While autism is a neurodevelopmental condition and should not be mistaken for a psychiatric disorder, it is true that autistic people interpret their environment differently to their peers. For an classroom to be autism friendly, these environments must be properly adapted to avoid students experiencing anxiety and unable to participate in school. Below we’ve outlined some potential causes and advice for how to support an autistic student through this.
Why might a student be anxious in school?
There are many elements of the school life that can be stressful or increase anxiety such as homework, tests, socialising and State examinations. Regardless of autism and other support needs, school can be a stressful experience for any student and often students might be experiencing stress or anxiety as a result of other stuff that is going on for them outside of school. Anxiety experienced in school might not always be about school. Students could be experiencing anxiety because of a family breakdown, they could be experiencing bullying or even grief. As a teacher or as a peer it is important to acknowledge that everyone will experience anxiety at some stage through their schooling journey and to be kind and empathetic towards students.
How can the sensory environment at school cause anxiety?
For autistic students, the sensory environment in the school has a huge impact on their ability to access the curriculum, to form relationships in school and to communicate with other people around them. School can be quite a noisy environment and passing through the corridors with hundreds of students at the same time can become overwhelming. Students could be affected by the many smells in a school from science practical classes to secondary school woodworking rooms and home economics classes, a student with sensory sensitivity to smell could become easily overwhelmed in school. Something as simple as the colour paint that is used in the corridors or the lights that are used throughout the school can be anxiety inducing for autistic students.
All students might feel like they struggle to find people in school that they can connect with, in particular autistic students. In an autism context, socializing in school can be a real cause of anxiety and it might mean that they feel unsupported or even alone in school. There are a number of ways that you can make friends in school. Extracurricular activities in your school is a great way of getting to know people with similar interests to you. If your school has a club or society that you are interested in, try joining! It is much easier to converse with people who share similar values and interests to you. Remember, each and every student in your school is unique and that is what makes us interesting and special. Respect your peers’ differences. You will be surprised that many of your peers might share the very same anxieties as you experience. Be proud of your identity, be vocal about your differences and advocate for an inclusive environment in your school for yourself and for your peers.
How can a school help students feel happy in school?
There are a number of ways that a school can promote a happy environment. It is important that students feel a sense of belonging in school. Schools can encourage an inclusive environment through the use of open and welcoming language that embraces differences. A sense of belonging means that students can feel safe and secure in school. Students need to understand that it is okay to be different and that it is okay to make mistakes sometimes. Normalising difference and promoting the diverse population of the school is one of the best ways to encourage students to embrace differences and to promote the formation of friendships.
Sometimes, autistic students might gravitate towards forming a bond with their teachers, wanting to talk to them, because they feel they are safer in that environment. However, it is important to create appropriate relationships and building capacity in students as well as creating opportunities for students to form relationships with their peers. Creating a buddy system is a simple but useful way to help students feel as if they have a support network in school.