School's Back In - Supporting Autistic Students in the Classroom - Autism Awareness

School’s Back In – Supporting Autistic Students in the Classroom

The school setting is often a difficult environment for autistic individuals. Classroom expectations, sensory and regulation challenges, a prescribed day, and learning differences can make a person feel overwhelmed and stressed. Creating a predictable day, incorporating interests into the curriculum, and teaching to a person’s strengths are just a few things to keep in mind when working with autistic students. Let’s explore some ideas on how we can best understand and support autistic children in the classroom.

Understand and Respect Autistic Neurology

There is some good information out there on how the autistic brain works. I particularly like the work of Peter Vermeulen and how the brain builds models or concepts, explained in his book Autism and the Predictive Brain. Peter says we should focus more on bottom-up learning rather than top-down learning, which is typical of most educational settings. Blogger Jane Stanley describes bottom-up and top-down learners beautifully:

Bottom-up learners tend to learn things best in small sequential steps that gradually build upon each other until you have a complete concept. These learners are comfortable mastering each incremental step without necessarily being aware of what the final product or process will be.

Top-down learners tend to learn things best when they can visualize the final concept or product and are then allowed to deduce the steps used to get to that final destination. These learners absolutely NEED to know what the final idea is before they learn any of the steps used to achieve that concept.

Peter Vermeulen talks about the differences between the autistic and non-autistic brain using Temple Grandin as his example. He states there is a difference between conscious and unconscious learning; most human learning occurs through the systematic updating of models (or concepts), but those learning processes are largely unconscious.

Within the theory of predictive coding we know this as ‘perceptual learning‘. In addition, there is also ‘active learning’, in which people consciously update their model or concept. And therein lies the difference between autism and no autism: Temple’s brain has to update models through conscious ‘active learning’. 

Temple Grandin talks a lot about exposing autistic children to as many different experiences as possible, which supports this idea of active learning.

Autistic Inertia

Autistic inertia is something educators may observe in the classroom; it is difficulty with starting or stopping tasks. It can also look like extreme demand avoidance, which may be linked to high levels of anxiety. This can be perceived by others as laziness or a lack of motivation.  It’s important to understand that autistic inertia is a part of neurodiversity and more common that you might think.

We can support students experiencing inertia by providing a structured environment, having established routines, using visual reminders, teaching the concept of time, providing prompts and breaking tasks down into manageable steps.

Understanding an autistic person’s reasons for experiencing inertia can help us to find the right support strategies, stop blaming the person, and provide an explanation for what we are seeing. This will build trust and confidence for an autistic individual, helping them to move forward. Trust and respect are the two cornerstones of a good relationship.

The Structured Environment = Predictability

A predictable classroom has a structured physical environment, uses visual supports, has established routines, and offers structured activities. Establishing visual cues and schedules within the classroom will help children make transitions with a minimum of behaviors of concern occurring. Autistic children will have difficulty making independent transitions to new activities due to not understanding nonverbal cues and anxiety around any new situation. Attention and sensory needs will impact the ability to focus on the main speaker in the classroom due to distractions. They will struggle to isolate relevant and meaningful information from classroom activities and materials from everything else that is going on around them. It is overwhelming.

What does the physical environment look like?

The well organized classroom has:

  • predictability and stability through routines and visual supports
  • defined areas of appropriate size for an activity
  • clear cues to children and staff about expectations for the area
  • allows for supervision
  • areas that support targeted skills for scheduled activities
  • areas that limit distraction and help with focus
  • an environment that increase engagement and prevent challenging behavior
  • support for independence through routines and everyday activities
  • defined work spaces

There should also be areas for:

  • one to one instruction
  • small groups
  • independent work
  • full group instruction
  • transition – which can be for switching tasks but remaining in the same area or switching between areas in the room
  • cool down or sensory space that should never be used for time outs, punishment, or seclusion
  • the teacher

Incorporating Interests

Incorporating a child’s interests into the school day supports happiness and well-being, provides enjoyment, motivation, and adds meaning to activities and the curriculum. Interests can also be expanded upon to increase knowledge and learn new skills. I have written a couple of blog posts on the importance of interests and how to use them in different aspects of the curriculum.

Recognizing and Reducing Anxiety

Learn to recognize signs of anxiety and overload. Some examples are:

  • sensory avoidance (hand on ears, closing eyes, retreating somewhere).
  • sensory seeking behavior (bumping into furniture, getting into a small, tight space).
  • an increase in repetitive behaviors such as touching the same objects over and over.
  • bolting or running away.
  • withdrawing, not engaging.
  • an increase in stimming behaviors such as fast, intense rocking, pacing, self-talk, hair twirling, hand flapping.
  • increased echolalia.
  • self injurious behaviors like head banging, skin picking or pinching.

Use low arousal approaches to diffuse situations that could escalate into behaviors of concern. Some examples are:

  • reduce demands – Pull back on an activity or take a break from it.
  • stop talking – If you continue to talk, even if it is just to reassure, a person has to continue processing language when they are becoming overwhelmed.
  • provide space – Move away rather than towards a person.
  • have an escape plan – In grade 1, my daughter used a red square that students used to say they were using the bathroom to leave the classroom when needed.
  • offer quiet time – A place to chill can support relaxation – a bean bag chair, soft seating. My son used to use a one-man tent to reduce visual input when overwhelmed.
  • engage in exercise when anxiety levels are spiking – This can be as simple as taking a body break by going for a walk.

The school community plays a big role in a child’s life. Education is the springboard for lifelong learning and enjoyment. The classroom experience should be a positive one. The deeper our understanding of autistic children, the better we can create individualized supports that help a child thrive and feel happy.


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  1. Karin Nicolajsen says:

    I admittedly haven’t read this book because the cost is prohibitive, but I am very surprised to see bottom up learning emphasized for autistic neurotypes. It seems contrary to everything that I’ve learned about gestalt processing (breaking the whole into parts) rather than analytic processing (assembling parts to make a whole).

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