In the UK, approximately 70% of children with autism are taught in mainstream schools – and the number of children being diagnosed with autism in the classroom is rising. Data has shown that autistic children are less likely to be high achievers in education, and are more likely to experience unemployment as adults.
However, training for teachers is not always substantial enough to cater for the rise in children being diagnosed with autism. Because of this, both teachers and children can have challenging experiences at school.
Supporting children with autism at school is vital. Not only will it allow for a more inclusive learning environment, but it can give them fairer opportunities to reach their potential.
While teaching a child with autism may seem daunting for some, with proper training in place for teachers and parents, it can be highly rewarding, in addition to being beneficial for the child.
Below are 10 tips for both parents and teachers to help create a supportive learning environment for children with autism.
Whether you are the parent or the teacher, it is important to develop an interest in your child’s unique place on the autism spectrum.
An autism assessment with an expert can provide you with the detail required to tailor your child’s environment to suit their learning needs.
The assessment will give you the chance to collaboratively form a holistic treatment plan, by integrating and involving all areas of their life including their teachers at school. This detailed insight into your child’s strengths and areas to work on will allow you to create a supportive learning environment.
An autism assessment can be extremely helpful but it is only the first step, maintain this inquisitive approach both at home and in the classroom. Keep learning about the child as they grow and change so that you can continue to adapt to their needs.
For both parents and teachers, there are plenty of training programs available to help enhance your understanding of how best to work with children with autism. These programs also connect you with important networks that can provide ongoing support.
If you are unsure about whether your child is exhibiting signs of autism, learn more with online child autism tests. These tests can give you an indication of whether there are probable signs of autism.
Children with autism can have varying abilities when it comes to communication. Some may develop verbal language later than typically developing children, and some may not develop verbal language at all. Others may understand and communicate with verbal language, but in a distinctly different way to typically developing children.
As language can vary from child to child, having a clear communication method in place that is adapted to each child’s language needs is vital.
With verbal children, carefully consider how you construct a sentence. Try to avoid complex structures that include metaphors, rhetorical questions or sarcasm; just be simple and direct.
For example, if you’re asking a child to put their coat and bag away, normally you might say: “Adam, please put your coat and bag away when you come in”.
To many children with autism, this can be a very vague and confusing instruction.
A more simple and direct way of communicating this would be “Adam, when you come into the classroom, please find a free peg and hang your coat and bag on it”.
To be clearer, you can also point in the direction of the pegs. Keeping your instructions clear and simple, in this way, can enhance their understanding.
With non-verbal autistic children or those with limited verbal language, learn more about how they communicate and notice patterns in their communication behaviour.
Use physical gestures, eye contact and your voice to help the child build a language to communicate with. Try to ensure that these gestures are simple enough for the child to learn and imitate.
For example, if you wanted the child to look at something, you could use an exaggerated voice and point in the direction you want them to turn to.
Equally, if they were to use similar non-verbal language, respond enthusiastically and look in the direction they are pointing to reinforce their communication. If they point at an object, pick it up and give it to them.
Similarly, if you want something, point at it before proceeding to pick it up.
Many children with autism experience sensory sensitivity. This means that they can often feel over or under-stimulated by their senses.
As a parent, you may notice your child’s sensory preferences at home. Observe how your child reacts to certain sounds, smells, colours, and textures. Sometimes keeping a diary can help to highlight important patterns. If you notice something important, communicate this with the school in as much detail as possible.
This will enable your child’s teachers to adapt the classroom to suit their sensory needs, and prevent the child from becoming overwhelmed with over-stimulation.
As a teacher, it is equally important that you observe and learn about the child’s sensory preferences too. They may be exposed to new stimuli in the classroom that their parents haven’t seen them experience.
For example, you may notice that the child becomes very distressed when the school bell rings. In such cases, you may ask the child to put on their sound defender headphones before the bell is due to ring.
It may also be helpful to communicate a child’s sensory needs with the rest of the class to bring about a group effort in supporting a child autism in the classroom. Getting the class involved can significantly improve the learning environment for both typically developing children as well as those with autism, causing far less disruption.
The uncertainty that comes with day-today activities can often feel anxiety-provoking for many of us, but more so for children with autism.
Children with autism find great comfort in routine and knowing what to expect. In some ways, schools already cater to this need as they tend to have set structures each day, and more specific structures and rules within the classroom. Having a clear understanding of this structure, especially if there are any changes, can be vital for a child with autism.
Try to create a visual timetable for the child so that you can refer to it with them to help them prepare for different parts of the day. It’s important that this timetable is engaging and easy for them to understand. Use colours, pictures and even textures that the child likes.
Having a timetable can give the child a sense of certainty and security, and supports easier transitions into different parts of the day.
Here is a great resource from autism spectrum teacher regarding visual timetables.
If there are changes at home or at school, then be sure to communicate this to the child and their teacher or caregiver.
For example, if the child is moving to a new classroom and having a different teacher, take them to visit both as frequently as possible, allowing them to spend some time there and get to know their new environment.
Give them pictures of the new classroom and teacher, and maintain an open dialogue about the change. Changes in one area means it is vital for consistency to remain in other areas. Ensuring there is adequate communication of change between all areas of the child’s life can allow for better support whilst they adjust.
If your child has autism then giving them an explanation for their differences in the classroom can help them tackle challenges they face more effectively. If your child is not yet aware of their autism, then it may be helpful to seek some advice on how to explain autism to a child.
Once they have understood their autism, help them to understand it in the context of their learning, so that they too can help themselves meet their potential. Understanding their own learning needs can empower the child to take initiative and to seek help or adaptations when needed. Practicing autonomy over their own learning can make for a valuable life-long skill.
When possible, include your child, in meetings with the school and additional support services that are involved in their care and learning. Be sure to simplify your communication, answer any questions and check your child has correctly understood the discussions in the meeting. Also when possible, involve your child in decisions regarding their learning.
Continue to take an inquisitive approach; don’t assume, but ask questions; their needs may change as they grow older and it’s important to encourage them to communicate these changes.
Giving children with autism choices can give them a sense of certainty and control, as well as an opportunity for you and your child to learn about their preferences when in the classroom. Choice also allows for flexibility by adapting to times when the child’s temperament might change.
For example, if a child is unwell and experiencing sensory overload with managing pain or discomfort, they may prefer to tune down input from other senses and work in a quiet room during that time.
Try to present choices to the child in a way that is engaging for them. With a non-verbal child, it can be helpful to present choices whilst holding out both hands and asking them to indicate a preference by touching either hand.
Using pictures can also help when making choices, for example, if you are asking the child whether they would prefer to work in the library or in the classroom, having pictures of both can help them make a more informed choice.
Try not to offer too many choices, and remember to keep them simple and direct.
Let a child with autism have a break from the class when they need one. This can be particularly helpful when they are struggling to concentrate or are feeling anxious. Giving the child a “time out” card to use can help them communicate with you that they need some space. This can help teach them to recognise their anxiety cues and learn to regulate their emotions using “time out”. Agree on a space that they will use during this time and ensure it is safe and sufficient enough for them to calm down. It might help for the safe space to contain certain objects, smells, and textures that the child finds comforting.
For example, if you have noticed your child is very clam when stroking a furry stuffed toy and looks for this or other furry textures when they are feeling distressed, communicate that with school. It can be important for your child to have some furry textures available to them in their safe space at school. Try to let your child decide what will be in their safe space, they might bring some things from home or they might look around the classroom and find some textures or objects that they can use in her safe space.
Many children with autism can have highly focused interests. These interests can vary from colours to fictional characters to certain historical time periods. If you notice such an interest, both as parents and teachers, you can use them to optimise the child’s learning and attention.
For example, if a child’s special interest is superheroes, you could use their favourite heroes in maths and spelling exercises.
Although planning such activities takes creativity, and often additional time for the teacher, the child can reap important benefits from learning in this way. You can further enhance their skills by setting them a project to learn more about aspects of their special interest that reflects the curriculum.
For example, encourage children with a special interest in superheroes to read books about them to enhance their literary skills.
Continue to update the child’s list of special interests – as the child grows up, you may find they lose interest in certain things, or gain special interests in different areas. Try to draw from all of their special interests when planning for their learning, keeping it varied to make sure they are consistently engaged and motivated.
It is important to know that autism isn’t a mental health condition in itself, but that children with autism are more vulnerable to developing mental health difficulties. This can be a result of overstimulation of their senses, difficulty understanding and labeling emotions, and trouble gauging social appropriateness (and therefore social acceptance).
Although mental health difficulties in an autistic child may be related to their autism, it is not always the case. Therefore it is important to get the support of a professional to assess the child’s mental health difficulties and advise the most suitable treatment plan.
When supporting a child with autism and mental health difficulties, communication between the different agencies involved in the child’s care and learning is vital.
As a teacher, communicating with the parents and the appropriate professionals, regarding the child’s presentation at school can provide the mental health professional with valuable insight that in turn will inform their treatment plan.
Similarly, if parents communicate to the school any mental health difficulties they have noticed in the child whilst at home, they can prepare the school to make the appropriate adjustments to support the child.
Once the child has seen a mental health professional and has been given a treatment plan, be sure to include their school and teachers – consistency can be comforting for the child and will support better recovery.
Even when you’ve made all the adaptations that you think the child needs, working with children with autism can still be testing. Be sure to reach out for support when you need it. Have a support network in place within the school that you can reach when you need to, and don’t be afraid to use other support resources, particularly when you have had a difficult day.
Be kind to yourself when building a relationship with an autistic child – it may not come as quickly and as naturally as it would with typically developing children, but this is not a reflection on you, but a reflection of their autism. Be patient, notice your breakthroughs and learn from setbacks.
Ask for additional training if you feel this would be helpful. There are lots of courses available for both teachers and parents to help them understand autism in children better and how to work with them effectively.
Try to engage with regular self-care. Give yourself time to unwind from a tough day in the classroom and let go of any difficult and stressful memories from that day.
Finally, remember that a child with autism is learning about themselves too, they are trying their best to navigate this world, and sometimes that can prove difficult for them. If they engage in behaviours that are difficult to manage, try to take a step back and understand where their behaviour is coming from.
One day when you look back, the sense of accomplishment you will get from seeing a child with autism learn and grow will outweigh memories of a stressful day at work.
If you would like professional support for child’s autism, our highly experienced child autism specialist can help you get your child the right diagnosis and create a holistic treatment plan tailored to your child’s needs.
Depending on where the child is on the autism spectrum, they will have difficulties within different areas of learning. Getting an autistic child to focus may involve giving them 1:1 support, allowing them time to work in a quiet place or even helping them through the use of visual cues and imagery.
The important thing to remember is that each child will have different needs and varying degrees of focus. To provide the best support, the first thing you must do is understand the specific child and their needs.
There are plenty of things that can be done by both teachers and parents to help autistic children in the classroom.
Learning about them and monitoring their behaviours and responses is the best place to start. You may find that a child responds well during certain skills, or while performing tasks with other classmates. Noticing these patterns is key when it comes to helping a child perform to the best of their ability, as you may find you can tailor certain tasks to suit an autistic child and help them learn.
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