Are you a parent who wants to learn about autism classroom ideas that will help your child to flourish at school?
Perhaps you would like to understand these strategies so that you can use them at home too?
Or perhaps you are a teacher and you want to make sure you make classroom adaptations to meet a child’s individual need?
In this article I will talk through the key autism classroom ideas which are beneficial for pupils’ learning and wellbeing.
This article focuses on mainstream classroom settings rather than specialist settings.
Autistic Children in School: The Challenges
The daily expectations of school can be demanding for autistic children at any age.
- Following the curriculum and expectations;
- Routines and rules;
- Working amicably alongside peers, and
- Managing unexpected changes.
These are just a few areas that can be tricky for children on the autism spectrum.
A close and positive partnership between school and home can help a child with an autism spectrum disorder to thrive.
Autistic children in mainstream classrooms can work inclusively alongside their peers.
I have seen many successful examples of autistic pupils thriving in mainstream schools. It can be extremely positive and rewarding for everyone involved.
Autism in the Classroom: Key Strategies
It is crucial that every autistic student is understood and supported in the best way for them.
Every child is different and unique and equally as important.
There are specific strategies that can help autistic children to have a positive experience of school. Many of these may also be useful at home too.
However, each one needs to be carefully considered and adapted for an individual child’s needs.
Here are my top 10 autism classroom ideas and strategies.
- Visual cues
- Supported interactions
- Sensory breaks
- Transition support
- Specialist equipment
- Physical activity
- Understanding masking
- Helping other children understand
1. Autism in the Classroom: The Importance of Predictability
Even as adults we can find change difficult to manage. I know that when my routines are disturbed it can make everything feel more challenging.
Use of consistent approaches in the classroom environment can mean worry or anxiety are significanty reduced for a child.
Within the classroom, ensure changes are kept to a minimum and shared in advance where possible.
For example, if a teacher is planning to move the desks into a different configuration and create a new display board the following week they could:
- Talk to the autistic child beforehand and describe the new arrangements.
- Show the child a diagram of what the classroom will look like.
- Let the child’s parents know so that they can discuss it with the child at home.
This preparation will help a child’s brain to gradually adapt to the changes, rather than a sudden change which can be stressful for autistic brains.
Try to ensure a child’s work area has familiar belongings around them and feels like a safe space.
Children may be allowed to have certain objects close at hand that are important to them. The school environment needs to adapt to meet the needs of the children in the class.
2. Autism Classroom Ideas: Visual Cues
A great way to guide autistic children through their school day is through visual cues such as a visual timetable.
Children listen to verbal instructions continuously through the day, which can be overwhelming.
Autistic children often find it harder to process or remember verbal instructions. Our brains can process visual information much faster than verbal or text information.
Visual cues give children an opportunity to hear the verbal instructions and make links with the pictorial representations too.
They are much more likely to be able to complete independent work if they have visual supports to support their working memory.
I find this video for a simple visual timetable so helpful:
Many schools use a visual schedule to demonstrate the daily timetable, the expectations of what we are doing now and what is next on the timetable.
Visual cues can be used to support young autistic children through a process such as getting ready for lunch or playtimes without detailed information needed.
A visual aid gives the child a chance to be more independent than they might be otherwise and practise demonstrating appropriate behaviours. You can use visuals for whole class learning (e.g. white board or bulletin board) as well as within an individual child’s work station.
Alongside pictures, a sand timer or visual timer can be an effective way to help autistic children to follow an instruction or complete an activity.
Other types of visual cues such as emotion cards can be used alongside timetables or task lists to encourage children to share their feelings throughout the day. This eases the expectation to communicate verbally.
3. Autism Teaching Strategies: Supported Interactions
The best way to help autistic children interact successfully with others is to provide some “scaffolding”, i.e. some adult guidance and structure.
This could be as simple as having a TA sit in on group work and make suggestions to the group such as how the group could ensure everyone is included, or how children could best respond to someone’s idea.
However, there are also structured and evidence based programmes that can be invaluable if an autistic child is struggling with social interaction.
Let’s explore some of these.
All children can find social interaction challenging at times and for a child with autism this can be even more so. A useful evidence-based strategy is to support the child’s social interaction through social stories.
A social story is a tool used to help autistic children understand social rules and expected social behavior.
It’s a short, personalized story that describes a situation, the expected behavior in that situation, and why it is important.
The story is usually written in the first person, using simple and concrete language. It often includes pictures to help the child understand and internalize the information. But you can also make creative social stories using other methods such as videos.
The goal of a social story is to increase the child’s understanding of social expectations, reduce anxiety, and promote positive social interaction.
Comic Strip Conversations
Comic strip conversations are similar to social stories. However, they are designed for older students diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, including high school students.
Comic strip conversations consist of a series of drawings depict a conversation or event between two or more people.
These are accompanied by speech bubbles and written dialogue.
This visual format can help autistic students understand social cues, body language, and the back-and-forth flow of conversation. This makes it easier for them to join in and communicate with their peers.
Autism Teaching Methods: Small Group Work
As well as social stories and comic strip conversations, small group settings with other pupils help children to learn.
Group activities supported by an adult develop children’s confidence with social contexts. They can begin to read the body language of other children.
They start to understand the matching emotions and behaviours, especially when these are labelled by the supporting adult.
Lego therapy is another powerful method for supporting children with social interactions. It’s a therapeutic approach using Lego building blocks.
Legotherapy is designed to help children with social and communication difficulties develop their social skills and emotional regulation in a fun and non-pressured way.
Legotherapy is usually an activity that takes place outside the regular curriculum.
In a Lego therapy session, children work together in small groups to build projects with Legos. This encourages communication, cooperation, and teamwork. The therapist guides the children through the process and helps facilitate positive social interactions.
The use of Lego provides a concrete, non-threatening activity that can help children express themselves. It also helps children engage with others in a fun and playful way.
In Lego therapy, children are assigned different roles, such as builder, helper, or director, which helps to structure the play.
In this model, the builder is responsible for constructing the Lego project. The helper assists with finding and handing over the necessary pieces. The director is in charge of overseeing the building process and ensuring that everyone is following the plan.
Roles can rotate among the children during the Legotherapy session. This allows each child to experience different responsibilities and opportunities for social interaction.
4. Autism Classroom Ideas: Adapting the Sensory Environment
Too much sensory input can cause children with autism to struggle to learn as a result of overwhelm.
Some autistic children have sensory processing disorders. However most autistic children have differences in their sensory experiences when compared with their neurotypical peers.
Sensory Overstimulation in The Classroom and The Connection With Fight or Flight
Sensory stimulation such as loud noises, the background hum of the classroom or fluorescent lights can become too much and lead to the common characteristics of sensory overload.
Usually a child will go into fight, flight or freeze and they will no longer be able to learn. They may appear shut down, panicky, irritable or angry.
In other words, if a child’s sensory needs have not been met and their nervous system gets overloaded, the child may show distress or present with inappropriate behaviours.
Classroom Strategies for Autism: Occupational Therapist Guidance
Paediatric occupational therapists can support schools and parents to enable children with sensory difficulties to manage their environment successfully. They start by understanding the child’s sensory profile and specific triggers.
In school, there will be events throughout the year that are challenging for children with sensory issues.
It’s important to think ahead and consider steps to prevent any unnecessary overload that could be caused.
An occupational therapist will help with this process.
They may observe the autistic child in the classroom setting, and then meet with the teacher to suggest specific individualized adaptations and strategies to help the child thrive.
The Importance of Sensory Breaks
Considering times to take sensory breaks may be necessary.
Visiting a quiet, calm and perhaps darker space can be really helpful for children who are feeling that it has all become too much to manage.
If the school is lucky enough to have a sensory room or sensory area, it’s important that there’s a clear system in place so that teachers and child know when and how the child will use it.
For example, will they use the room every morning before assembly?
Or perhaps they will they have a special pass card which means they can go to the sensory area whenever they need it?
It’s important to set up the classroom and children’s work areas so that they are not contributing to sensory overload for children.
For instance, keep colour schemes as simple as possible. If noise is an issue, find an area of the classroom for them to sit that is least problematic for the child.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
5. Autism Teaching Strategies: Transition Support Within and Outside the Classroom
Autistic Children and Big Transitions Within School
Transitions such as the beginning of the school year are a key time when autistic children may need support strategies to be in place to enable them to take place smoothly.
The changes involved with transition can lead to children feeling out of control or overwhelmed. This may lead to high anxiety and a child may respond to this with inappropriate behaviours.
Autistic brains need more time to adjust to changes.
Do everything you can to help ease this process.
For example, if an autistic child has a sports day coming up this may cause a lot of stress as it is very different from a normal day.
The teacher could:
- Talk about the sports day a week or so ahead of time (this time scale may need to be longer or shorter, depending on the individual child).
- Let the child know which events they will be taking part in well ahead of the day.
- Talk through exactly what the child will be doing on the day, in order. For example, first of all we will meet in the classroom for registration, then we will line up in our house teams ready for the opening parade….”
- Show the child a diagram of exactly which events will happen in each area of the field.
- Give all the necessary information to the child’s parents so they can talk about it at home.
Day to Day School Transitions For Autistic Students
As I have described above, visual timetables can be a very important way of supporting autistic students. A child can look at the timetable and see what is coming next, so it does not come as a surprise.
It’s also helpful to use verbal reminders or countdown timers to help a child get ready to stop a task and move onto another one.
Don’t use a countdown timer (e.g. a sand timer) if it appears to increase the child’s stress.
‘Now and next’ boards are similar to visual timetables but they are a simpler way for children to see what is coming next in their day, so they are great for younger children.
Familiar environments, familiar people and a calm and supportive atmosphere are all important for managing transitions. Try to change only one thing in a child’s environment at a time, to minimise stress.
Encouraging the child to complete the transition even if this might take longer than desired at first, will help the child to gain a sense of achievement and competence as they work through their daily activities.
6. Autistic Classroom Ideas: Specialist Equipment
Whether you are a teacher or a parent, it’s important to remember that every child’s needs are different.
Specialist equipment may be suggested by an occupational therapist, and there is usually a process of trial and error.
For instance, some students find noise cancelling ear buds helpful for blocking out unwanted background noise. However, some of these can feel uncomfortable so it may be necessary to try a few different brands before the student finds a pair that feel right.
7. Autism in The Classroom: Physical Activity and Learning
Outdoor playtime is one of the most important autism classroom ideas even though it doesn’t actually take place in the classroom!
Break times are crucially important for learning because they provide a chance for the brain to process the learning and recuperate from the mental effort of the previous lesson.
Outdoor time is vital as it provides autistic children with opportunities for physical activity, sensory stimulation, and social interaction.
Physical activity also improves children’s motor skills and increase their energy levels. Sensory stimulation can help them regulate their sensory input.
In my opinion we should follow the lead of Scandinavian education systems. They get children outside frequently during the day regardless of the weather conditions (but well prepared for the conditions of course).
8. Autism Classroom Strategies: Nurture as a Key Strategy
It is so important to nurture children to allow them the safety to learn and progress. Children learn best when they feel safe and valued.
Every autistic child’s education needs to be in an environment where they can flourish. If their basic needs for safety are met they will advance more quickly in areas of learning development.
The brain can only prioritise learning when it is not already prioritising survival.
So what does nurture look like in reality?
It really depends on the individual child, so flexibility and nurture go hand in hand.
Here are some examples…
- A teaching assistant learns to look out for an individual student’s signs of stress. She gently guides him to take a short break outside the classroom when he needs it.
- A teenage student is assigned a learning mentor to meet with them for 5 minutes every morning. They go through the plan for the day and talk through anything the child is worried about.
- A young autistic child is carefully paired with a well-matched small group of children for group activities. They are supported by a warm and nurturing adult.
- A child is allowed to wear black trainers instead of school shoes. They are also given permission to wear a polo shirt instead of a regular shirt. This helps minimise stress caused by the child’s sensitivity to touch. They feel safer and better understood.
9. Teaching Autistic Children: Understanding Masking
So many parents tell me their child is not thought to have problems at school.
They may even be seen as the “model pupil”.
So what is masking?
Autistic masking happens when a child is struggling with something in their environment but they try not to show it.
Here are some common examples of autistic masking at school.
Understanding Autistic Masking in the Classroom: Examples
- A child doesn’t pick up on the social cues of the teacher for the class to stop talking. The teacher stands in silence giving a disapproving look with his arms folded. Although the child doesn’t pick up the cues, they have learned to copy their fellow students. They stop talking because everyone else has done so. However they are confused as to what just happened.
- A teenage student can manage small group social interactions and has two close friends. But she feels drained and overwhelmed at lunch times with so many people around and too much noise. She hides in the toilets by herself to recharge, so that she can manage the rest of the day.
- A young child experiences sensory overwhelm from the bright lights, background noise and sensations of the furniture in the classroom. She struggles to stay sitting and it feels like her “brain hurst”. She is desperate to please the teacher and scared of being told off. Although she is struggling to focus she pretends she’s okay. She “zones out” into her own world to cope with the stress. As she is academically able, the teacher doesn’t notice that she isn’t achieving her potential.
10. Autism in the Classroom: Helping Other Children Understand
It’s important that not only adults but other children understand why autistic children may find specific areas of classroom life difficult.
For young children there are many picture books that can help children understand about differences.
One of my favourite books is called “All Cats Are on the Autism Spectrum” by Kathy Hoopmann. It’s funny, positive and accessible to all age groups.
If you’re looking for autism classroom ideas to increase understanding and acceptance amongst other children, another brilliant resource is this video called Amazing Things Happen.
Sesame Street has introduced an autistic character, Julia. Their website contains some useful support resources for if you are the teacher or parent of a child who has received an autism diagnosis.
For children of all ages, the Book Trust website features a section dedicated to books with autistic characters. The books are categorized by age range.
Autism Classroom Ideas: Summary
The main areas to consider if you are the parent of an autistic child or you are a teacher with an autistic child in your mainstream classroom are:
- Visual cues
- Supported interactions
- Sensory breaks
- Transition support
- Specialist equipment
- Physical activity
- Understanding masking
- Helping other children understand
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.
In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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