Supporting students with autism in the classroom

Supporting students with autism in the classroom

What is autism?

First thing’s first: what actually is autism? Contrary to what some may assume, it is not an illness or disease. A person with autism’s brain simply works in a different way from other people. It is a developmental disability with an unknown cause. It's something one is born with, and autistic people remain so for their whole lives. As the NHS explains, those with autism can:

  • find it hard to communicate and interact with other people
  • have difficulty understanding how other people think or feel
  • find stimuli such as bright lights or loud noises overwhelming, stressful or uncomfortable (so-called sensory overload)
  • become anxious or upset about unfamiliar situations and social events
  • take longer to understand information
  • have a narrow range of interests
  • do or think the same things over and over again.

Autism occurs across a spectrum (autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is the medical name for it). At one end of the spectrum, people exhibit mild autistic behaviours but need little support or none at all, and at the other end are those who need help from a parent, family members or carer every day. Asperger’s syndrome is also a type of autism and describes autistic people with average or above average intelligence.

What are some of the common behaviours of a child with autism?

While every autistic child is a unique individual, young people with autism often show these three types of behaviour:

  1. Stimming (short for 'self-stimulating behaviour') – a kind of repetitive behaviour, such as rocking, head-banging, hand-flapping, finger-flicking, repeating words, phrases or sounds or staring at lights or spinning objects.
  2. Meltdowns – a complete loss of control over their behaviour, caused by being overwhelmed.
  3. Aggression – either physical or verbal.

How does autism affect a child's social skills?

Because children and adults on the autism spectrum find it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling and have difficulties with communicating and interacting with others, they may need help in learning how to behave in different types of social situations. While they will often want to have social interactions very much, they might not know how to make friends. The new experience of talking to strangers can be completely overwhelming. As a result, autistic children can often appear to be withdrawn and indifferent to other people.

As the National Autistic Society describes, autistic children will often prefer to play on their own, or if they approach other children they will do it in an unusual way. They might also stand out by using overly formal language and rigidly sticking to rules.

It’s no wonder trying to understand what others mean and how to behave can be a bewildering, exhausting and stressful experience for autistic children.

“It's as if everybody is playing some complicated game and I am the only one who hasn't been told the rules,” a child with autism is quoted in Clare Sainsbury’s 2009 book ‘A Martian in the playground: understanding the schoolchild with Asperger’s syndrome.

How can teachers support children with autism in school?

More than 70% of children and young people with autism are educated in mainstream schools -- making autism awareness important to all education providers and support staff, but despite this, most teachers do not have any autism-specific training. According to a survey by the Ambitious about Autism charity, 60% of teachers in England felt their training in teaching children with autism was lacking.

While every child is different and an approach that works for one child may not work for another, there are still some teaching strategies that can be adopted to anticipate a student’s needs and create a positive learning environment for learners with autism.  

Emphasise routines

Autistic children place great importance on routines, and in fact all children and young people benefit from predictability; knowing what will happen and when. It can help if teachers have their routine displayed in the classroom, ideally in picture form, as images are easier to process than words. Disruptions and changes will of course happen, but teachers should bear in mind how difficult this can be for autistic students and give plenty of notice of any forthcoming changes to the schedule.

Manage change carefully

Daily transitions, such as going from class to class, activity to activity, or from class to break time can be hard for children with autism, who will prefer everything to stay the same. School year transitions and those from primary school to secondary school can also be challenging to autistic students. Above all, structure and consistency are essential. Visual aids and reminders, such as timers or a routine, can be handy tools, so students get plenty of warning and awareness of when transitions will occur.

Communicate clearly

Children with autism have varying levels of communication ability. Some may have delayed language development, find it hard to sustain a conversation, or speak very little at all. They may also take longer than usual to process written or spoken information. For example, they might take idioms such as ‘pull your socks up’ literally or misinterpret humour or sarcasm.  

Accordingly, children need to have time to process teachers’ questions. Demonstrations and modelling can help, as well as keeping instructions simple. Teachers can find it effective to repeat instructions and encourage students to say them back to them, if they are able.

Consider the cause of the behaviour

Children with autism are just as likely to be ‘naughty’ as those without, and just like other kids, they respond better to positive reinforcement than negative. As well as ensuring boundaries, teachers should try to identify the reason why an autistic child is behaving badly in the classroom – is it frustration or anxiety? It’s also important to separate intentional poor behaviour from unintentional stimming behaviours.

Think about classroom lay-out

An inclusive classroom should use calm, cool colours and not include distracting sensory stimulation, whether visual or auditory, that could make autistic children anxious. Consider a quiet ‘chill out area’ for students to go when they are frustrated and keep any changes to the classroom layout to a minimum.

Practise social skills

Those teaching students with autism might consider skills programmes to improve social competence, from practising eye contact to responding with empathy. This might include activities such as judging people’s emotions from pictures or role-playing social situations.


How can I motivate a child with autism in class?

“Autistic children’s brains are wired differently compared to neurotypical kids—yet they have to comply with standards set for a neurotypical world,” explains Yolande Loftus in Autism Parenting Magazine.

“Neurotypical children may be motivated to pay attention in class, because they know their ‘reward’ of recess will follow periods of concentration. For the autistic child, concentrating in class may be a struggle in itself, only to be ‘rewarded’ with recess—where children interact in a social way which the autistic brain may not see as motivating… at all!”

It’s not only that an autistic child’s idea of a reward can be different to other children’s. Studies have shown that the brain’s reward circuitry is compromised in people with ASD, which offers insights on why autistic people behave atypically when it comes to motivation. 

This ‘reward deficit’ in children with ASD should be considered when parents or teachers want to motivate autistic children. The child’s special interests, level of understanding and motivation should be weighed up to develop a reward system that is truly rewarding.

So rather than rewarding good behaviour with extra time in the playground, for a child with ASD it may work better to offer a treat focused on their special interests, which are very important and meaningful to people with autism. For example, if their special interest is trains, the reward could be time playing with a toy railway set.  

What are the advantages of using Applied Behavior Analysis?

ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) refers to interventions that are developed using behaviour analysis science. Behaviour analysts examine the causes and consequences of behaviour and then develop ways to modify it based on the information they’ve gathered. In autism, ABA’s strength is that it can address the individual child’s unique behaviour excesses and deficits.

Research shows it is most effective for children with autism as an intensive programme of 30 to 40 hours per week known as an Early Intensive Behavioural Intervention. However, other techniques from ABA, such as exchanging pictures and objects, sign language and specific behaviour management techniques can be useful tools on their own to target specific issues, support students and improve their learning experience.

Educators who leave no one behind

Queen Margaret University’s online MA Special and Inclusive Education programme is the perfect fit for professionals working with those with complex learning needs who want deeper knowledge of special educational needs, inclusive education and its role in society. Through an interdisciplinary lens, students explore inclusive education and the role it plays in emancipation, liberation, and true democracy. MA students also learn about the structural inequalities in both society and education, and their impact on educational outcomes. Through this process, the course teaches ways to address these inequalities in different contexts to make education inclusive and ensure that best practice is followed.

You’ll have the freedom and flexibility to study from anywhere, at any time as the master’s programmes are 100% online and designed to fit around your life.

Find out more