Going to school can be a real challenge for autistic students, with typical classroom environments being largely unsuited to the ways that autistic students might learn most effectively. However, supporting students with autism in the classroom as a teacher can be much easier than you think. Using sensory products and being aware of the specific challenges you or your students might face can help formulate strategies for autism in the classroom for a nurturing and supportive environment. Below we have outlined these key challenges, and provided suggestions on strategies to support autism in the classroom, should they struggle with any of them.
Experiencing extreme anger and having meltdowns is not uncommon for those pupils who have autism, so it’s important to have appropriate strategies to support autism in the classroom. The feeling of anger can sometimes come and go very quickly, and trigger a variety of feelings or actions, including stress or frustration from lack of attention or understanding.
1. Clear Communication
An autistic student may feel frustrated or angry when trying to understand others, particularly when communication is not clear.
Speak clearly, keeping directives as simple and short as possible. Avoid any embellishments, such as ‘if you could do that for me, that would be great’, when asking an autistic student to perform a task, as this may be confusing.
What’s more, allowing a little extra time for them to process the information before any further instructions helps to support their absorption of information and reduces the chance of them feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.
2. Utilise Calming Sensory Products
When it comes to autism classrooms, sensory products such as bubble tubes can be great resources to help calm a pupil down. The gentle vibrations and the engaging bubbles and colours of these tubes help to centre and calm users, making them a great addition to any classroom or as an entire sensory room within a school.
3. Visual Prompts to Help Communicate Emotions
Feelings of anger and frustration can also stem from an autistic student feeling unable to communicate how they are feeling. As autistic people often find it easier to process visual information, providing them with visual cues - such as feelings scales – may help them communicate how they feel when they are struggling to verbalise it. Feelings scales or emotions charts can provide a mix of visual feelings cues through colours, shapes, sizes, emotive faces and scales, that autistic students can talk about or simply point to, as a way of expressing their feelings.
Offering this form of communication is also a great option for students who experience periods of being non-verbal.
Verbal communication, particularly in social situations, can be very hard for any autistic person. As a result, making friends and engaging with peers often proves to be difficult in the classroom. Strategies for autism in the classroom that can aid social communication between all students and develop communication skills can involve the whole class, small groups, or be done individually.
4. Encourage Autism Awareness in The Classroom
The best way to encourage understanding and prevent any bullying or misinterpretation from other students is through educating them on some of the signs of autism and how that can be portrayed so that an autism-friendly classroom environment can develop. You can refer to our blog, which outlines some of the typical characteristics of autism, as a reference.
An autism awareness class activity can be a fun and interactive experience for all the pupils. There is a multitude of free printable and downloadable resources suitable for all age groups that can help lead positive discussions in the classroom or offer interactive games for individuals, small or larger groups.
Circle time with younger students can be a great opportunity to chat about how everyone is different and unique and get the other children to join in with the discussion. You could create a discussion by talking about the different ways to be supportive and kind to those around us.
5. Classroom Buddy Programmes
A buddy programme in the classroom can be a great opportunity for all students involved to practise their social and communication skills, and promote confidence in social interactions.
Each pairing needs careful consideration in order to put the most appropriate students together, keeping in mind their different needs. And careful monitoring of each buddy pairing will be necessary to ensure the well-being of all involved.
Providing an autistic student with a buddy to turn to in the classroom may help when an autistic student feels lonely, isolated or in need of a friendly face.
6. Interactive Sensory Products to Promote Communication
Sensory tools, such as an interactive fanlite, allow pupils to explore the idea of communication through response. Our popular IRIS Qube combines soft play elements with interactive play. When paired with other IRIS and IRIS+ products, the IRIS Qube will activate their many effects, creating a multitude of interactive possibilities. This is a great activity students can enjoy together as a social classroom group, promoting cause and effect skills as well as social interaction skills and turn-taking.
When Portfield Primary School decided to introduce a MILE sensory area within their school, their headteacher said, “pupils will be able to develop their communication, independence and physical skills in a fun and creative environment.” You can read more about their amazing experience in our case studies.
Unstructured time or tasks not falling within a usual routine can be confusing for autistic pupils.
7. Create a Consistent Routine to Establish Predictability
Autistic people might have difficulties with change and need routine to establish predictability in their everyday lives. Changes in the classroom, such as an early or late break time or a different order to the school lesson itinerary, can be unnerving or even upsetting for an autistic student, often causing anxiety. Routines allow them to know what to expect at certain times of the day and offer them a sense of security.
Having a dedicated sensory room or space to go to in these times if pupils feel lost or overwhelmed is a great way to ensure autistic pupils don’t feel confused. If a sensory room isn’t an option, smaller sensory areas that are comfortable and calming like a fibre optic softie in the corner of the classroom are the perfect remedy for this.
8. Prepare for Planned Changes
There are times when changes in routine are unforeseen. However, for planned changes, preparing ahead of time can help ease any worries that changes to routine can create. Crafting a visual calendar to display within the classroom can support an autistic student’s understanding of the changes, help prepare them for change ahead of time, ease communication frustration and help build their confidence. A visual calendar offers reminders for these planned changes and can be adapted to suit individual needs.
9. Embrace Their Interests
Providing space and resources for autistic students to follow their own interests within the classroom allows for individual expression and exploration. Many autistic people form highly-focussed interests in specific areas and may fixate on this for some time. These special interests can provide an element of comfort, particularly during times of change, as it is something they are familiar with and allows them to focus their attention on just one subject at a time.
Additionally, it can also create great learning opportunities by incorporating these interests within the subjects being taught.
Having difficulty with sensory processing is one of the key signs of autism, occurring within multiple senses sometimes. Autistic people are more likely to experience being either hypersensitive or hyposensitive, with the degree of each being specific to each individual as well as their surroundings and emotions at the time of processing.
10. Consider Creating an Autism-friendly Environment
There are many factors to consider when supporting autism in the classroom. As the environment can have both positive and negative effects on autistic students, think about how the classroom may impact the challenges an autistic student faces. This will help identify changes that could be made to provide an environment for all to thrive.
Autism is often impacted by sensory stimuli, so think about the different senses. What sounds can be heard from within the classroom? Are there any overwhelming smells, such as cooking smells from the school kitchen? Are there a range of textures to offer relaxing and enjoyable sensory stimuli? How is the space used - does the layout of the tables provide clear pathways?
Colours can also play a big role in creating positive and negative sensory stimuli for autistic students. Are there a lot of bold colours around the classroom, such as wall displays, that may cause overstimulation? Minimising the bold colours in favour of autism-friendly colours, such as muted tones or pastels, can help to foster a calmer environment. Bold colours could then be kept to smaller objects such as toys, books and other classroom equipment.
11. Create a Sensory Room or Sensory Corner
Having an entirely dedicated sensory space in a school is extremely beneficial and a great way to support autism in the classroom and can be ideal for autistic students with a variety of different abilities. Some schools, such as Greenside School in Stevenage, have championed sensory rooms in schools as a way of trying to help skills develop through an interactive environment changing the way pupils view their time in school.
As sensory rooms or sensory corners are customisable, having one in the classroom or close by within the school is invaluable to anyone with sensory processing disorder or experiencing sensory overload. You can feature any sensory products you like to make the room the most beneficial to users, and in touch with as many or as few senses as you require.
Even when space is at a premium, portable sensory equipment, such as our projectors, can provide fun and visually calming or stimulating experiences that you can tailor to differing needs. Alternatively, our sensory corner starter pack combines a mix of stimuli that can be adjusted and provides multiple positive sensory stimuli to be interacted with.
While there is no concrete research to suggest differences in autistic males and females, there have been many studies carried out that show an underrepresentation of autistic females in comparison to autistic males. Some theories suggest females simply present autistic traits differently to males, or that they are better at masking their autism, while, others theorise that it is in fact the ‘extreme male brain’ which looks at the impact of foetal testosterone on the developing brain.
Research is continually changing, and while these theories may shed some light on the possible differences between female and male autism, it is instrumental to provide inclusive support for students with autism in the classroom. Here are a few ideas and strategies for female autism in the classroom.
12. Share Books Written by or About Autistic Girls
As autistic girls are often underrepresented, it becomes even more important to provide them with resources that offer them individuals or characters they can identify with. Books written by autistic women or with autistic characters within the story are not only an enjoyable activity to involve the class in, but can also help to validate how autistic girls may feel and the challenges they face, letting them know that they are not alone.
As each autistic student is different, with varying strengths and challenges, knowing how to support autism in the classroom as a teacher can feel overwhelming. Taking a step back to assess what changes or alterations can be made to reduce the challenges an autistic student may face, as well as having a number of strategies for autism in your classroom for when the classroom environment gets too much for them, will arm you with invaluable tools to provide a nurturing, inclusive space and help them thrive.
For information on how to help those with autism in mainstream schools, and also how sensory rooms have helped those in special schools, like Hounslow Special School, please check out our blog. Alternatively, contact us at Experia for more information on our free room design service.