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Teaching Children with Autism - Classroom Tips

18/04/18

Having over 20 years of teaching experience and coming from a family of teachers, Emma filled this blog with practical suggestions for teachers who are struggling with delivering curriculum to autistic students.

When I first started teaching more than twenty years ago, autism was hardly recognised, and specialist teachers were trained to support children that were identified with having autistic traits. The children were almost all in special schools. Two members of my family are specialist teachers, and their schools do great work supporting children and their families.

Over the past twenty years there has, thankfully, been an increase in the number of children being seen to be on the autistic spectrum and included in mainstream education. As autism is a spectrum disorder, there is no straightforward, one-size fits all solution to supporting children and families. While all of us are unique, and any child has needs and interests that make them special, a child with autism may have very specific way of thinking that requires sensitive and careful interaction.

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

1. Use their particular interests

Children with autism often have an in-depth knowledge of particular topics and areas – from diggers and dumpers, Thomas the Tank Engine, Star Wars, trains, Eddie Stobart lorries to the Roman Invasion and the Ancient Egyptians. You can capitalise on that by creating class projects that you know will make them feel included and encourage them to participate in what is going on with their peers. Alternatively, give them an individual project that will stretch them and develop the skills you are looking for, using their interest as a starting point. For the very young children, if you are working on sounds, numbers, key words etc., including something they like, like a unicorn on the focus letters or numerals, can be a good strategy. This may be tempting but a word of warning, the children can be so distracted by the tantalising object that they can’t focus on what you want them to be doing. Add stickers/pictures of images they like to work/target sheets and the children will think they are brilliant.

2. Don’t lower expectations, have different ones

Too many times have heard teachers from pupils’ parents that their child with autism ‘won’t be able to do that; he’ll play with sand instead’. There are limits to what children can do, and we must be realistic, but let’s not be blind to what they can do. Give them the opportunity to experience teaching, materials, and equipment, at whatever level they can. This is where your knowledge about the children in your care is fundamental. If they can’t complete a written task, can they dictate to an adult or a peer?

3. Prepare tasks that are simple and clear

Give instructions one at a time and prepare all the work in their books for them in advance. If you use worksheets, make them as plain as you can – while other children like details, they can be hugely distracting to children with autism.

4. Keep your language literal

Avoid idioms and colloquialisms. This will help clarity and understanding as children with autism can, and do, take you literally. Playing with language is great fun but make it clear that you are doing this first, to give them a heads up (*three heads look up*).

WHAT YOU NEED TO HAVE

1. A visual timetable

…and not just for those on the Autistic Spectrum. If asked, most children (and adults) like to know what is coming up in their day, so having a visual aid to let everyone know helps enormously. Of course, changes of plan happen, and when they do, talk these through: explain what is changing and why it is happening.

2. WALT and WILF whiteboards

Wherever we stand on the issue of Learning Objectives and targets children do appreciate knowing what we are learning today and what they are expected to do. Children with autism often seek reassurance, and therefore having something to refer to gives them comfort. So, having a sign in the classroom that gives them the necessary details is no bad thing.

3. Sensory area

Having a safe space to go to is a must for children with autism. They can have moments of sensory overload, when the noise and normal hustle of a busy classroom can just get too much. Having a dark, calm area to chill out in is as necessary as sports field for the footballers in your class. Fill it with cushions, a lava lamp or soft drapes. I know, everyone might not have space for such luxuries, but a quiet corner can usually be found somewhere (literally a corner – I’ve seen them under shelving units, the bottom of cupboards; two ancient pillows and a blanket and you’re there in a magic place). Include a ‘treat’ item in the sensory area (Star Wars toy, unicorn, teddy, etc.).

4. A special place to be

Interpreting the world is scary and it doesn’t always do what they expect or want them to do. After a while calming down, they might want to work in quite environment for some time. Having a desk on their own with plenty of space around is the answer. Make this a positive experience and make it feel like it was the child’s choice. Let other children use it if they want to. It shouldn’t be a shameful thing at all.

5. A discovery area

Let children get the sense of something… literally; feel the materials, smell, taste (when appropriate), hear, see the materials up close on their own, in their own space.

SUPPORTING FAMILIES

• A diagnosis of ASD can be difficult. While it can be beneficial to have an acknowledgement and recognition, it can be hard to accept what the diagnosis means on an emotional level. In the early days after diagnosis, there will be a period of mixed emotions, so be prepared for anything. While you are not responsible for the diagnosis or the disorder, parents and families will look to you for support. Listen to them and refer them to your SENCO or local support groups.

• Parents and families will ask your advice about their child. You will get to know their child well and be able to give them advice based on your knowledge. Trust yourself and your judgement. However, you MUST talk through strategies with your school SENCO and colleagues, especially if you aren’t sure about something. It is important that you share your thoughts with someone who knows you, the child and the family concerned as they will have the necessary background for making a fully informed response to any queries. If necessary, call in the school SENCO to support you. Remember that you are not alone and that none of us have all the answers.

• Find out more about Autism and how to support families here:

o The National Autistic Society 
o Top Ten Autism Websites and World Autism Week 

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