Supporting autistic students

How teachers can support students with autism

We mark World Autism Awareness Week by looking at how we, as educators, can support and help our pupils to flourish and become more confident individuals when faced with everyday challenges.

Thanks to increasing acceptance, awareness and improved support networks within the education system, many children with autism are able to access their education via a mainstream setting. However, there's still much work to be done to change perceptions and improve alarming statistics — for example, only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time paid employment.

Teaching children with autism is an extremely rewarding experience. Each pupil is unique in their own way, with their own individual needs, strengths and differences. However, most pupils on the autism spectrum are vulnerable to high levels of stress and anxiety. With the right levels of understanding and support, we can reduce this anxiety and provide more opportunities for them to manage their behaviour and function in the real world.

Over 700,000 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum, and many myths surrounding the disorder still persist. But it’s vital to remember that autism is a lifelong condition and there is no cure. Providing the right support at the right time, therefore, can have an enormously positive impact on the lives of autistic children  enabling them to fulfil their potential and prepare for a bright future.
 

1) Develop an in-depth understanding of autism

As teachers, it’s vital that we remain open and receptive to the signs and characteristics of the autism spectrum. Without a proper understanding of the condition, autistic children and their families are at risk of becoming isolated and developing mental health problems.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong condition that affects people in different ways, meaning the signs and characteristics can vary substantially from person to person. However, the two most common characteristics according to the NHS are:

  • difficulties with social communication and interaction autistic students may find it hard to join in conversations or make friends;
  • repetitive behaviour, routines and activities including fixed daily routines and repetitive body movements.

There are various types of autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger syndrome, Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) and Pervasive Development Disorder (PDD-NOS). Though the exact causes of autism are unknown, it’s thought that a complex mix of genetic and environmental factors are involved.

Autism is a hidden disability, so it’s not always possible to tell if a student is autistic if they have not been given a proper medical diagnosis. For more on recognising autism and offering support, this page from the National Autism Society provides information on how to respond.
 

2) Anticipate the signs of meltdowns

Individuals with autism can experience sudden bouts of anxiety known as meltdowns, which occur when a person becomes completely overwhelmed by external stimuli.

Meltdowns can be extremely distressing and can cause people to temporarily lose control of their behaviour. This loss of behavioural control can manifest itself verbally (e.g. shouting, screaming) and/or physically (e.g. lashing out, biting).

Meltdowns can be set off by a range of triggers, the most common of which are:

  • sensory overload many autistic people are over-sensitive to some senses, which can cause them to panic in a high arousal environment such as a noisy playground or busy train station;
  • changes in routine predictable routines are very important for autistic people, which is why unstructured times such as lunch and break can trigger a spike in anxiety;
  • communication difficulties autistic people can find it difficult to properly express their emotions, and this can lead to overwhelming feelings of frustration and anger.
     

Learning to identify these early warning signs will allow you to intervene in a way that keeps stress to a minimum — both for you and the student. In such an instance, try to employ calming strategies such as distraction, diversion and removing any potential triggers. Don’t forget to keep yourself calm, too.
 

3) Build rapport with the parents or guardians

When it comes to autism education, no one is better placed or better motivated to give you guidance than their parents or guardians of autistic students. After all, there’s a strong likelihood that they know the students better than anyone else.

Forging a good relationship with the parents will provide you with valuable insights into a student’s life — including their diagnosis, habits, behaviours and interests. Parents will also be able to provide information on which stimuli can trigger a meltdown.

Some parents may be autistic themselves. You can find out more about supporting autistic parents here.
 

4) Ask for additional support

Children on the autism spectrum often require extra attention, and reaching out for assistance will help you manage the student’s needs without disrupting the education of the other students in your class.

If possible, it’s also a good idea to have a teaching assistant on standby. They will be able to take the child to a designated area where they can unwind and rejoin the class whenever they’re ready.

Having a behavioural consultant on hand can also be effective if you are teaching an autistic student who has been exhibiting behavioural problems.
 

5) Tailor the curriculum to the student’s interests

Autistic children will often have obsessions or intense interests, and they may persistently talk about their favourite topic or object. Often, these interests can develop into outright talents — in fields as diverse as art, drawing and computer programming.

Encouraging students to hone these talents can reap positive long-term rewards. Talents can be turned into skills that can be geared towards future employment. Given that only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time paid employment (and only 32% engage in some form of paid work), sufficient classroom support is a crucial step towards boosting neurodiversity in the workforce.

There is nothing abnormal or dysfunctional about autism. Far from having an affliction or ‘disease’, individuals on the spectrum simply have a brain that is wired differently to the neurotypical majority. That’s why adapting the curriculum to the unique needs and abilities of each autistic student is so important — especially for younger children who are relatively new to education.

People with autism often think and learn visually, so making full use of visual prompts (including picture cards and digital technology) can help alleviate difficulties with verbal communication. Always make sure to speak to autistic students in clear, simple language that uses visual cues such as pointing.

Thinking about a student’s sensory needs and adapting their learning environment can also prevent sensory overload and potential meltdowns. By modifying the classroom to complement a student’s strengths, you can help them feel more comfortable and engaged in the tasks you set them.
 

6) Provide autistic students with regular choices

A 2010 study by Dr Lynn Koegel and colleagues found that offering autistic children with choices related to their academic tasks actually improved several aspects of their performance.

When given choices, the children were able to complete tasks quicker and more efficiently, as well as reduce disruptive behaviours associated with the autism spectrum disorder.

Providing regular options — from academic tasks in the classroom to seating arrangements in the school cafeteria at lunchtime — allows autistic students to take the lead in their learning and gain control over their situation. Choice can also help with organisation, which is something that many people on the spectrum often struggle with.

Examples of choices that you can offer include:

  • Do you want to work alone or in a small group?
  • Would you prefer to write with a pen or use a computer?
  • Which task would you like to complete first?

When providing choices to a student with autism, stay clear of things that may cause disruptive behaviour or trigger a meltdown. For tasks that students find difficult, frame any alternatives as choices rather than commands.
 

7) Adopt appropriate frameworks and strategies

There are several teaching methods that you can utilise when supporting children and young people with autism. Again, each student has unique abilities and needs, so these frameworks can be applied in whichever way you see fit. Some of the most popular methods in schools include:

TEACCH (Teaching, Expanding, Appreciating, Collaborating, Cooperating, Holistic)
The TEACCH approach is a flexible method that focuses on a person’s skills, interests and needs by understanding the ‘culture of autism’ from a holistic point of view.

SPELL (Structure, Positive approaches and expectations, Empathy, Low arousal, Links)
SPELL is the National Autistic Society’s framework for supporting children and young people with autism. It places an emphasis on planning and intervention based on the individual needs of each autistic student.

SCERTS (Social Communication, Emotional Regulation, Transactional Support)
The SCERTS model is a research-based educational approach that provides specific guidelines for autistic students to become confident and competent social communicators. By focusing on the three core areas of communication, emotions, and support, SCERTS targets the most significant challenges faced by autistic children and their families.

Click here for a more comprehensive breakdown of the different approaches available.
 

Conclusion

Moulding a learning environment that is conducive to the development of all students is one of the key challenges that teachers face. Though students with autism often require more attention and support than many of their peers, it’s our duty as custodians of the classroom to ensure they receive the best care possible.

At the same time, we should strive to educate neurotypical students about autism awareness and other SEN issues. In doing so, we can foster a more inclusive, compassionate learning environment, stamp out bullying, and help smash the negative stigma that continues to surround an autism diagnosis.

Society will also reap the rewards. With more and more businesses keen to embrace neurodiversity in the workplace, employers are keen to harness the unique skills that many people on the spectrum can offer. And as teachers, we can help SEN students develop the skill sets needed to successfully contribute to the workforce of the future.

Indeed, the inspiring examples set by role models such as TV presenter Chris Packham and actor Dan Aykroyd — both of whom have Asperger syndrome — demonstrate that students with autism do not have to be held back by their condition. With the right support, they can thrive.

If you’d like to read more about teaching students with autism, the National Autistic Society’s teacher page provides a plethora of educational tips and resources.

For more insights on the eclectic world of teaching, stay tuned to the weekly Celsian Education blog.
 

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