How Schools can support autistic children
Know the child
As the popular saying goes, “When you’ve seen one autistic child, you’ve just seen one autistic child.” Autism is a spectrum condition so no two autistic individuals are alike. One individual’s strength could be another individual’s weakness. One environment that stimulates one could trigger another. This is why it is important to know the child. If they have a care plan in place, all staff who teach or interact with the child must be to an extent familiar with the details of the care plan.
Use the child’s communication style and encourage self-expression
Some children might be non-verbal or pre-verbal, relying solely on signing and Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) devices or Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS: child-led and not to be used in an ABA style where the child is forced to say the word). Others on the other hand might communicate solely by verbal means, while some individuals might communicate using a blend of verbal communication and either of these alternative methods.
It is vital to respect the individual’s communication styles and use them accordingly to communicate with them. Also, the child might emit vocal sounds or make unusual body movements. These are known as “stims”. Stimming is crucial to self-regulation and denying a child the opportunity to stim could negatively affect them in many ways, leading to meltdowns, sensory overloads and behaviour that challenges. Children should be allowed to express themselves through stimming in a safe environment without judgement.
Meltdowns and behaviours that challenge
When an autistic child lashes out, has a meltdown or appears to be out of control, this is not something they can snap out of and it is neither something that warrants a punishment of any kind. It is an indication that something within the environment is triggering them (sounds, smells, tactile stimulus, bright lights). A sensory audit in your environment would help to identify the offensive stimuli and either eliminate or make them more manageable to the individual.
Follow the child’s lead
The child knows what they need, how they feel and how they can regulate themselves. They will flee overstimulating and triggering environments and will approach activities that stimulate them. They need support rather than disapproval. If it is felt that their safety or the safety of other children would be compromised, how can the child be best supported to engage in their chosen activities safely? If they like climbing on furniture indoors, create opportunities for them to climb on a climbing frame outdoors. This being said, the autistic child might enjoy and need more outdoor time than their neurotypical peers so it would be helpful to create this opportunity.
Give them access to sensory activities
For an autistic child, sensory play is paramount. In the absence of sensory stimulation, a child might resort to activities like smearing, which is when they play with their faeces. The best way to prevent this is to ensure an abundance of safe sensory play. The child’s access to sensory activities has numerous benefits to their mental wellbeing and behaviour within the school environment. These could include playdough, slime, water play, a variety of textures and colours.
Have a quiet space ready for them, with dim lights
When an autistic child becomes overwhelmed, they may shut their eyes and cover their ears. This is an indication that the environment is too bright and too noisy. They should be accompanied to a designated area of lower stimuli such as a quiet room or a sensory room to calm down and regulate.
Provide basic autism training/CPD for staff
Failure to follow the child’s care plan usually comes as a result of lack of awareness by staff. It is important for staff who are in contact with the child to complete basic autism training in order to best communicate and support the child.
Teach the class about autism
Autism needs to be demystified and destigmatised to curb instances of bullying and isolation. Children would question the behaviour of the autistic child when they notice their atypical characteristics. It is crucial for teachers to be tactical and sensitive in their responses to promote acceptance and integration of the autistic individual.
They lights in the classroom and the backlight of the smartboard might need to be readjusted. Careful consideration needs to be given to where the child is seated in the classroom to ensure max access the curriculum and a stress-free exit route should they require to be taken out of the class for any reason. Ear defenders could be provided. The child should be considered when planning fire-drills or other sudden changes to routine.
It might be necessary to permit the child to have their lunchtimes in a smaller venue to their peers to reduce stimulation. Alternatively, they should be allowed to have their meals before or after everyone else for a calmer environment. To support their social development, they could be given the choice to invite a friend to have their meals with them.
You can download a booklet version of this resource from the Documents section of our website here.