In this blog article Meredith outlines some of the barriers to learning autistic students can face and offers some strategies to support them.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological difference that affects how a person perceives and relates to the world around them. The brain of an autistic person is wired differently, with the differences in four key areas: social interaction, sensory processing, processing information and communication.
Although commonly thought of as affecting boys more than girls, recent research shows girls and boys are roughly equally affected but that girls are very good at masking (hiding) their autism and so often get missed when it comes to a diagnosis.
Shockingly, the number of autistic students excluded from schools has risen by 60% since 2011.
Our schools (and the world, generally) are designed for neurotypical students (loud, crowded, bright, fast-paced and with many implicit social rules to follow) and so an autistic person can easily feel confused, overwhelmed and anxious trying to understand and fit into it.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to learning for an autistic student is anxiety. An autistic student has a much greater chance of experiencing anxiety as they desperately try to navigate a world not designed for their brains. An overwhelming sensory environment, trying to imitate and understand social behaviours all day long, a slower processing speed and having to cope with constant change (or the threat of it) increases anxiety for autistic students hugely.
Understanding the unique, specific needs of the autistic student you are working with can go a long way in making things a bit easier for them when it comes to learning. Below I suggest some specific ways to help make learning easier for autistic students:
Firstly, it is important to find ways to keep anxiety levels down in whatever ways we can. This may mean ensuring lessons happen in a calm, quiet environment or helping prepare them for transitions in the day. It may mean helping them organise their belongings for the next day, or teaching them how to regulate their emotions and ways to help them calm down e.g. with deep belly breathing. It could even mean rehearsing a script or role-playing a social situation they are unsure how to manage.
Autistic people often have special interests, which is usually an area of strength and where the student excels, so should be honoured and utilised in learning. For instance, if a student has a special interest in – and knowledge of – e.g. horses / world wars / aeroplanes, see how this can be applied meaningfully in lessons.
Autistic people are predominantly visual and kinaesthetic learners so ensure the use of pictures, videos, objects and textures to touch etc. A visual timetable and pictures such as ‘now’ and ‘next’ cards for lessons can also help with anxiety over transitions. A WAGOLL (What A Good One Looks Like) is particularly important for autistic learners.
Get to know if the student is sensitive to sounds, smells, or vivid or bright colours, textures of certain materials. Perhaps they need you to take that distracting ticking clock off the wall during the lesson or ensure the smell of cleaning products from your chores has dissipated before the lesson. Smells such as lavender oil can be calming and peppermint can help wake a student up!
Maybe the bright fluorescent lights can be dimmed a bit.
In order to be effective for autistic students, praise needs to be meaningful, specific to what exactly has been done well and offered immediately following the achievement.
Quite frankly, the school curriculum can often feel irrelevant and boring! This can lead to students feeling demotivated and questioning why they need to learn certain subjects or even struggling to see the point in going to school at all. It can help to offer a timeline showing or explaining clearly how this point of learning or piece of work will benefit them.
Autistic people have a slower speed of processing for receptive language so it is important to slow down your speech, give one piece of information and allow time for digesting it before moving on to the next.
… at least until the student becomes familiar with them! Autistic people can have difficulty making sense of metaphorical language and can take things literally. This is one to be especially aware of in conversational language and when working with a student doing comprehension, and in particular, inference skills practice. It is helpful to practice how words can be used in different contexts and their subsequent different meanings.
All students, but particularly autistic students, need regular movement breaks during lessons. They can help the student ‘get back into their body’ and sense where their body is in space (the proprioceptive sense, which is often experienced differently for autistic people). Jogging on the spot for 20 seconds, doing a set of star jumps or practising some yoga poses can really make a difference!
Autistic students often face many challenges when it comes to school and learning. By taking time to understand their needs, making some adjustments to the environment and methods of teaching, and supporting them where they struggle, we can help them to achieve their potential.