Ten strategies to help your autistic students

Written by: Adele Devine | Published:

Teacher and author Adele Devine offers 10 strategies for supporting children who are on the autism spectrum in the mainstream school setting

It is rush hour in London and you are about to experience the Underground, for the first time. The train is jam-packed. Smells turn your stomach. The noise of unintelligible people is your “nails down a blackboard” sound. The doors shut squishing you in and the ground begins to wobble violently. Are you on the right train? How long will this ordeal last? You look around for a visual map to count down the stops.

Imagine if arriving at school felt the same as getting on that train. Autism spectrum conditions (ASCs) can intensify sensory experiences, heighten anxiety, and affect communication and social skills. It is up to us to observe, find the cause of anxiety and improve the emotional journey.

Every person with autism is different and autism can partner so many other conditions, which will affect learning. A student may have autism and dyslexia, autism and ADHD, autism and learning delays or autism and giftedness. The list goes on – so where do we start? Here are my top 10 tried and tested strategies to support learners on the autism spectrum.

Motivate the individual

What gets those commuters on a jam-packed train in the first place? They want or need to get from “a” to “b”. Think of the school day as one long journey. Lessons are individual trains caught during the commute. What is the incentive? Are we meeting a “want” or a “need” in our students? Do they see the point? Is there any way that you could adapt so that they feel more accommodated, motivated or more in control? What if the class was a little quieter, a little less crowded or a little more predictable?

What if someone happened to be demonstrating the latest mini-robot (your student loves robots)? Think Pied Piper tactics. How did the Piper get the children to follow him from Hamlin? He played their music.

Provide a schedule

Compare the schedule to the map on the train. It is providing vital information about the day. How long do I need to sit still? How long until lunch? Routines and repetition make us all feel safe. A student may need an individual schedule if they have different activities on their timetable. Try to keep familiar structures and give advance notice if there will be a change. It is not only what is happening during lessons that is important. Other things, beyond teacher control, may be the difference between a good or bad day. “What’s for lunch?” “Will rain mean no football?”

Information helps the learner with autism to mentally prepare themselves, avoids disappointment and builds trust.
We may need to break-down our lessons further with schedules for activities. We know that 10 minutes sustained attention has more value than 30 minutes of anxiety.

Bridging transitions

Lack of structure and movement create noise and can heighten anxiety. Structure transition times and prepare to compromise, allowing the student to choose something that will reduce anxiety.

Too much teacher talk can add to anxiety so find a visual way to show when it is time to transition. A dry-wipe board can be a very quick way to present information without talking. Having information on the board also allows the student to process the expectation before the transition occurs.

Some students find demands difficult. Following someone else’s agenda reduces their control and creates anxiety. These students can transition, but they need a creative teacher so that they don’t feel transitioning is a demand.
Careful planning, preparation and communication are all essential to support transitions to a new class or new school.

Add structure

Tasks and activities should be broken down so that the stages are clearly mapped. Allow students to master new skills through repetition.

An activity that requires skills they have not yet perfected might feel impossible or overwhelming. The student may not see the stages in learning and they may fear failing.

Provide achievable tasks with a set structure and the student with autism will see that they can “have a go”. As we build trust they will begin to stretch themselves, but we must gauge individual pace. Also ensure that the tasks either have a functional purpose or are related to their motivators (ideally both).

Help the student to learn organisation skills so that they have a system for having the right books on the right day, revising etc. Colour-coded systems can be effective.

Use rewards

We all like rewards. In our school we use reward boards to show expectations and promise a reward. Think about your individual student and find a way to show they are working towards a reward. Teachers might use a tick list as we go through planning and reward ourselves with a cup of tea when we are half-way through and we get through the week looking forward to some time to ourselves. Maybe it’s a swim or a take-away? These are rewards. Share how you use rewards with students so they can apply it to doing their homework or revising. Build this into your lessons for all students. Show them you “get” how hard it can be to sit inside and focus on a hot sunny day.
Take care with whole-class reward systems as your student with autism may be fiercely competitive and like to be first.

Never remove a reward earned and listen if they suggest an injustice. Whole-class punishments are a huge “no”. We can add to free time as a reward, but never threaten to remove it.

Give them time

How long is the activity going to last? The learner with autism may be struggling with sensory issues and anxiety will intensify these. They will not want to waste their time. Studies have revealed that children with autism are most likely to miss out the unnecessary steps when given a task. These students might not simply follow because something is on your plan. They like to know why and they like to know how long.

Provide a visual way to show time elapsing – a time timer, sand timer or adapted clock. Add timer symbols to schedules (if that will help).

Be aware that the student may process differently. They may not respond as quickly.

Meet sensory needs

Learners with autism may see things differently, they may experience pain from sounds that we do not notice or they may be highly sensitive to touch. Anxiety will heighten these sensitivities. Maybe one day a student can sit in the canteen, but the next day there is a different smell or earlier demands have reduced their ability to cope. We must give them time and try to see through their eyes.

A learner with autism may need more physical activity built into their day. They may need to twiddle or seek comfort from deep pressure. Be aware and prepare to support these differing needs. Never allow anyone to belittle or judge. You may need to do some whole-class work about sensory issues.

Prepare for change

Things do not always go to plan. Maybe PE is replaced with a play rehearsal or a broken down coach prevents an outing. Prepare the student in advance by teaching them that a “whoops!” is a part of life.

We build these into the day so that the unexpected becomes a part of our routine. We all like structure and routine, but life does not always follow set plans and it is up to us to teach coping strategies. Breathing can be a great way to tackle stress, but we must teach the student this skill during calm times.

Improve communication

Establish open communication with parents early. Find out what motivates the individual student, what triggers anxiety and what are they like at home? A phone call tells parents that you care and that they can reach out if they need support.

Many parents will say that “homework is an absolute nightmare” because the student does not see school work as a part of their home routines. Work with the parents on these things and you will make long-term differences. I recall working with a boy who found homework overwhelming. Together we made a list of what he needed to do and he decided when he would like to schedule a break.

Following TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication-related handicapped Children) structures, we put all the work on the left and had a “finished” tray on the right. Adding these structures to homework made such a difference.

Opening communication lines with the headteacher can be really effective. Have a school post box where students can send a letter to the headteacher if something has caused them stress, made them angry or uncomfortable. Posting the issue and feeling they have been able to express it can be a huge relief.

Use the student’s name so that they know when your talking relates to them. Speak directly and clearly with a consistent, controlled volume. Never shout. If the student does not yet speak then provide the means for them to communicate their way.

Build their trust

Be consistent, be fair and listen. Love what they love. Let them know that they can talk to you, ask you questions. You will never belittle, judge or betray them and you will always have their backs. Create a calm, uncluttered space where they feel safe. Keep your promises. If you say an activity will finish in five minutes then stick to it.

Conclusion

Sir Isaac Newton (who like many of our brilliant artists, inventors and innovators has been posthumously diagnosed with autism) once observed: “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”

When it comes to teaching students with autism we must continually build bridges. Be aware of the sensory issues and anxieties that often partner autism. Take the time to observe and listen and you will start to see and respond in a whole new way.

  • Adele Devine is a teacher at Portesbery School, an all-age day school (2 to 19) in Surrey catering for children and young people with severe learning difficulties. She is the author of Colour Coding for Learners with Autism, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, and was a finalist in the Award for Achievement by an Individual Education Professional category at this year’s Autism Professional Awards run by the National Autistic Society.


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