Supporting Children With Autism In The Classroom

How do we best support neurodiverse children in the classroom

Children on the autism spectrum or those with ADHD have a range of presenting issues and needs, so there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to teaching them.  There are, however, some core issues that teachers should be aware of, and behaviours that might indicate the child is not coping in the classroom. 

Anger, Anxiety or Sensory Overload?

Teachers often report students on the spectrum having ‘meltdowns’ or behavioural tantrums inside and outside of the classroom.  If a child has difficulties with communication, emotional insight and self-regulation, it is often difficult for them to communicate what they are feeling or why they are behaving a certain way.  It is important to realise that underlying what appears to be angry behaviour may be anxiety, sadness confusion, tiredness, hunger, sensory overload or frustration.

Strategies for Emotional Regulation

It is unhelpful to challenge a child or put them on the spot when they are upset or angry.   Sometimes adults demand explanations of children when they are unable to explain how they are feeling and have not yet processed what has happened.  The most effective strategy in a highly charged situation is to speak calmly to the child, allow them some space to cool off or calm down in a quiet area, ensuring the child is safe and defusing the situation by removing other children from the situation, if possible.  Neurodiverse children often need support to learn about their emotions.  An important aspect of this is to label emotions.  As an adult it is useful for you to support this development by stating, for example, ‘you look like you are feeling angry’.  Studies have shown that simply labelling emotions can help reduce their intensity.  It also helps children to feel validated, and helps them learn to recognise and put a name to their feelings.

Reward the child with praise or an external reward for calming down.  Once they are calm, talk through what they were feeling and what happened.  Use visual strategies such as apps with feelings faces, scales or feelings stickers to help the child express their emotions.  It can be helpful for the child to have their own mood diary or sticker book where they can indicate how they are feeling and note down what triggered off this emotion.  Over time, you as an adult can help the child notice any patterns that might trigger off emotions, such as time of day, subject matter, tiredness, hunger, change, or sensory stimuli.  The first step to emotional regulation is developing such awareness.  Helping children identify their feelings and potential triggers empowers them by helping them to be prepared for future situations.  It is also enables you as their teacher to prepare by preventing possible difficult situations in the future, or helping the child prepare for them.

Many children may not notice when they are hot/cold/tired/hungry or overstimulated.  Perhaps it has been a noisy, chaotic day in the classroom and this has overwhelmed them today.  Getting to know the neurodiverse child in your classroom will empower you and help you to realise these behaviours are communicative in themselves, and helpful in that the student is showing you when they are not coping. They are externalising the uncomfortable feelings, and this is useful so that you can help them to learn coping skills and self- management.

Calming strategies

  • Provide a quiet room or area for the child where there is less noise and sensory stimulation. Allow the child to go there for breaks when you notice they are becoming agitated.
  • Allow the child to have time out where they can read quietly or have a reward such as computer time.
  • Enable an activity break by getting the child to do a job- for example, take the lunch orders to the canteen.
  • Allow the child to have a fiddle toy so they have something active to do with their fingers.  Perhaps they can have a ‘Calming Box’ where they can place some of their favourite things that will help them calm down.

Teaching Strategies

Children with ASD, along with many children with other types of disability, benefit from visual supports.   Most children in the classroom will benefit from reducing verbal instruction and using visual and concrete materials whenever possible.   When verbal instructions are given, also write up the key points visually or have a handout the child can take with them.  Allow the child to take a photo of the instructions with their iPad or electronic device if possible.

Children on the spectrum may struggle with group work due to social and communication challenges.   You could start slowly by pairing the child with just one other child, rather than expecting them to join a larger group.  It may also be helpful to offer the student a special job, such as being leader of the group.  You might need to prompt and provide more support such as rules and guidelines for the group.

Structure and routine are important for children on the spectrum.  Providing visual timetables and schedules for the whole class is useful. 

There are many gadgets and apps now for children who struggle with writing. This is often an area of challenge for children on the spectrum.  Consider allowing them to dictate their story or ideas into a recording device or dictation device, to encourage generation of ideas.

Many children with autism also have other challenges, for example, with working memory, attention, processing speed or other learning difficulties.  Ensure you have read any reports from speech pathologists or psychologists who have completed assessment with the child.  If you are not sure how to implement strategies for your student, speak to your welfare coordinator or visiting school psychologists and speech therapists for ideas. 

It is crucial to consult with the child’s parent/s who have a wealth of knowledge about their child.  The best outcomes for children occur when family and school work together with common goals, and communicate clearly with each other.   School is often stressful and anxiety provoking for parents of children with special needs, particularly when their children change classes or teachers, or when their child’s behaviour is challenging. 

Remember that when parents feel supported they will be less anxious and their child will feel better about school too.  Having regular meetings with parents and/or a communication book is recommended to support the relationship between home and school.