Autism Friendly Environments in Schools

“I hated the corridors.  So many people, the noise made my head hurt. I couldn’t focus on what I was doing, where I was going. Class wasn’t much better with so much noise, flickering lights, I couldn’t concentrate”. Boy with ASC, Year 9

In busy, mainstream classes it can be difficult to make huge changes to class layout or fittings and fixtures. There are, however, some simple changes to the classroom which can help children with autism feel calmer and more focused.

  • Avoid clutter and ‘busy’ displays.
  • Have a clear space around your whiteboard with minimal distractions (posters/notices) around it. This enables students to focus solely on the screen/board.
  • Avoid changing the class layout too frequently and give advanced notice of this change if it is planned.
  • Be aware of sensory considerations. Fans, heaters, flickering lights, blinds etc.
  • If possible carpet the floor to avoid scraping of chairs on a hard floor.
  • Ensure all pupils have clear sight of the whiteboard.
  • Display visual pictures with key vocabulary. This helps students remember and understand if they miss or don’t understand verbal information.
  • Allocate a place for coats and bags. Label equipment and make sure this is stored in the same place each time after use.
  • Consider having a seating plan. Discuss with the pupil where they like to sit. Near the front is advisable, to minimise distractions.
  • Some classrooms (Art, Technology or Nursery) will be busier and less structured than other classes. Bear this in mind and offer pupils calm time or a movement break out of the class if they struggle.

Click here to find information on supporting young people with autism during break and lunch times at school.

10 Tips for Supporting Learning

  • Ensure the pupil is sat where they can see and hear you and where there are minimal distractions
  • Use their name and ensure you have their attention before asking a question or giving instructions
  • Present new information in small steps. Use visual aids where possible
  • Give advanced notice of new topics and the vocabulary that will be used. Giving this on a handout may help
  • Use pupils’ special interests to engage them
  • Allow extra time for processing language and information
  • Give advanced notice of change: supply teachers, classes, topics
  • Keep language simple and avoid non-literal language
  • If a child is not working or is unsettled they may very likely be anxious. Support them with this by offering time out, chance to talk things through
  • Be consistent with rules, routines and your expectations, wherever possible.

20 Pointers for Effective Learning

  • Small steps – it is important, especially since children with autism may have short-term memory difficulties, to present tasks in small steps. One task or instruction at a time may be all that some children can manage. If multiple tasks are required then a checklist might be a useful way for the child to note and self-monitor his/her progress.
  • Allow additional time. The children may need extra time to allow for language, information and sensory processing needs.
  • Ensure the pupil has understood what is expected of them. Check in with the pupil that they have understood the task and provide a checklist/bullet points of the tasks they need to complete. They can tick these off as they go.
  • Put different types of information under different headings. This can help with long term memory and the organisation of information.
  • Provide advanced notice of termly topics/work. Vocabulary lists and planning or overview sheets will help the pupil know what to expect and aid processing.
  • Use visual supports. Visual timetables, work checklists, instruction sheets and time-out cards can all help the pupil feel organised and in control.
  • Timetables. Depending on the level of function of the pupil, they may benefit from pictorial timetables, now and next boards or colour coded written versions. Take the time to go through them with the pupil.
  • Organisation. Pupils may struggle with organisation. Set clear start and end times to tasks, use timers to help. Use timetables, clearly label equipment and remind them to check their diary/timetable.
  • Group work and class presentations. These can be extremely difficult for the child with autism to manage. They may need clear instructions as to what part they play in the group. Alternative arrangements may need to be made for presentations.
  • Use enquiry approaches – to promote thinking skills. Problem solving activities can be useful as often there is not too much reading before the problem.
  • Ensure instructions are clear and concise. It is helpful to ensure instructions are clear and kept to one instruction at a time. This will aid processing of the information.
  • Try to use pupils’ strengths and special interests. This can really help them to engage and work output will increase. Incorporate interests into tasks where possible.
  • Presentation and layout of material. Make things as visual as possible, bullet point tasks so they are clear. A small whiteboard near the child can be useful. Try to plan work with a clear start and finish.
  • Amount of information given – if there is too much text or verbal input, the child might   struggle to follow it. If they only need to read one paragraph don’t give them a double spread of text. If they only need to answer 5 questions, avoid giving them a book/sheet with multiple questions on it, just give them the 5.
  • Reduce purely administrative tasks such as copying out, colouring in. These are likely to be demanding for the child so they have less focus on the actual learning, try to utilise the computer or allow a flow diagram, Dictaphone, speech bubbles, cut and stick etc. Allow the child to get on with the work before writing the date, title and learning objective. This will ensure the learning objective is more likely to be achieved.
  • Managing the abstract. The child is likely to need individualised support to explain these kind of tasks and to first link the concept to something in their experience. They might not be able to imagine what it was like in ages past or predict how someone might feel in a given situation. They may struggle to understand their own emotions as well as those of others.
  • Coping with mistakes. Some children may struggle when they make mistakes with their work or are reprimanded. When they are calm explain how they can manage this by: having some time out, seeing the teacher at the end of the session, writing down their feelings. Allow plenty of time for explanations and for the task completion.
  • Transitions. Times of transition and change can be difficult for pupils with autism. When they move schools, year groups or classes, these transitions can be very anxiety provoking. Give advanced notice, provide timetables, enable them to see the new place in advance.
  • Homework. Some children will struggle to compartmentalise/separate home and school. They are unlikely to be able to remember tasks done at school or remember homework. If insufficient details are provided they will struggle to complete homework. If possible, write out very clearly the entire homework task so that parents know exactly how to support the student.
  • Break times. Break and lunch times are unstructured and can be very difficult for pupils with ASD to manage. After break times, children may return to class unsettled as they have struggled to make friends or understand social interaction. They may need a lot of support with managing social relationships.

Understanding Behaviour

It is important to understand that people with ASD have a condition that means they may respond and act differently from their peers. The fact that they have difficulties with some aspects of language and probably struggle with social relationships, will mean that they can be perceived, often incorrectly, as being: rude, offensive, obstructive or disruptive. It is no easy task at times, to establish what behaviour is challenging as a result of the condition, and what behaviour requires attention and perhaps reprimand.

The pupil with ASD should not be punished for challenging behaviour associated with his or her condition such as: not remembering kit or equipment, drifting off task, struggling to cope with group work or failing to process information or answer questions. Support strategies are required in such cases to ensure the pupil’s behaviour is not as a result of not understanding or being bored (not having enough motivation to engage).

It can be useful to use visual cues and clear explanations. Address the pupil by name to ensure you have their attention, repeat and check content and language has been processed and understood. Try to use motivators and incorporate special interests if possible to engage the pupil. Check that the pupil is not experiencing anxiety or sensory concerns.

It is vital that teachers and support staff remember that challenging behaviour can be a form of communication and has a purpose for the individual. It may be that the pupil with ASD is unable to communicate in any other way or that their attempt at communication has manifested in challenging behaviour. It could be a result of fear, anxiety or a reaction to change.

However, if the behaviour is rude or defiant, the class teacher does need to send a consistent message to the pupil and the whole class that such behaviour is not acceptable. In such instances it is important to introduce strategies that can work at classroom level and possibly others that can be used outside of school.

When a young person is exhibiting challenging behaviour, and de-escalation techniques such as distraction, calm support, humour have not worked, try to:

  • Not raise your voice, ask questions or reprimand at this point.
  • Use minimal language but when necessary keep it simple and calm.
  • If possible, direct the young person to a calm, enjoyed task (many feel this is rewarding bad behaviour, but if a pupil is truly distressed then they are in no state to cope with reprimands and they will be unable to listen or process. Far better address concerns/sanctions when calm).

It may help to:

Try to establish what is causing the behaviour. What is the pupil trying to communicate? Have there been any changes at school? (supply teacher, change of room, a subject topic that is distressing them?) Or at home? (a bereavement, moving house, sharing a room with a sibling?)

If nothing is obvious, then communicate with all teaching staff, parents and external agencies, if they are involved.

Try to establish any patterns in behaviour. Are there certain days, times, rooms or people who seem to trigger the behaviour? Note any antecedents or consequences to the behaviour. This may help to establish causes for the behaviour.

Try to facilitate communication. Support the pupil in explaining how they are feeling and why and what they think may help.

Think about what interests and motivates the pupil and consider how this could be incorporated into a reward programme.

‘Choose your battles wisely.’ If the behaviour is impacting on the pupil’s learning or that of others, if there is a risk of harm to the pupil or others then staff will need to intervene. However, if the pupil is rocking, fiddling with pens etc. then this may be keeping him or her calm and whilst it may be a little distracting it does not necessarily require a reprimand.

Remain as calm as possible.

Time out in a designated space or room could be used.

Pupil could have Time Out or Traffic light cards. They could leave a red card on their desk which would indicate they needed to leave class. An orange may mean ‘I am not feeling great, don’t push me.’ The meaning of the colours and the cards will need to be agreed with the pupil before implementation of this strategy. See resource. Traffic Light Cards can be used by the teacher as a quiet reminder about levels of behaviour, a resource is included, or by the child to facilitate communication about how they feel or how they are coping. They could be cut out, laminated and fixed to a key ring for easier use. A blank traffic light resource is included for teachers to customise to suit the pupil and situation. A sample Time Out card is also included and should be adapted to suit the needs of the child.

Talk time cards, included in the resource section, can be very useful for pupils who struggle to stay on task or talk about their special interests for long periods of time. The teacher can give the pupil a card to reassure them that they will be listened to at a certain time which can be written on the card as needed. Alternatively, the pupil can be encouraged to give a card to the teacher or LSA. This allows them to: acknowledge their desire to talk and the topic they wish to discuss, to be reassured that it won’t be forgotten but that they have to wait for a time.

Be mindful of the strategies you implement. Monitor them and assess whether they are working or are they reinforcing the challenging behaviour – see below.

Praise the good!

If a strategy is decided upon it can be attached to or form a part of the ID(E)P. All staff could and should then follow the same approach. Consistency is key.

Transition Support

Transitions between key stages, classes and schools can be an incredibly anxiety provoking time for pupils and their parents. At Primary schools, children will need to get used to new classroom layout, seating arrangements, a new teacher and new routines. The move to secondary school involves a huge amount of change. The school will probably be larger; the pupils will have many teachers in one day and move between different classrooms. It is ideal, although not always possible, to organise transition visits to the new school.

It is important that pupils with ASD visit the school along with their peer group but this can be a very busy day with a lot of information to process. Ideally several visits could be organised beforehand to allow the pupils to gather information and familiarise themselves with the school at a quiet time. Even one or two visits would allow the pupil to feel more in control and less anxious when visiting with their peers on transition day.

A transition support pack is available in the Resources section of this site.