How to Support a Child with Autism in the Classroom

September 23, 2019
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Autism can present many challenges to a child’s daily life. In particular, it can impact how they engage with their learning at school. Your position as a teacher gives you the perfect opportunity to help them overcome these barriers and get the most out of their education.

This article will discuss some practical, effective ways you can do so.

The tips we provide are useful starting points if you’re new to supporting autistic children, or helpful additions to your existing knowledge if you’ve worked with them before. They will enable you to become more confident at supporting children with autism in the classroom and helping them reach their full potential.

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How Does Autism Affect Learning in School?

Around 70% of children with autism spectrum disorders in the UK attend mainstream primary schools. The problem is that many mainstream schools are unequipped to provide the support that autistic children need. In fact, according to the National Autism Society and Ambitious About Autism, 60% of teachers in England do not feel that they’ve received adequate training to teach children with autism.

A child and teacher solving a problem together

A poor classroom environment for autism can hugely disadvantage children with the condition. Most notably, it can cause them difficulty with engaging in learning activities and coping with daily life. What’s more is that these issues can have a lasting impact on them.

This is why, as a teacher, it’s crucial for you to be aware of the educational implications of autism and how to adopt effective autism teaching methods. By integrating suitable autism learning styles and alleviating any discomfort in the classroom, you will enable autistic children to take part in learning more comfortably and become better prepared for their future.

Autism in the Classroom: Tips and Strategies

Having a child with autism in the classroom can be a challenge, but also incredibly fulfilling if you know how to provide the right support. Whether it’s helping them to maintain their routine, handle sensory overload, or engage in learning in a way that resonates with them, all of your interventions will benefit them significantly.

Here are our 7 top tips for supporting autistic children in the classroom:

1. Establish a routine with them.

The world is often a confusing and anxiety-inducing place for autistic children. This is why they find great comfort in a predictable and stable routine. Fortunately, the structured nature of school is perfect for this, but you need to find a way to make their daily routine clear to them.

Creating a visual timetable is an effective and widely-used method for doing so. This involves placing images and simple words on a timetable, in chronological order, to describe the activities and transitions in the child’s day. Having this visual aid gives the child a sense of security, while also acting as a reminder for those who support them.

2. Consider the learning environment.

Many children with autism experience what’s known as sensory sensitivity. This may cause them to have intense positive or negative reactions to sensory stimulation. So, a useful and simple step you can take is making the classroom environment less overwhelming for them.

As every autistic child is different, you will have to learn what their individual sensitivities are. Observe how they react to hearing certain sounds or touching certain fabrics, and see if their parents or carers can offer input. Then, do what you can to remove or reduce any stimuli in the environment that causes them anxiety.

A happy child in class listening to the teacher

For example, if they become highly distressed by the sound of the school bell, you could allow them to put on noise-cancelling headphones five minutes before it goes off. Make sure you schedule this transition into their routine.

3. Manage changes and transitions.

Because an autistic child’s routine is crucial to their comfort, changes and transitions can be incredibly overwhelming for them. Changes are often unavoidable and even necessary in school, but the good news is that you can alleviate the anxiety they induce by preparing the autistic child beforehand.

For example, if you are planning to change classrooms in a week, take the child to view it a few days in advance. Show and give them pictures of it for them to look at until the day of the change. Attaching some predictability to an unexpected task in this way can help it feel less daunting for the child and gives them time to mentally adjust.

4. Communicate clearly.

Although it varies from person to person, autism can impact a child’s ability to communicate and interpret meaning. This is why you need to carefully consider all the words you use and how you structure your sentences. Avoid complicating them with metaphors and rhetorical questions. Keep them simple and direct.

For instance, if you need to ask an autistic child to tidy up, you may be tempted to say: “Liam, can you start packing up your pencils and tidy them away into drawers please?” A much clearer instruction for them is: “Liam, put pencils away.” You could also point to the place they need to store the pencils if they respond to simple gestures.

5. Integrate their interests.

One of the many things that make autistic children unique is how they can form highly-focused interests. Whether it’s roller coasters, electronics, unicorns, or a certain period in history, these interests can all be used as gateways to learning. All it takes is some creativity and commitment in your lesson and homework planning.

A student writing on the board in class

For example, if you know that their interest is unicorns, integrate words and pictures related to them in maths problems and spelling exercises. Doing so can make a huge difference to how engaged the autistic child is in these learning activities.

6. Work with their parents/carers.

Parents and carers are the true experts on their autistic children. To fully support the child in and out of school, you should therefore coordinate and share knowledge with them. Both of you can suggest interventions that have worked at home or in school for the child and can integrate these into their routine.

Not only will building a relationship benefit the autistic child, but it will also help the parents and carers feel at ease about their child’s education. Your commitment to working with them will build their confidence in the school’s ability to support their child.

7. Build your resilience.

Even when you think you’re doing everything right, teaching an autistic child can still be testing. The child and their parents are counting on you to do your best though, so it’s important to learn how to bounce back from those difficult days.

Often this comes with experience and a positive mentality, so it’s up to you to invest the time in strengthening your mind. Here are some simple things to repeat to yourself daily, particularly when things get tough.

Building a relationship with autistic children is not something that happens overnight. It takes time, dedication, and patience. Every mistake you make is valuable feedback for figuring out what works. You won’t always get things right off the bat and, ultimately, autistic children are still children, who can be a handful even at the best of times. Most of all, autistic children are not difficult on purpose. They are doing the best they can with their worldview and the support they have available.

A teacher providing support to a child with autism in the classroom

So, on those days where you have an autistic child disrupting class and you feel like pulling your hair out, just remember that they are likely acting out for a reason. It’s usually because of a need that isn’t being met. Once you learn what their needs are, you may find things become so much easier. That sense of accomplishment you gain from supporting them will one day outweigh any hair-pulling stress you felt in the past.

Supporting a child with autism in the classroom is no small undertaking, but it is a valuable and incredibly fulfilling one. Helping autistic children to fully engage with their learning not only makes their educational experience more positive and beneficial, but it also paves the way for a future where they can reach their full potential.

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