Challenges of the Classroom

The classroom at both primary and secondary school level can be difficult for autistic students.

As you know, it is busy and often noisy place. It requires students who may be hyperactive or have short attention spans to sit still for long periods of time and focus and apply themselves to a task.

In primary school, it may be where students also eat their lunch and so it may have aromas and smells which will be hard for a child on the spectrum to cope with.

It might require a degree of socialising, sitting at a group table or doing group work – something which can be quite daunting for autistic people.

At times, stress levels can run high and this may increase the anxiety of an autistic child. Due to the busy nature of the classroom the autistic child might find it difficult to talk only in turn, to stay tuned and to get help when they are stuck. Due to learning disabilities often associated with the condition, may be more often than other children.

However, it’s not all bad. The mainstream classroom can provide many opportunities for an autistic child

It provides the chance for a child on the spectrum to be educated in their own community, to gain an understanding from local children their own age and to learn behaviours from them and even, over time, provides opportunities to socialise with these children.

It also allows autistic children

the opportunity to follow the same curriculum, as far as their own personal abilities lie, as the other children and, in the case of some autistic students in particular, to excel in the areas they are interested in.

So, what can be done to provide autistic students the best opportunity in the classroom? This is no small question and the answer varies from student to student. However, here are some basic tips to help autistic children in the classroom, at both primary and secondary school levels.

Primary School:

Consult: This is an area of great importance. Before the start of term speak to the parents of the child and the autistic student in your class about their specific challenges and difficulties in relation to tasks like sensory processing, concentration and socialising. This will provide an opportunity not only to hear their thoughts and suggestions as to what could be done but also to maybe find out what has worked well in the past.

When making groups, pick selectively: Some autistic children will find sitting at group tables in the classroom very difficult. Consider sitting them at a table with children who are slightly more mature or are very kind in nature, even for the first little while, as this will enable the child concerned to feel more comfortable in the classroom setting.

Change is difficult for autistic people, however it can also be important to encourage those with the condition to mix. During any changes to groups during the year, try to consider where the child will work best and to gradually make the change, maybe explaining the idea behind the change to the child on the spectrum first, as often when changes are explained they can be managed better.

Avoid quick instructions: Autistic children find it very challenging to follow lists of instructions, where possible they are much better able to follow step by step instructions. They are less likely to lose focus, get confused or get anxious because they fall behind.

Because people on the spectrum often struggle with overstimulation or concentration problems and may also find some academic tasks like writing or computing information harder than others, try to allow plenty of time to complete tasks. For example, sitting at a group table where children are talking and at the same time trying to transfer notes from the board to a copy book can be very difficult – so try not to rush the autistic child as this can lead to them falling behind, not completing tasks adequately or getting very flustered or anxious.

Provide an opt-out: If an autistic child really struggles to sit still for long periods of time, has a tendency to get stressed or everything is getting too much for them on a given day, try to provide a subtle time-out or fresh air time. This can work really well if an SNA is assigned to the child.

Defusing the stress or anger built up in the child will prevent negative behaviours from happening and hopefully lead to improved concentration upon their re-engagement in the class.

Be firm but avoid head-on confrontation: It is very important that children on the spectrum, like any other child, know boundaries and, as far as possible, integrate into the regime of the school day. However, autistic children will sometimes behave in a manner which may seem disruptive – but they do not realise that they are being disruptive, for example, continuously speaking out of turn or talking to themselves or fiddling or doodling with things in their pencil case.

Equally, at times autistic people can become very frustrated and behave in a very socially unacceptable manner and of course this needs to be addressed and cannot be seen to be acceptable, as it will benefit nobody in the long run. However, autistic people often respond negatively to head-on confrontation and can get either extremely angry or simply very upset, even over a small correction.

Therefore, as far as possible, it is best to talk to the child concerned after the event and gently explain why they cannot do certain things (like talk out of turn) or for larger meltdowns to try and disengage from the situation or have the pupil brought on some time-out and have a serious conversation, including penalties if necessary, about the behaviour after the child has calmed down. This approach will be more successful for all concerned.

Understand the aims, focus on the strengths: At the start of the year establish what the parents of the child hope to achieve from the academic year, this should be set out in an Individual Education Plan. At times, these goals may focus more on life skills than academics and that should be taken seriously. It can be very frustrating the various educational challenges autism can bring, recognise the personal capabilities and indeed limitations of autistic children (though don’t be afraid to gently push these!), give praise in the areas they do well in as this will increase their confidence and keep them interested in the school day.

Secondary School

Much of what has been earmarked above remains relevant into secondary school education, however here are some additional pointers:

Be patient with regards to organisation: Autistic students can struggle to stay organised, to navigate from classroom to classroom, to meet deadlines and to remember everything required for class. This is a source of great anxiety for people with the condition and it is an area which will require some allowances and helpful reminders in order for the student to stay on top.

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