Autism-friendly Teaching Strategies in the Mainstream Classroom
As an advisory teacher for autism I am regularly giving out advice on how to support your autistic students in the classroom. However, autism friendly practice is good practice for all. Our understanding of autism is forever changing, and many more people are now being identified as autistic. This means that most classrooms have someone with a diagnosis of autism and potentially several more who may go on to be diagnosed. In an ideal world we would not need to wait for an autism diagnosis, and the medical model of ‘diagnosing’ would be replaced with a more social model of identification (however that’s a whole different article for another day!).
Some classrooms tailor the learning based on the set profiles of their students. However, this can mean that they are not meeting the needs of the student. For example, if a teacher is waiting for an autism diagnosis before they offer autism friendly strategies, this can provide a barrier to inclusion. Therefore, a truly inclusive approach would be to offer autism friendly strategies to the whole class and those who would benefit from them can choose to opt in. This prevents the common problem that teachers often raise: “they don’t want to look different”.
So, what are autism friendly approaches in a mainstream classroom? The recommendations generally come under three main areas: adapting your communication, using visual supports and making small changes to the environment.
Let’s go into those three areas in a bit more detail.
Tip #1 - Adapt your communication
Adapting your communication often sounds simple but can be one of the hardest ones to implement. Research has shown that autistic individuals generally process visual information more easily than verbal information. This means that talking at great length in a complicated way can be difficult to process. The English language is full of idioms and metaphors, saying things we don’t really mean. This can be difficult to navigate if you find it tricky to socially interpret communication using body language and context cues to infer meaning.
When you communicate expectations, be very clear of the start and end point: how you will know you’ve finished and what time scales are involved? Many autistic people report feeling highly anxious when they’re not allowed to finish a task. Yet how often in the classroom do we instruct everyone to pack up and move on because it’s time for PE (even though we haven’t all finished yet)?
Tip #2 - Use Visual Supports
As mentioned earlier, information presented visually is generally easier to process than spoken information, therefore you should try to support any verbal communication with something visual. This can be a handwritten list on a post-it note, something on the whiteboard, photographs or symbols, or even gestures and hand signals. Colour coding counts as a visual cue. Some students report that they find written communication such as via email or text easier to process and then organise their thoughts in response than when speaking verbally. Thinking of ways you can incorporate these different preferences into a classroom environment is important. For example, could partners communicate through typing on a shared laptop, taking turns to write questions and responses? When you ask the class to start an independent piece of work, could you write a checklist for the steps required to complete their task?
Visuals would also include preparatory resources. Before going on a school trip in (this will happen again!), what could you do to prepare your students for this new experience? We’re lucky to live in an interconnected world, meaning we are able to access 360 degree tours of many museums and other attractions before we are there. A quick Google search will soon bring up many photographs of the outside and inside of buildings including video tours on YouTube and Google Maps also allows you to experience parts of the journey before the day. This will all help to increase predictability and therefore reduce anxiety.
"I don’t like when things just happen, and I am not prepared for them. I like to visualise my plan in my head - I visualise different outcomes and what my plan might be for those outcomes e.g., what homework to do when and what to do it I can't do it or do it wrong."
Young person – featured in the 'Autism, Identity & Me Workbook' by Rebecca Duffus
Tip #3 - Changes to the environment
We all process the world around us in different ways in terms of our senses. Many autistic people report that they are over- or under- sensitive to different sensory stimuli including noise, touch, taste, light, smells, body awareness and sense of balance. Completing a sensory audit of your school can be a really useful way of gaining insight into the potential challenges that someone with sensory sensitivities may face. Think about the visual input.
What do your classroom walls and displays look like?
We’ve all been there… it seemed like a great idea to have all of those jungle animals hanging from the ceiling the start of the term however could those be providing a distraction or even a sensory irritation rather than inspiration?
What is the lighting like in the room?
Are you able to turn off the lights? Try to have a lamp or natural light wherever possible in case some students are sensitive to the strip lighting that many schools have.
Think about your own sensory input: what kind of colours do you wear? Do you wear strong perfume?
Are you located near to the smelly Dinner Hall?
Obviously, some of these things cannot be removed completely but you may be able to provide the young person with something that can help them to manage this assault on their senses.
Could they have a handkerchief with some essential oils on to smell when the overpowering smell of boiled cabbage starts to creep into the room?
Could you offer ear defenders to help them to block out some of the background noise that could be painful throughout the day?
An autistic recently told me that when wearing ear defenders for the first time, they felt like they were sinking into a delightfully warm bath.
Could you offer a wobble question or chair for the young person to sit on instead of sitting on the carpet?
Sitting cross legged on the carpet is often a position that gives the least sensory input and can be difficult if you are craving additional input.
Take some time to reflect on the behaviour of your students. Behaviour is always a form of communication and those children who need your attention may ask for it in the most difficult ways. It’s your job as a teacher to try and interpret this behaviour, but don’t go it alone. You will need input from parents, the school SENCo and hopefully the young person themselves. Try to spend some time together (or virtually) to problem-solve behaviours as you all have a small piece of the picture. Then allow yourself to deviate from the planned expectations. For example, if assembly is traumatic for this young person, do they really need to go? Look at each situation and try to strip it back to the core purpose and targets of that part of the day. If assembly is about giving the young person information and a thought for the day, can it be delivered in a smaller group outside of the big school hall? Always remember that at whatever stage you are in the child’s life, you are preparing them for adulthood. That is the end goal. Think about these situations and question whether they are important skills for them: as an adult, will they be regularly sitting on the floor with 100 or more other people for half an hour?
The most important thing you need (and this is free and you don’t need to wait for delivery), is kindness, understanding and willingness to be flexible.