Updated: Apr 13, 2021
Autism is a broad term used to describe a variety of conditions that come under the title of Autism Spectrum Disorder. ASD can vary in severity and the effects that it has on different people. For this reason, when teaching autistic children, you cannot assume that what works for one child will work for another. Autism can have a substantial impact on education and the way in which children process information and understand tasks. The vast majority of autistic students do not go to specialised schools but are educated in mainstream, it is therefore essential that teaching staff feel sufficiently knowledgeable in how best to support them. There are many ways that teaching can be adapted to support autistic students. As I have already said it is not a ‘one size fits all’ situation, what works for one chid may not be right for another but here are some suggestions and techniques that can be very helpful in improving academic understanding as well as behaviour. Before anything else though collaboration is most important; working alongside your teaching assistant or support staff, SENCO, any other specialists and of course the child’s parents.
Ensure a good learning environment
Students with autism can be very oversensitive to certain things in particular bright lights and loud noises which can mean that the right learning environment is important to ensure that they do not become overwhelmed or distracted.
Many learning environments can become jam packed with furniture, equipment and colourful displays of children’s work all over the walls. For some autistic children this may be over stimulating and distracting. It may be a good idea to begin the year with a very basic room with sparse displays and then gradually add as you get to know the child and their requirements.
Within your learning environment it can be useful to have a quiet safe place for your autistic student to go to if they are feeling overwhelmed by anxiety or over stimulation. I think it is important that this safe zone not be the same place that other children are sent to for ‘time out’.
For autistic children who may find the commotion of everyday school life overwhelming routines are vital as they provide stability and order. If children are able to understand a routine beginning to end then they will learn it quickly and want to repeat it, as people with autism are usually naturally motivated by routine due to restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour. Routine can therefore be a great way to help relieve anxiety and uncertainty. You can use visual supports to help them better understand their routine and the school day, for example visual timetables and sand timers.
However, it can be the case that they may become obsessively attached to their routines and resistant to any change, be that a change in schedule, seating plan or changes to the curriculum. It is therefore also important to prepare children for any changes to the regular routine in advance, talk them through the changes and help them understand. This should help to ease the distress it may cause.
Many autistic students are visual learners so they will be able to better understand things if they are able to see it. Practically this means the use of pictures, flashcards, videos and physical objects.
Other useful ideas include:
When the student arrives at school, be sure to have visual references and prompts so that they can organise themselves.
Give students instructions using gestures (e.g. Makaton) and facial expressions.
When writing use colour coding (e.g. colourful semantics) to organise their ideas.
Avoid long sequences/detailed instructions:
It can be difficult for autistic students to remember long sequences and they may just become confused and frustrated. Beyond two-three instructions they will likely forget what they are required to do. Also instructions should be short and easy to understand. A good tool to support with this is an instruction voice recorder; you record the instructions and then children press the numbers to find out the next instruction. If this is not possible then give instructions one by one, let them complete one instruction before you give them the next. You could also try writing instructions down and using visual cues.
Social stories can be used to develop a greater social understand and share accurate social information in a patient and reassuring manner that is easily understood by its audience. Social stories are not there to change a child’s behaviour but rather to provide the child with an improved understanding of events and expectations which, hopefully, will then lead to more effective responses. Check out the range of social stories available here.
Autism can often include children gaining obsessive interests in one specific thing which they will then talk about at length and base their time and activities around. So it only makes good sense that they are more likely to have a better understanding, better focus, put in more effort and pay closer attention to learning if their interests are incorporated into lessons.
Avoid unclear language
Students with autism can often find sarcasm, metaphors and figures of speech very confusing. It is therefore important that when you speak you say exactly what you mean.