Look at the physical environment of your school and classroom through the student’s eyes. What are the things that might make them anxious and distract them so much that learning is difficult for them? What supports or adjustments can you put in place to make the environment feel calm and secure for them so that they are free to learn rather than being so focused on trying to cope with discomforts and distractions that they can concentrate on nothing else?
In light of your student’s particular likes, dislikes, needs, obsessions, anxieties, skills, strengths etc (as recorded in their profile) consider:
- The physical layout and set-up of the classroom/space.
- The activities/lessons planned throughout the day.
- Allocating space for specific activities.
- Having necessary equipment close to where an activity will take place.
- Reducing clutter to reduce distraction.
- Reducing irrelevant information.
- Labelling key information/resources (using pictures if necessary).
- Sensory needs.
Routines – at home and at school – are good for all children. They make the world feel predictable and therefore safe. For a child with autism spectrum disorder, for whom the world is overwhelming, complex and chaotic, routines are not just beneficial but essential.
For a child with autism every day can feel like starting a blank page and beginning anew. In some cases children with autism may rely entirely on the familiarity, consistency and security of routines to make the world manageable for them.
No learning can occur when a child is overwhelmed and anxious about what’s being expected of them. Routines support your student to remain calm and allow for maximum engagement. What’s more, children with autism are naturally motivated to repeat routines. Routines themselves, then, become reinforcing and can be actively used to teach skills and tasks.
Routines are any tasks or actions done according to a set pattern or sequence. Larger patterns can be broken down into a number of smaller patterns to make them understandable and recognisable to a child with autism, and vice versa.
Types of routines include:
Routines start from the moment a child gets up in the morning, to arriving at school and entering the classroom. Creating a schedule helps a child with autism spectrum disorder see the sequence of familiar, routine activities that will occur in a day. It also gives the child stages to work towards and helps them anticipate transitions, which can be particularly difficult for a child with autism.
Schedules don’t have to be exactly the same every day, but communication is critical – students have to be made aware of what’s going to happen at every stage of the day. The more effectively you are able to communicate the sequence of activities that will make up a child’s day, or week, or even month the more confidence they will gain and the more you enable them to operate independently in the classroom.
Many students with ASD dislike change and rely on routine. Visual supports can be a good way of introducing change and helping during transition.
Don’t think that this means that everything should remain exactly the same all the time. In fact, it’s better for the child that there is change and variety (as there is in the world). Maintaining calm for your student means helping them understand changes happening around them and supporting them as they transition through them.
Communicating is a seven step process:
- Establishing or shifting attention
- Following rapidly changing stimuli
- Taking in information
- Processing information
- Storing information received
- Retrieve other information
- Sending information
In communicating with others we do many things at once, without thinking a great deal about it.
Typically, most of us focus on the seventh step only, skipping the other six because they seem to happen automatically. Teaching communication in the classroom however, when accommodating a student with autism, requires you to actively teach all seven steps.
To do this you need to be aware of both how your student is expressing themselves and how they are receiving information in the classroom.
Teaching socialisation is an important part of any teacher’s classroom program. You’ll have your own favourite or preferred programs and you’ll already be accessing the wealth of information available to provide help and guidance in this area.
To best support a child with autism spectrum disorder you simply need to make sure that this does not get lost or overlooked, you need to be actively and deliberately teaching socialisation. You also need to make sure the skills you’re teaching are generalised across all environments as much as possible.
Importantly, you need to be aware that while their peers experience more positive social interactions than negative for children with autism this is reversed, they usually experience a significantly higher number of negative social interactions than positive.
Your goal is to do all you can to turn this around for your student. You’ll achieve this by teaching meaningful, effective social skills and teaching behaviours that will serve to increase the ratio of positive interactions they experience. Be careful that you don’t, in an effort to increase social interactions, unwittingly subject a child to negative experiences – it will only lead to confusion.