It’s likely that most teachers will have one or more autistic students in their classrooms, as more than one percent of the world population has been diagnosed with autism. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, keep reading for some teaching strategies for how to support autistic students in your classroom.
4 Teaching Strategies for Autistic Students
Autistic people experience the world differently, which means that they also think and work differently. As an educator, learning more about these differences and putting practices in place to accommodate them will ultimately help your students thrive. With input from autism teaching experts, here are some steps that you can take to support the varying needs of autistic students in your classroom.
1. Focus on acceptance and empowerment.
With autism in particular, the larger conversation has traditionally been focused on the negatives. However, this way of looking at autism can actually be harmful to — rather than supportive of — your autistic students. Instead, consider how you might celebrate and model acceptance of neurodiverse traits in your classroom. One way to do this is by giving autistic students the space to be their authentic selves in your classroom and by accommodating their needs (rather than trying to “fix” them). Another way to do this is by teaching about the contributions and accomplishments of individuals who are autistic.
2. Provide safe spaces in your classroom.
Many things can be distracting or overwhelming to autistic students. Things like buzzing fluorescent lights or noises in the classroom can make it difficult for autistic students to concentrate. In these cases, students might need a quiet place to retreat (one that’s not a place for punishment). 3D-PT, an autistic educator who is a CTE / STEM teacher at Teaching the Autism Community Trades, recommends providing a way out, or a safety valve, for the students in the event they begin to feel overloaded. “It can be difficult for the student to focus if they are overwhelmed or overstimulated,” he says. “Work out a quiet spot outside the class that they can go to, along with the rules for it (e.g., you can work here for 10 min while you decompress). If there’s a card or signal they can use to discreetly say ‘I need a break’ [or] ‘I’m having a bad time,’ then practice using it together.”
3. Visuals are helpful, but they’re not the only strategy.
Something that many autistic individuals have in common is a difficulty processing language. Because of this, visual cues — such as daily visual schedules, contingency maps, and visual timers — can serve as helpful reminders for students about classroom rules or what they can expect throughout the day. However, sometimes visuals are used as a catch-all strategy. If visuals help your students, great! But if not, there are other strategies you can use (or pair with visuals) to support your students, including verbal cues and modeling.
“[While] visual supports offer an additional source of input that can be beneficial to students with autism,” says Autism Classroom, a former autism education specialist, “other strategies can help too, such as, using words to provide reassurance, preparing students for transitions with verbal reminders, and utilizing objects for them to hold during transitions. When providing reassurance, some students only need to hear that it is going to be fine to believe for themselves that it is, in fact, going to be alright. In preparing for transitions, provide a verbal one-minute warning by simply saying, ‘We have one more minute.’ When utilizing objects during transitions, keep in mind that objects like schedule cards, picture icons, or the materials for the lesson may help the student with processing what they’ll be doing in the upcoming activity.”
4. Ask students (or their caregivers) about their preferences.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to students (or their caregivers!) if you’re looking to find out more about their preferences (e.g., what makes the student feel comfortable, if there’s anything they’re sensitive to, or if there’s anything they don’t particularly like), or how else you might make the classroom more accommodating. They’re the experts on their own needs, after all.
One last thing to remember is that there is no single presentation of autism. Autistic people are as different from one another as Neurotypical people are, and part of supporting students — whether they’re autistic or not — is recognizing those differences and finding ways to adapt your support to meet every student’s needs.
For more ideas on how to support autistic students in the classroom, check out this blog post.
This blog, originally published in 2021, has been updated for 2022.