5 Ways to Support Children on the Autistic Spectrum at School.

We are all different. Some differences are visible and obvious to us all – height, hair colour or eye colour for example. Some differences are more hidden until we take the time to get to know someone – favourite football teams, likes and dislikes. Our brains all work differently but it has the important job of controlling how you learn, how you feel and how you communicate. Sometimes the way our brain is wired and connected can impact the way we perceive senses or read interactions -this is known as Autism. 

The way the brain can work in children with autism can make people them remarkably gifted at tasks others find difficult (e.g. maths or drawing). However, it can also do the opposite; things that others find easy and sometimes take for granted– like making friends- can be incredibly challenging. Our brains are constantly being sent information from our senses giving us details about our surroundings and other people’s actions, reactions and tone of voice. For some people, their brain and their senses don’t communicate, the brain can become overwhelmed and confused and this impacts how they see the world and their surroundings. People with autism may struggle to communicate how they are feeling and on the surface it will look like they are coping but internally, they feel incredibly overwhelmed.  

Over the years, we all develop strategies to help ourselves feel calm in uncomfortable situations. This is the same for people with autism too – these strategies can sometimes be more obvious . When you see people using these strategies, it means they are having a hard time processing everything and need to take some time to process all the information their brain is giving them. The best thing to do here is be kind and understanding – give them time and try to support them with their calming strategy before continuing.  People with autism need friends, teachers and support staff who take time to know them, make sure they have good communication and have plenty of patience. People with autism are blessed with a unique view of the world and with a little support they might be able to share this view with others.  

These are 5 ways you can support children with autism in the classroom or at home. Just remember that everyone is different and what works for one child may not always work for another but with kindness, patience and understanding, you can work out what strategies work for your child. 

1) Sensory Stimulation 

The environment autistic children work in can have a huge impact on them. Naturally, many classrooms and corridors are full of sensory information to appeal to learners and provide them with information while they are learning. Learners who are incredibly sensitive to visual stimulation can find being in this type of environment overwhelming and may need regular breaks or a calming down area they can utilise.  

On the other hand, learners who need a higher level of sensory stimulation could find some school activities, such as quiet reading and assemblies, under-stimulating and may need something like a fidget toy to help them to be focused. For these children, they need sensory feedback and if you can see they are struggling to focus, giving them a bit of blu-tac, a fidget toy or attaching the rough, hooked side of a Velcro strap to the underside of their table can be a discreet way to help them get the stimulation that they need. 

2) Link to Their Interests 

As learners, children with autism have subjects in which they excel and subjects they find remarkably difficult. Managing their self-esteem in these areas is of paramount importance as they can become very aware that they are not where they are meant to be and  this can further impact their attainment in this area. Some  learners will also have specific interests making it easier for them to advance in areas that link to their interest but when that connection cannot be made, they may be less engaged. 

A way to overcome this is to make links where you can to their strengths and interests. For someone who is a brilliant artist, it might be daunting to be asked to complete a written task in History but if they could draw you a storyboard and share the same key points and information in a way that works for them it will make the learning more accessible for them. Similarly, if they struggle with sitting down and reading independently or don’t like reading a variety of books, try and find something that links to a particular interest of theirs and see if there are any non-fiction books on this topic – or vice versa if they are particularly interested in non-fiction. 

3) Managing Changes 

Some children with autism crave the regularity of a routine. Schools usually have a pretty rigid schedule but changes to this can cause distress. Visual timetables are a really good way for all children to know what the plan is for the day. Having a set space where this information is and making sure it is used and referred to regularly and preparing them for expected absences or differences to routine can have a real impact on children with autism so they are able to expect and navigate change more easily. 

4) Team Work Makes the Dream Work 

Schools, parents and children all interact with people in different ways. While something may work in school, it could be having an impact on the child at home that you are not seeing. Regular communication and contact with parents and teachers can support children with autism when transitioning from school to home life. This could be as simple as using the same calming strategy in both the classroom and when at home or working together to make sure that the provision at school is right so that children are not exhausted when they arrive home as they have been overstimulated and masking their challenges all day. 

Communication can be a bit of a challenge as the time may not always be right at the end or beginning of the day to have a deeper conversation. It could be worth setting up a phrase to briefly say if they have had a tough morning e.g. ‘handle with care’. Another way could be having a parent teacher log book that can be handed over at drop off and pick up or utilising other communication systems like Class Dojo, where parents and teachers can communicate.   

5) Self-Awareness and Self Confidence 

Being autistic can sometimes feel quite lonely and alienating. Seeing and navigating the world can be a challenge to children with autism that not everyone will understand. It is important for children with autism to understand that though they may behave differently and need different things, autism is not an impairment. As they move through school, they may notice that they are different and are receiving different support. Managing this self-awareness is important and has the potential to be incredibly empowering for young people.  

Some parents may not wish their child to know about their diagnosis, others may seek advice regarding how to bring this up with their child but the most important thing is that the interest of the child is at the heart of what you do. Helping children to understand themselves and be confident in who they are and what they have to offer the world can make all the difference in the way they approach a task. 

For more information, visit our blog on Neurodiversity: difference or deficit or have a look at this video which helps explain autism in a child friendly way. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ezv85LMFx2E  

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