Look closely at the rows of smiling faces in your classroom. Chances are, one or two of those smiles belong to a child with autism.
As their teacher, it's your job to provide these students with a quality education. Be an ally for your autistic students by modifying your classroom, your teaching habits, or both.
We’ve outlined seven ideas for helpful accommodations for students with autism. We focused on suggestions that come with low costs and easy implementation, but know that there are many more useful suggestions out there. Use this list as a starting point as you create a classroom that helps all students.
1. Low-Distraction Work Areas
Autism causes unusual activity in brain regions that regulate attention. The result is a child that's easily distracted by things other children can ignore.
Common classroom distractions include:
- Whispered conversations.
- Classmates asking teachers for help.
- Children running, screaming, and playing outside of classroom windows.
- Intercom announcements.
A child with autism can't always tune out these distractions and focus on coursework. Every time something tugs on their attention, they're pulled off course.
Surround your classroom's perimeter with library carrels, or rig up screens with cardboard or foam-core materials. Encourage students to move to these private study spaces when they need to focus on their studies.
2. Printed Schedules of Activities & Events
Spontaneity and autism don't always intertwine. Students often appreciate a warning before a task ends and another begins. They might enjoy knowing what will happen during each step of the school day.
Autism advocates encourage the use of visual schedules. A photo or illustration represents each task, and the child can follow along as each item is completed. Yours might include information about:
- Lessons. Identify when you'll discuss math, geography, English, and so on.
- Breaks. Specify when lunch will begin and end, and outline any other exercise opportunities you offer your class.
- Tests. If you're holding a quiz or exam, specify when it will both begin and end.
- Therapy. If your student must leave class to work with counselors or therapists, identify those appointments clearly.
Researchers say there's no evidence that all students with autism benefit from visual schedules. Some find them helpful, while others do not. However, they point out that making a schedule like this is relatively easy, so the risk of introducing it and wasting time is low.
3. Visual Cues for Common Requests
You stand in front of your class, give a verbal request one time, and expect your students to follow that command until you give another. Does this sound familiar?
As Temple Grandin famously explains, people with autism often think in pictures. They hear the words, and the phrases morph into photographs in their minds. Your spoken command could bypass this system and become meaningless. Your autistic student could be left wondering what you want and why.
Create flashcards for your students containing common classroom commands, such as:
- Listen carefully. Use this card when you're explaining a difficult concept and don't want an interruption.
- Ask or answer questions. Use this card to entice students to raise their hands to speak with you.
- Sit at your desk and write. This card can encourage students to stay seated while completing assignments or homework.
- Take a break. Use this card to release students from their desks for unstructured time.
Think hard, and you probably have many more commands you give your students regularly. Each one could be a flashcard cue for your classroom.
Speak your instruction, and place the card in a prominent spot, such as the upper corner of your chalkboard or whiteboard. Replace it when you give another command.
Many children with autism have sensory sensitivities that cause pain or distress. Your noisy, boisterous classroom filled with rowdy students could be too much for an autistic student to bear.
Offer earplugs during quiet classroom moments, including those involving private study or test-taking. Take them back when you're speaking to the class again, but reintroduce them when the student should focus.
5. Sensory Retreat Spaces
Just as autistic students need a space to focus and think, they may also benefit from relaxing areas. The bright lights, colorful artwork, and loud voices that fill a classroom can be too stimulating for some students. Students with autism often appreciate an opportunity for calm meditation throughout the school day.
Set aside a corner of your classroom for this activity. Create a safe space that:
- Restricts light. Darkness isn't the goal, but a dim environment can be soothing. Avoid glaring or very bright lights.
- Has a simple visual palette. Stick with blue or purple walls, and don't clutter them with posters and stickers. Keep this place clear and visually clean.
- Feels soft and comforting. Use bean-bag chairs or padded cushions to make sitting and resting easy.
Some experts have created sensory caves using tents, padded floors, and a fiber-optic light. All equipment came with a price tag of less than $200.
6. Exercise Breaks
All students benefit from the opportunity to stand up, stretch, and wiggle. A child who moves can focus more readily on the next lesson plan. Children with autism can also use exercise to regulate difficult moods.
Exercises to benefit your autistic students can be simple, such as:
- Chair push-ups.
- Carrying heavy books.
- Pushing a fidget spinner.
Look for ways to scatter activities like this throughout the day.
7. Classroom Aides
Some schools offer one-on-one instruction for students with autism. These young people are paired with an expert, and they stay together all day long as the student learns in school.
If your school district deems this critical for one of your students, stay in touch with the aide about the learning experience. You might discover that some of your teaching styles (such as your course pacing) are difficult for an autistic student, and you can change some of these accordingly.
Are Changes Mandatory?
School districts are required to provide an appropriate education to all students. They are not required to create an ideal environment. As much as you might like to overhaul everything you do to benefit your autistic students, you may not have the school district's support to make those sweeping alterations.
But making a few subtle adjustments to your classroom setup and your teaching style could help your autistic students to do well in class. With each change you make, you're showing all students that those with autism deserve adjustments from their neurotypical peers. This helps to create a safer, more supportive learning and social environment for autistic students.
Teachers make a huge difference in their students’ lives, including their students with autism. The work you do can mean autistic students feel welcome and thrive in your classroom.
Autistic People May Have Trouble Tuning Out Distraction. (May 2020). Spectrum.
Visual Schedules and Autism. (November 2017). Research Autism.
How Does Visual Thinking Work in the Mind of a Person with Autism? A Personal Account. (May 2009). Philosophical Transactions.
Sensory Sensitivities: Children and Teenagers With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Raising Children Network.
Sensory-Friendly Spaces for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Boulder County Home and Garden.
20 Classroom Modifications for Students With Autism. (November 2001). Autism/Asperger's Digest.
The Role of the Teacher's Aide. Asperger/Autism Network.
Your Child's Rights: Autism and School. Autism Speaks.