How to differentiate for autism in the classroom
Author Sarah Leigh
Date 23rd Mar 2023
Currently, there are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK (that's more than 1 in 100 ) and, if you include their families, autism is a part of daily life for 2.8 million people. Despite these figures, many teachers only feel slightly confident in their ability to support students with autism, and would like to develop a better understanding of how it affects learning and how to put appropriate strategies in place.
Autism is not a single disorder, but a spectrum of closely related disorders with a shared core of symptoms. As a teaching professional you probably already know how big the autism spectrum is, but, it’s essential to remember that every child is an individual and children on the autistic spectrum can be very different from one another when it comes to their behaviours and abilities.
Children on one end of the spectrum, with 'mild' autism.
Children with 'mild' autism can socialise and function almost like any other child. They just have a few small social or communication difficulties and may find it harder to be empathetic with others. They may have some difficulty when it comes to regulating and reading emotions.
Children on the opposite end of the spectrum, with more 'severe' autism.
Children with 'severe' autism may display extreme, uncontrollable behaviours, which may include violent rocking, door slamming, moaning etc. Children with severe autism may also have sensory dysfunction to the degree that crowds, bright lights or loud noises can be overwhelming. They tend to have meltdowns if their routine is broken and can present delayed language skills.
Children with autism face unique challenges to learning and without the right interventions, autism can have a significant impact on a child's development and educational outcomes. Here are some simple tips and advice that you can apply in your classroom to help meet the needs of learners with autism.
Do NOT underestimate autistic children.
Just because a child seems outwardly 'different', does not mean their intelligence is always affected too.
Many of the (hundreds) of autistic children I have worked with over the years have had bad handwriting, a lowered ability to communicate with speech (sometimes completely mute) and a lack of social skills. However, they have also displayed extremely powerful skills in memorising, problem-solving and analytical skills (you wouldn’t believe how many of them asked “why?” for almost everything!).
Give them a stretch and challenge task that is realistic for their timing or social abilities, but do not assume that you need to simplify things or give them colouring in (or similar 'craft' tasks) instead.
Break up the task / Limit the amount of information you give.
The more information you give, the more the child’s brain will 'overload', which can lead to an outburst or stress. Giving short sentences with bullet points - maybe even a checklist, can allow the child independence whilst still achieving the tasks set. Most children will be able to follow an instruction like, “open your books, write the date and title - don’t forget to underline it and then start your sums”. However, some autistic children could benefit from having a checklist like this:
- Write the date
- Write the title
- Underline my title
- Complete sums 1-4
- Call my teacher to see how I am doing
Multisensory Aids and Activities
Pictures, PowerPoint presentations, films, stickers and online apps are fantastic ways to get autistic children using their auditory and visual processing skills. Introducing a lesson or topic to a whole class might work fine, but children with autism can find it difficult to focus and take in all of that information.
Giving them a help-sheet can also be very beneficial.
Allow for development of their Social Skills.
One of the major problems many teachers encounter in the classroom is how to involve an autistic child in social situations.The child might not want to talk, might move 'too slowly' for games, might be too focused on their own interests to join in with anyone else, or might even be outcast by his/her peers.
Give them a straightforward (not simple, just clearly defined) task they should do in their group / in the class activity and ensure they stick to that task.
Write homework in their planners
Despite there being some children who can remember absolutely everything, most autistic children can find it quite difficult to remember tasks that were given throughout the day at school.
Giving them a visual reminder in their planner not only helps them to be organised, but it also enables the parents to see what their child should be doing.
About the author
Sarah Lucia is a Qualified Teacher and Motivational Educator of 10+ years, who has been recognised for her behaviour management and communication techniques.
Sarah also runs Life It Or Not - ‘The Empowering Lifestyle Blog for Mums’. Her site shares parenting advice, motivational articles on personal growth and tips to make women more empowered.
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