In this article
Supporting children with autism in the classroom will enable them to have a positive learning environment. In the UK, around 70% of children and young people on the Autistic Spectrum are educated in mainstream schools. However, teachers do not necessarily receive specific training regarding this complex condition. Furthermore, data has shown that children and young people with autism are less likely to achieve in education and more likely to be unemployed in adulthood.
This suggests that while UK policy and legislation promotes inclusive education, there are still barriers to its implementation; barriers that could potentially have a lasting impact on the lives and the educational experiences of children and young people.
This article will focus specifically on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and it will explore autism in the classroom further; examining the potential barriers to learning that people with autism may face. It will also refer to strategies and techniques that teachers could adopt to create a stress-free learning environment.
What is Autism?
Typically appearing in early childhood, autism is a lifelong developmental disorder that affects the way a person sees and understands the world around them. Across the UK, around 700,000 adults, young people and children have autism, which is around 1 in 100. Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls, at a ratio of 4:1.
Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder is an umbrella term. The autistic spectrum is broad, and we typically refer to this as mild to severe autism. The term ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ was originally used to refer to a mild form of autism, but this is no longer a formal diagnostic term.
Ultimately, people with autism are individuals, and the disorder affects people in unique ways. However, there are some difficulties that people with autism may share.
These are sometimes known as the triad of impairments and they include:
- A lack of social skills
- Repetitive behaviours
- Communication issues.
What Causes Autism?
Despite significant research, there is little known about the cause of autism. However, some evidence suggests that it may be due to genetics. For example, some studies have shown siblings of children with autism are at an increased likelihood of being diagnosed. However, this does not apply universally. We know autism is something people are born with and that there are some neurological differences in comparison with neuro-typical people.
We also know there is no one singular cause of autism, with research suggesting that there are several factors at play. In 1998, there were some fraudulent claims regarding a correlation between autism and the MMR vaccine. The author of this paper rebuked it, and such claims have been heavily disputed and disproved.
Autism in the Classroom
Inclusive education involves identifying and eradicating the barriers to learning that people may face. This means that teachers must facilitate learning and ensure that each child or young person‘s individual needs are being met. Teachers are obligated to ensure they differentiate learning to meet such needs so all students are able to reach their full potential.
However, despite over 70% of children and young people with autism being educated in mainstream provision, most teachers do not undergo autism-specific training. A 2013 survey by the charity Ambitious about Autism reported that as many as 60% of teachers in England felt they did not have adequate training. Moreover, research has consistently shown parents of children with autism are more likely to be dissatisfied with their child’s education.
Why is it Important to Know?
Whilst it is often assumed that inclusive education is concerned with education in the mainstream, this is not necessarily the case. This is supported by the National Autistic Society, who state that ‘inclusion is about the quality of a child’s experience’.
For some children, this will mean specialist provision. For others, it will mean that being in a mainstream school is better suited to their needs.
This should be a matter of parental preference, but that is not always the case. Each local authority has a responsibility to ensure that the child’s needs are being met and that any specialist help that they require is provided. However, without a statement or assessment, it can be difficult to get these resources put into place.
To ensure that children have access to appropriate support, children need to be assessed. Previously, this meant that children had to have a SEND Statement, but these have been replaced with an Education Health and Care Plan (EHC). An EHC plan supports children up to the age of 25 and is a multi-disciplinary approach to ensuring all the child’s needs are met. All students should also have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) as laid out in the Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND) Code of Practice.
Managing Autism in the Classroom
As we have previously mentioned, all children with autism are ultimately individuals and what works for one child, may not necessarily work for another. However, there are some things that teachers can do to create a positive learning environment.
All children and young people do better in a structured environment, and having a routine in place can be beneficial for the entire class. They can provide a child with a sense of security; knowing what will happen and when can empower children and also reduce stress and anxiety.
Routines can be important for children with autism, and it can help if teachers have their routine displayed in the classroom. Using pictures for this routine can be helpful, as images are easier for children to process. You could also take them down as you move through the different sections of the day. However, it remains that disruption and change are an inevitable part of classroom life. This can be difficult for autistic students, and teachers should give plenty of notice regarding any impending changes to the schedule.
If predictability is key, then transitions can certainly be a challenge, especially for students with autism. This includes daily transitions, such as going from class to class, activity to activity, or from class to break time. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that up to 25% of the school day is spent in transition activities. This also includes bigger transitions like going from primary to secondary school.
Children with autism tend to prefer ‘sameness’ and they may struggle with the cognitive adjustments necessary to transition. These struggles may result in increased anxiety, frustration or stress. As a result, teachers should have an awareness of the importance of managing transitions to help to keep the learning environment as stress-free as possible. There are lots of resources online regarding transition strategies for each age group, but above all, structure and consistency are essential. Teachers could also utilise visual reminders, such as timers or a routine, so students are aware of when the transitions are likely to take place.
Children with autism have varying levels of communicative abilities. Communicative issues may also include delayed language development, challenges in sustaining a conversation, and a lack of verbal and non-verbal communication. Children with autism may also experience cognitive processing delays. These have little to do with a child’s capacity or intelligence, but it is about how the brain processes written or verbal information. For example, they often take things that we say literally and so we should avoid using even the most common of idioms as they can easily be misinterpreted. Many children with autism find it challenging to read social clues and non-verbal signals and some may also misinterpret sarcasm, irony or humour.
As a result, if we are asking questions, all children need to have time to process the question properly. Teachers should use demonstrations and modelling wherever possible, keep instructions simple, and avoid the use of figurative or abstract language. Things will still get lost in translation, so it is also important to repeat instructions and encourage students to say them back to you if they are able.
Teachers know that developing classroom management and behaviour strategies is always important and, ultimately, children with autism are just as likely to be ‘naughty’ as children without. Moreover, research has shown that like all children, they are much more likely to respond to positive reinforcement than negative.
As well as ensuring that boundaries are in place, we also need to try to understand where these behaviours are coming from before we respond. For example, children with autism may exhibit difficult behaviours because of frustration, anxiety, or just not being appropriately supported. To address such behaviours, teachers must keep calm and work to identify the why. As a whole class, you could also practise mindfulness and introduce breathing techniques for when any of the children are struggling to manage their emotions. Children with autism may also benefit from a time-out card, so they can go to a quiet ‘chill out’ area when they are struggling.
Furthermore, it is important to differentiate between intentional behaviour and that which is not. For example, people with autism may engage in stimming, which includes repetitive movements such as flapping their hands or rocking back and forth. This is often because of anxiety, boredom or frustration, but it is not necessarily something that they are aware of doing. It is also important to be aware of the other potential effects of autism on the child’s learning experience. For example, some students may have trouble with organisational skills and may not do their homework. This is likely to affect pupils of secondary school age, but practising organisation from a young age can have long-term positive effects.
The Physical Environment
To create an inclusive classroom, we also need to consider the physical environment. Your classroom layout should be carefully planned and structured for different activities. You could also include a separate ‘chill out’ area for pupils to go to when they are feeling frustrated. When decorating, use calm cool colours and remove distracting visual and auditory stimulation that could potentially induce anxiety.
Known as sensory overload, autistic people can experience intense reactions to sensory stimulation. Children will often have individual sensitivities, and it is advised that you speak to the parents in advance to know about the individual needs of your student. It is also important to sort out your classroom layout in advance of students starting the school year, as changes during term time could result in further stress.
Practising Social Skills
Due to difficulties with communication and social skills, children with autism often experience challenges in developing relationships with others. As a result, they can find social situations difficult.
However, classrooms are social environments, with plenty of opportunities for children to practise. Teachers could set up social skills programmes that aim to improve social competence. Whether it is practising eye contact or responding with empathy, social skills interventions can play a valuable therapeutic role. This could also include activities such as gauging people’s emotions from pictures or role-playing typical social situations.
Raising awareness involves encouraging open conversation with other students, explaining the differences in thinking and teaching the importance of inclusion. This is particularly important as research by the Autism Education Trust has shown that over 40% of children with ASD have been bullied at some point in their school lives.
In the UK, teachers are responsible for ensuring that they teach children the fundamental British values, of which including and equality are central. Celebrating neurodiversity and raising awareness of autism amongst the class can help to improve everyone’s relationships. A great way to introduce the conversation about autism into the classroom is by celebrating Autism Awareness Month or Autism Awareness Day on 2nd April.
Parents are your allies when it comes to meeting any student’s needs, and sharing knowledge is essential for success. Parents and guardians are experts when it comes to their own child’s needs, and they will already know how their child reacts to certain situations.
As part of professional practice, teachers are obligated to work in partnership with parents, and this relationship should be one based on mutual trust and understanding. However, despite often having a high level of contact with teachers and the school, studies have frequently shown parents with children with autism are less likely to be satisfied with school communication.
Fundamentally, it is important to remember that children and young people with autism are a unique group. Each child is an individual and no two people are affected by the disorder in the same way. Just because you have met one individual with autism, does not mean the same techniques can be applied. Ultimately, we have to find the method to fit the child, rather than attempt to fit the child to the method.
The differentiation of learning is primarily concerned with ensuring that each student’s needs are being met. Children with autism may also have been diagnosed with accompanying learning differences, such as dyslexia or ADHD. Furthermore, a small percentage of people with ASD are known as savants because they possess a particular talent which makes them gifted. This is also a SEND, but it is stereotypical to assume this applies to all.
If You Don’t Know, Ask.
We cannot be expected to know everything and we should never feel we are unable to ask for help.
Teachers play an important role as part of the multi-disciplinary team around the child, and it is important that children with autism feel supported in the classroom. Schools must have a Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) who is responsible for ensuring the inclusion of all students with SEN. If you have any further questions, the SENCO is usually a great place to start.
Ultimately, there is no teaching recipe. It is a learning process and the success of any teaching method will depend on the individual. However, some strategies can be adopted, which aim to ensure that all children are better prepared for the future. Many of these strategies, such as routines, the use of positive reinforcement and mindfulness, are beneficial to all children. They can play a critical role in the provision of a positive learning environment that fosters a sense of inclusion and the celebration of difference.
This guide has broken down the many factors that you need to consider when managing autism in the classroom. However, it has been reiterated throughout that autism is a heterogeneous condition, with no two people having the same experiences. As we have previously said, just because you have taught one child with autism, does not mean the next one will be the same. Moreover, just because the strategies discussed in this guide have been successful for some children with autism, it does not mean they will be successful for all.