They know their child best, and may be able to suggest interventions to use which are successful at home, and will provide a more comfortable environment for the child and reduce challenging behaviour. For example, the autistic child might like dim lighting, or benefit from ear defenders to block out background noise.
  4. Work with autistic children’s existing interests. A common feature of autism is an intense interest or obsession in a particular object – this could be anything; from trains to dinosaurs. Get creative and encorporate the child’s interest in your teaching, and you may find a method of communicating with the pupil that you hadn’t previously thought possible. For example, an autistic child who is interested in computers could excel in IT with the right encouragement, and you could teach internet safety at the same time. An interest in trains is easily translated into theoretical Maths problems. Minecraft even has an Education Edition.
  5. Allow autistic pupils to have a “time out” card. This will act as an exit pass to indicate to teaching staff that they are feeling anxious and need to leave the classroom. Having an agreed quiet and safe space for them to retreat to when they feel overloaded by sensory stimuli or anxiety provides structure to help the child calm down and return to the class.
  6. In a mainstream school, neurotypical pupils will have questions about some of the measures taken to make the autistic pupil feel more comfortable. Open communication throughout the whole school at all levels, and autism awareness and acceptance teaching can answer these questions. Thorough understanding of autism amongst all pupils can also help to tackle the unfortunate bullying that many pupils on the spectrum encounter in their school lives.

It is important to remember that all autistic individuals exhibit different symptoms and have different needs. Make sure the strategies you use in your teaching are worked out and agreed with the pupil to ensure their strengths, interests, needs, and emotional wellbeing are met. Doing so will make it more likely that the autistic pupil will be motivated, engaged and encouraged to work with you and interact with their education in a meaningful way.

Some helpful materials for you to use:

What is Autism? – Find out what it means to be on the autism spectrum and how to spot signs of autism amongst your pupils.

The Autism Education Trust ‘Schools Autism Standards’ – a set of standards from the AET to enable educational settings to evaluate your practice in addressing the needs of pupils on the autism spectrum.

The SEND Code of Practice – Guidance on the special educational needs and disability (SEND) system for children and young people aged 0 to 25, from 1 September 2014.

The National Autistic Society’s resources for teachers.

The Inclusion Development Programme – Part of the government’s strategy to improve outcomes for children with special educational needs.

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