Corinna Laurie identifies some practical ways of adapting the classroom environment to ensure a neurodiversity-affirming approach.

The classroom can be a busy, noisy and overwhelming environment for pupils with sensory and communication differences and this can result in increased anxiety, or arousal levels of fight, flight or shutdown, which all impair engagement and accessibility to learning. Intolerance to uncertainty can greatly increase anxiety, so we can reduce anxiety and increase engagement by offering support to ensure a structured and predictable environment for our pupils. Like everyone, each autistic child or young person has their own individual profile of strengths and areas of difference. Making adaptations to your classroom environment and professional practice will have a positive impact on outcomes and participation of all students. It is important to feel that being inclusive isn’t just something we do—it’s something we truly believe in.

When considering adaptations, supports and training, it is important to remember that the child or young person and their family know them best and should always be included to co-produce and gather vital information on how to make their education journey a positive experience.

Even before a child or young person steps foot into the school some simple transition supports will help reduce anxiety. Send visuals home of the school, classroom and key school areas in advance of starting school or before changing classes. Send photos of classmates (observing permission parameters), the teachers and the daily timetable. Personalise the timetable using favourite characters or colours. If possible, send a video tour of the school, or a map of relevant areas. You could facilitate a pre-visit to school when it is quiet, or at a preferred time of day to ease anxiety of the unknown. Gather information about the pupil’s sensory differences prior to their arrival at school. A detailed individualised plan with support and strategies will significantly reduce anxiety and therefore increase engagement.

Classroom supports and approaches to ease anxiety

  • Allow the child or young person to decide where they feel most comfortable in the classroom—away from a bright window, a draughty door, the hum of an overhead projector, or at the front or back of the classroom. In primary school, a photo of each student taped to their desk can help relieve anxiety of seating arrangements.
  • Have clearly defined areas in the classroom or session, for example using carpet tiles to define seating spots for pupils during floor time, or beanbags to define seating areas for a reading corner.
  • Provide predictability using visual supports to communicate timetables, which teacher is teaching, or room changes. It can also be helpful to slowly encourage tolerance to unpredictability, for example by placing a ‘?’ on the timetable. Using a visual timer shows a clear end to an activity, which can reduce anxiety.
  • Provide a quiet area, for example with dimmable lights, pastel colour walls, and the option of calm music and soft bean bags. A large blanket over a table will provide a dark den environment for smaller children. This space should never be used as a sanction—it’s a sanctuary area where an overwhelmed pupil can go in order to re-regulate.
  • Provide equipment to support sensory differences such as a grab bag containing the ear defenders, fidget toys, dark glasses, a white board to facilitate communication, or a weighted lap-pad. Have this available to pupils at all times, including off site visits. If a pupil needs regular access to certain sensory regulating equipment, ensure this is with the pupil, and not tucked away in a drawer or cupboard.
  • Allow pupils to have access to cool water via a sports bottle, as this can be calming.
  • Incorporate special interests into lessons to increase participation and motivation. We have had much success over the years using book and film characters to facilitate maths and science.
  • For the child who finds it difficult to sit still, provide alternative seating, for example wobble cushions or stools to allow fidgety movement.
  • Keep language as simple and clear as possible. Be mindful of your tone of voice and clear who you are directing dialogue too. Support requests with appropriate visuals. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Ensure pupils have the individual processing time they require before being expected to respond.
  • Be mindful of tactile sensitivities. Allow pupils to transition between classes a few minutes earlier to avoid the corridor mayhem, and ensure they are allowed to stand at the front or back of any line-up activities to prevent unnecessary jostling. For those that seek tactile input, provide chewy items such as pencil toppers, rough Velcro dots stuck on a desk or ruler, or tactile fidget toys.
  • Visual stress and attention differences can be distracting and uncomfortable. Reduce the number of displays and the amount of clutter around the classroom. Provide see-through pencil cases to allow easy sight of contents. Never force or request eye contact, as this can be distressing and painful—we can all listen and process information while looking away. Buff-coloured paper and a grey rather than black font can reduce visual stress. Be mindful of your own clothing and jewellery.
  • If a child is overwhelmed by the smell of the environment, offer a sweatband or tissue with a drop of their preferred (safe) essential oil for them to sniff. Allow alternatives to smelly school environments, such as eating lunch away from the dining hall and maybe using a staff toilet. Be mindful of your own perfume, aftershave or deodorant.
  • Placing felt pads under chair legs, and using carpets and waxed table cloths in class or in the dining hall can all reduce environmental noise.
  • Schedule regular sensory movement breaks during the day to reduce overload and to regulate arousal levels. Consider sensory circuits at the beginning and end of the day to assist regulation.
  • Homework can be particularly challenging for pupils who come home exhausted after managing their sensory, communication and interaction differences throughout the day. The energy used to cope throughout the day is far more than many other students, so there may be nothing left in the energy bank to manage homework. If homework is essential, ensure that the requirements are clear and structured. An email home with expectations may help parents navigate the requirements, and worksheets rather than free writing may be easier. The use of speech to text software may reduce demand once mastered.
Corinna Laurie
Author: Corinna Laurie

Corinna Laurie
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Corinna Laurie is Clinical Lead at NAS and Principal Occupational Therapist at Helen Allison School. She is the author of Sensory and Motor Strategies (3rd edition).



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