5 Ways to Support Autistic Kids in Your Classroom

If you’ve had the joy of teaching an Autistic child, you’ll know just how critical a supportive environment can be.

But sadly, for so many Autistic kids, the right environment and support measures aren’t in place. And the impact of this is profound - as we know, a child’s experience at school can shape their self-identity in real and lasting ways.

So BFFs, today I’m sharing five ways to support Autistic kids in your classroom. I’m sharing some of the resources, experts and questions you can draw upon to build a neurodivergent affirmative classroom.

 

1. Be Guided by the Experts

Who are the greatest experts when it comes to Autism? Autistic people! 

Listening to the lived experience of Autistic people is paramount. The Autistic voice needs to inform any work to implement accommodations or supportive practices. 

So, to kick us off, I reached out to Cherie Clonan - a proud AUDHD’er (that’s Autism + ADHD) and Mum to an amazing Autistic son. 

She explained, “The biggest thing is that every Autistic experience is different. And therefore, learning experiences will be affected differently. Every single day an Autistic child goes to school they are heading into an environment not really set up to include their neurotype, no matter how inclusive the school is.”

“The environment alone isn't designed for neurodistinct individuals, like the sensory overwhelm of a classroom or playground. The changing rules and expectations. The social communication challenges. Autistic children are impacted from a mental health and wellbeing perspective, and many have to ‘mask’ in order to survive.”

There are so many wonderful Autistic folk online who are proud and keen to be advocates in this space. Never underestimate the value of a simple convo when it comes to understanding others’ lived experiences. Reach out to your Autistic mates and ask their thoughts on school, you’ll learn so much.

The importance of a personalised approach and understanding was backed up for me, as I chatted to Support Education Consultant, Jenni Heffernan. 

She said, “The biggest trap for teachers is to generalise their understanding of Autism, instead of understanding the individual. You can’t just plonk Autistic kids into an artificial classroom and expect them to be motivated. The more you know the individual the more you can support them.”


 

2. Seek Trusted Professionals

In addition to the expertise of everyday Autistic people, there are some fantastic professionals who work in this space. 

And when it comes to building safe and supportive classrooms, engaging professional support is so important. 

One Autistic person who does incredible work in this field is Sonny Jane Wise, aka livedexperienceeducator. BFFs, I can’t recommend their work enough - take some time to check out, support and engage their offerings. It’ll be a game-changer for you, no doubt about it!

Another powerhouse is Sandhya Menon. She’s a Neurodivergent Paediatric Psychologist, and much like Sonny, she has online resources, workshops and services that are just groundbreakingly good. 

If you’re looking for fantastic professionals in your local area, my hot tip is this: pay close attention to the language they use. 

Do they talk about Autistic traits or challenges as deficits? Do they use problematic and outdated terms like ‘Aspergers’ or ‘high-functioning?’ These are red flags, my friends! 

Neurodivergent affirmative practitioners will be deeply conscious of the language they use and will advocate for others to do the same.

Sandhya Menon, @onwardsandupwardspsych.
 
 

3. Consider Sensory Needs and Dysfunction 

Thankfully, the awareness that Autistic kids have specialised sensory needs is growing each year. 

And every day I see your gorgeous classrooms fill my feed with breakout spaces, sensory play stations and sensory tools like the ones Sonny describes below.

A graphic with a black background has organic shapes in bright pastel hues. The text reads as follows: Tips for Sensory Needs. Frequent sensory breaks. Weighted blanket/vest. Noise-cancelling headphones. Swings, chairs and hammocks. Fidget items. Trampoline and soft mats. Low, warm or soft lighting. Plan ahead! Sensory play, e.g.- putty. Comfort or safe foods. Sleeping masks and sunglasses. Bear hugs or deep pressure hugs. Chew jewellery. White-noise machine.Sonny Jane Wise, @livedexperienceeducator

But there’s more we can do!

After thirty years in Support Education, Consultant Jenni Heffernan shared some simple accommodations that made the world of difference for her students. She said:

  • Ask your student and their parents to send you an introduction letter outlining the ways they like to be supported. Provide prompts like ‘I learn best when…’ or ‘You’ll notice I’m stressed by…’ or ‘My current passion is….’
  • Invite your students to visit the classroom before they settle into it. Ask their feedback on air conditioning, light, seats, visual clutter and more. 
  • Similarly, for older students, invite them to choose the ideal spot in an exam room. Speak with examiners to advocate for your students. For some students, the middle of the room is hell! The right space will make all the difference to their performance.
  • Provide a green card or a symbol that signals, for example, that the student needs to walk outside around the building twice. Wordless aides can help when a meltdown or overwhelm is building.
  • Above all else, build strong relationships with students with Autism, and keep an open door for them to pop in as needed. They can often feel so trapped in an environment that’s a poor fit.

From my own resources, I’ve found that the Home Routine and Daily Schedule Cards, and the Visual Timetable Displays can be really useful for Autistic students.

A whiteboard is a classroom is lined with faux ivy. There are hand small circular signs with hand signals signifying things like yes, no and toilet. There are a number of displays showing a schedule, class jobs, learning intentions and more.
Planned, controlled and consistent environments can often be super helpful for kids with Autism. Image via @learningwithmiss_campbell, featuring the Spotty Brights product range.

Similarly, the Voice Level Displays and Hand Signals can help with the management of noise, which is so important for an Austistic-friendly classroom.

Hand Signals and Voice Level Displays can help cut through the noise that can be truly unsettling for some Autistic kiddos. Images via @misslass_class and @thanyoungeducator, using Spotty Neutrals and Boho Rainbow ranges.

For many Autistic kids, routine, predictability and clarity are essential for their happiness, security and success in the classroom. These visual displays can play a small but mighty part in that!


 
 

4. Educate Yourself about Differences

In addition to sensory needs, there’s a range of experiences that Autistic people can face, and knowing how to support these experiences will make a major impact. 

I’ve popped together a little list of these differences, linking to some amazing content from people with lived experience or specialised expertise.

So, here are some common Autistic differences and traits to learn about, via the amazing @onwardsandupwardspsych and @livedexperienceeducator:

Now, of course, it bears repeating that none of these experiences or strategies will fit all Autistic kids. And there are so many more differences to learn about.

Like… *checks notes*... absolutely-every-human-ever, we all take time to learn who we are, how we thrive and what we need.

Ms Chyna has such a gorgeous IG account sharing the ways she supports primary kids in support education. Source: @especiallysped

When I think back (with horror!) at how little time my uni degree devoted to neurodiversity, it really drives home the need for self-led education. There’s so much we can learn from each other too. 

I reached out via IG stories recently to ask you guys about your approaches, and your responses were fantastic. I’ll share one below.

A screenshot of an Instagram DM reads: ‘1. Always approach behaviours from a place of care. You never really know what home is like. 2. Keep communication open. Every child wants to be heard and feel seen. By allowing them random thoughts and conversations they’ll build a trust in you being there when they need you to listen. 3. Allow for processing time. If reading a book, I will usually ask a question before I start reading ‘when I’m reading this book I want you to look for… and I’ll ask you at the end’ this gives the student time to understand what’s being asked and also takes off the pressure felt from being put on the spot. 4. Challenging behaviours always have a reason. Approach calmly to find the source or real reason for the outburst. 5. Visual schedules really do help some. I used a mixture of class schedules and individual (first, next, then) visual supports for my kids which also allows for breakdowns of the task so they can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I always love hearing your approach, and the lovely Ami from @mumma_makeup_and_me shared some of her thoughts over on IG.



5. Celebrate Neurodiversity

Every human is completely unique - irrespective of where they lie with neurodiversity.

But as I chatted to parents, teachers and Autistic folk, there were some descriptive words that just came up again and again - passionate, loyal, empathetic, detailed, and funny. 

There is so much to celebrate when it comes to neurodistinct kids - whether it’s their creativity, enthusiasm, analytic thinking, tangential thinking - the list is endless.

Cherie put it best when she said “Autistic children have intense special interests, which can positively impact not only their own learning experiences ... but that of their peers as well. If you've ever wanted a classmate to go on an incredible adventure to deeply unpack the educational curriculum? Buddy them up with an Autistic child who has an intense special interest within that area.”

I have to say, throughout writing this blog post, there was one thing that kept coming to mind - and that was elephants. (Bear with me on this one BFFs!) 

I kept coming back to the thought that you can tether a circus elephant - capable of clearing trees in the wild - to a thin pole if they’re conditioned the right way. They can go their whole lives not knowing the power they have.

And I see our classrooms as having that same kind of potential.

The wrong environment tethers kids to the belief that there’s something ‘wrong’ with them or that they’re inherently flawed. But with the right support and neurodiversity affirming practices, we rip those thin poles out. We help kids unleash their true potential.

After all, helping students see their strengths clearly and their differences without judgement is my favourite teaching superpower.

A sand-coloured graphic says ‘Children cannot learn unless they feel safe and secure. Esther Fidock @gatherandplayau.
Another must-follow and a beautiful note to end on. Source: The amazing Esther at @gatherandplayau.

 

 

Miss Jacobs Little Learners Ways to Support Autistic Kids in your classroom

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