Supporting pupils with autism


Steph Reed provides ten top tips for inclusive classroom support strategies 

Children with autism often experience the world around them in very different ways to their peers and they can struggle with some of the routine aspects of teaching and school life. There are though, some relatively simple things that teaching staff can do to help pupils with autism to feel more comfortable in the classroom, to understand what is required of them and to be more engaged with learning. Here are a few practical suggestions for support strategies that can be a big help to children with autism and can also be of benefit to all pupils.

1. Consider the impact of sensory stimuli 

The sensory make-up of the environment can have a really strong impact on a child and their ability to learn. Sensory stimuli are occurring all around us, all the time, and today’s classrooms can present children with sensory sensitivities with an overwhelming amount of information – with their colourful displays, arrays of resources on tables and shelves, bright lights, and variety of smells and sounds. Children with autism can find it difficult to block out specific stimuli and they may experience sensory information very differently to other pupils. In fact, each child in the class may be experiencing the same sensory stimuli in a different way.

Some children with autism will be hypersensitive, meaning they are highly sensitive to sensory input, while those who are hyposensitive (under sensitive) may not even register sensory input that would overwhelm their hypersensitive peers. Every individual is unique and one person can be both over sensitive and under sensitive to different sensory inputs. Things to consider here include: where a child is sitting and the space around them; what is in their field of vision and whether it could lead to distraction; and if there are any sounds from objects such as clocks or electronic equipment (or even things outside the room) that may be distracting for a child.

Making changes to the environment can really make a difference. For example, one child was observed repeatedly getting up from his seat and knocking over pencil pots on the table behind him. He was sat in a row of tables, with another row of tables behind him. Once the desk layout was changed, so he did not have anyone directly behind him, he seemed more settled and did not repeatedly get up from his seat. This improvement could have been due to the impact of the space, changes to the sounds he experienced after the reorganisation or a reduction in anxiety due to not having people positioned behind him.

2. Adapt your use of language and communication

There are many children in our classrooms today who have speech and language difficulties. Some have difficulties with expressive communication, where they find it difficult to use language or non-verbal communication to convey a message effectively. They may also have difficulties with receptive language and may therefore struggle with their understanding of words and messages directed at them.

Each individual will have their own communication needs. Some children with autism will not use verbal language, while others have very advanced expressive language for their age but may experience difficulty in understanding communication from others. There are many inclusive strategies that can enhance our communication and children’s understanding of what is being communicated to them, including:

  • be specific and say exactly what you mean; for example, rather than saying “don’t run”, say “walk”; this is more helpful to the child as it tells them what they need to do
  • avoid using any unnecessary language; for example, a long sentence such as “[name], can you please sit on your chair now and put your feet on the floor” may provide too much information for a child to process effectively; shortening sentences and using just the necessary key words – such as “[name], sit” – can avoid overload and aid understanding
  • use a “total communication” approach, whereby you enhance your verbal communication by using facial expression, tone of voice and gesture, as well as pictures, visual supports and objects
  • allow children time to process when you give them an instruction; this could involve waiting for up to ten seconds and only repeating an instruction once they have had time to process it.

 3. Be consistent

Consistency in our approach to children – including how we manage behaviour, communication and teaching – is extremely important. Ensuring there is familiarity in what a child can expect from you, from the school routine and the boundaries in place, will help support understanding and learning. Inconsistency can lead to a child feeling anxious and uncertain and this may cause them to exhibit behaviour that challenges. Clear routines can enhance predictability and reduce anxiety. This can be especially important for a child with autism. 

4. Develop emotional regulation skills

Emotion regulation is our ability to recognise and respond to our emotional state. For many children, it can be challenging to recognise their emotions and then manage these emotions effectively or even safely. It is therefore extremely important that we teach children how to recognise their feelings and then ensure they are equipped with strategies to know how to deal with those emotions. Some practical ideas are:

  • identify and label emotions – your own, those of the children in the class and those of characters you read about together in books; tell the class you are feeling a certain emotion and the reason why; a visual emotion chart can help to enhance meaning visually
  • an emotion vocabulary board that could be added to throughout the school year can help to build children’s vocabulary and ability to express emotion
  • identify acceptable strategies that can help when children are feeling a particular emotion and display this visually in the classroom; for example, when feeling “sad”, you can talk to a teacher, ask for a break and so on; some children may benefit from individual visual strategies.

One non-verbal child with autism was taught an emotional regulation strategy of requesting a break when feeling anxious. This was taught through a supporting adult being consistent and showing a “break” visual card whenever the child was observably anxious and taking them to the beanbag where the child would have “calm time” for five minutes. The child learnt the emotional regulation strategy of showing the “break” card to the supporting adult and was then able to independently go to the bean bag to have a break.

5. Develop social interaction

It is important to model social interaction throughout the day through our conversations and when playing with children. Some children may find it difficult to know how to interact “appropriately” or effectively. We therefore need to explicitly teach social skills for different situations. Modelling play and specific conversational language will really help the children to get involved. This is where our midday supervisors play an important role and need to be good role models. 

Social stories are a great resource for teaching personalised social skills. For children who are at the early stages of communication development, the Intensive Interaction approach can be highly effective in developing communication skills and relationships.

6. Understand the function of behaviour

When observing any kind of behaviour, and particularly when you are facing behaviour that challenges, remember that it is a form of communication and will be serving a function. For example, the child may be frustrated that they have not been able to communicate something to you. They may want your attention or the behaviour may be the result of sensitivity to something in their environment. They may want to escape their current environment or they may want something tangible such as an object in the room that has been taken away from them.  

Understanding the function of their behaviour will make a big difference to how well you are able to support the child and how effective behaviour management strategies will be. Some children benefit from a specific and detailed positive behaviour support plan with personalised strategies.

7. Use transition supports 

Pupils with autism, and other pupils, often benefit from aids to help them understand what activities and tasks will be taking place during the school day. Transition supports enable them to become familiar with where they will be going, what they are doing next and what will be happening throughout the day. Depending on the specific child’s needs, they may benefit from having a personalised transition support, in addition to one for the whole class. Transition supports could include:

  • a “now and next” board showing photos or symbols of the current and next activity, to help support a smooth transition from one activity to the next
  • a visual timetable which displays photos or symbols of the activities that are going to happen during the day; this is most effective when the pictures are removed as the activities finish, clearly showing what will happen next
  • a written list on a whiteboard of the forthcoming tasks, that get crossed out or wiped out as each one is finished
  • sand timers to visually prepare a child for the fact that a task will end and when this will happen.

8. Visual lesson structures

Providing a visual representation of the structure of lessons and tasks can support children to understand the different parts of the task and what will take place before it ends. This could include using pictures or symbols for the different parts of the task, or steps of the lesson written down on a whiteboard.

One non-verbal child kept leaving the table after the practical part of the lesson had finished and would refuse to tidy up. Once a visual structure using photos and symbols to display the steps involved in the lesson was implemented (for example, whiteboard – demonstration – experiment – tidy up) the child took part in tidying up. He had been effectively prepared and was able to understand what he needed to do.

9. Make learning engaging and motivating 

Grab children’s attention and help them focus on a task by using exciting and engaging resources and lesson themes. Using the child’s interests in learning tasks can really help engage the children in learning. Concrete, practical multi-sensory learning experiences can be highly effective in engaging lots of different children.

10. Always model how to do something

It is more effective to show a child how to do something than just telling them what to do. This is especially important for children with communication difficulties. Demonstrating a task will give the children a better understanding of what is required and more of an opportunity to be successful at it. 

About the author

Steph Reed is an independent Autism Specialist Teacher and has worked in mainstream and special schools and as an inclusion lead and SENCO. She currently delivers outreach support, coaching and training to schools and services and hosts the Autism Spectrum Teacher Podcast.



Steph Reed
Author: Steph Reed

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