Alison Eason says autistic pupils shouldn’t need to hide their unique selves.
It’s just before lunchtime and the children are looking forward to friends, food and burning off energy. But one of the pupils is struggling with the cooking smells wafting in through the windows and panic is rising at the thought of being out in a crowded playground. To calm themselves down, the pupil starts tapping their fingers, hoping their classmates won’t notice. By the end of the day, the child is exhausted by keeping up the façade that they are just like everyone else.
The long-term impact of pretending to be someone you’re not is damaging
When someone feels they have to mask their autistic traits it can be harmful to their mental health. Figures from the National Autistic Society suggest as many as 66% of autistic adults had thought about suicide during their lifetime. However, primary schools can break these patterns of masking behaviour early in a child’s life with some simple and effective strategies.
Promote understanding of differences
Take a whole-school approach to helping children understand different needs and conditions. Part of our curriculum is called ‘why it’s good to be me’ and includes lessons where children share thoughts about what makes everyone unique. This encourages pupils to celebrate what is special about themselves and others.
Accept stimming in the classroom
Encourage autistic children to practise stimming—self-stimulatory behaviour—in the classroom. Many children need repetitive movements like hand-flapping, rocking or tapping to regulate their emotions and process their sensory environment. Explain to the class that stimming is a natural part of being autistic so the children recognise and accept this behaviour without judgement. Talk about ways we stim to calm ourselves—you may just surprise yourself.
Use visual aids to support communication
Use symbols to help autistic children tell you what they need and to enable them to participate in class discussions. Symbols are useful for illustrating visual timetables which explain what will happen during the day, and creating social stories which provide an illustrated account of an event or situation so children know what to expect. We also have symbols which pupils can use if they need to stim or if they want something to help with sensory regulation such as a wobble cushion. All children need to be able to ask for a break and a symbol is a way of communicating this important need. Encouraging children of all abilities to use symbols enables pupils to communicate and work together.
Do a sensory assessment of your pupils
Identify autistic pupils’ sensory needs to see if they are over-sensitive or under-sensitive to sensory stimuli. We use a checklist from the Autism Education Trust (AET) which schools can access through the AET’s training programme to assess children according to fifty different behaviour descriptors such as ‘is attracted to lights’ and ‘hugs very tightly.’ We chat through each of these with the child’s parent or carer—or the child themselves.
Carry out a sensory audit of your classroom
Use the assessment to conduct a sensory audit of the classroom and make adjustments to help pupils with specific sensory needs. Putting a mat on a hard floor can dampen the effect of sudden, loud noises, and closing a blind can keep out harsh sunlight. Find safe ways to help children develop their senses, such as fragrant ginger or lavender to smell, or different fabrics to touch.
Create an inclusive environment
Encourage autistic children to participate in activities all children can share. If you have a quiet tent designed to help autistic children find some peaceful time, let other children use it occasionally too so they understand how and why it helps. Something as simple as the playground swing which all children use, can help an autistic child with their sense of balance and have a calming effect. We do not insist on children adopting neurotypical norms during the school day, like maintaining eye contact or sitting still. Learning still happens if a child needs to move, stim or using a fidget toy. All children can benefit from a movement break, as it supports deeper learning. Just a few small changes in the classroom can have a big impact on an autistic child, helping them to be themselves so they can flourish at school.
Alison Eason is head of the Additionally Resourced Provision (ARP) at Chalgrove Primary School.