Supporting autistic learners in the classroom
In this blog, Nicola Whitcombe, deputy headteacher at The Springfields Academy, a large special school for autistic learners aged 5 - 19, provides expert background knowledge and guidance on supporting autistic learners in the classroom.
What is autism?
Autism is a lifelong neurological difference. According to the National Autistic Society, autism is experienced by more than 1 in 100 people (2023). You may have heard autism referred to as a ‘disorder’, but the concept of a ‘disorder’ aligns with the medical model of disability. Historically, this model has been the dominant framework used to explain autism, describing it as a ‘disorder’ or condition which encourages people to seek a cure, treatment or intervention to reduce ‘autistic symptoms’.
Although the medical model has somewhat developed our understanding of autism (for example, that autism is neurological), its pathologised approach has led some people to view autism as a deficit. This has had a negative impact on some autistic people and their families. More recently, the social model of disability has gained traction. This model is supported by many in the autistic community as it challenges negative attitudes to autism and promotes inclusivity.
The social model views autism as natural human variation, rather than a disorder that needs to be cured. Instead, it looks to remove the barriers that prevent inclusion in schools, workplaces and wider society.
An autistic individual will always be autistic. This means that they experience the world through autistic eyes and process information with their autistic brain. The social model of disability promotes an understanding and acceptance of autism, helping us to move towards an inclusive society. Every person with autism deserves to be authentically themselves and authentically autistic, and this can start in your classroom by gaining an understanding of the unique profiles of the individuals you teach or support.
Some of the areas of difference an autistic learner may experience are:
- social knowledge
- language processing
- sensory processing
- emotional regulation
- executive function
- mental wellbeing, eg: increased likelihood of anxiety
Is autism a spectrum?
Another misconception about autism is that it is a spectrum where you can be ‘more’ or ‘less’ autistic. We now know this is not true. Each autistic individual has their own unique profile with strengths to celebrate and build on, and areas where they may need enablement.
You can begin to gain an understanding of the profile of the learners you support through the use of an ‘autism wheel’. An autism wheel is a colour wheel where the autistic person can visually display their strengths and identify areas where they may need more support.
Everyone’s autism wheel is different and unique to them - there is not a ‘one size fits all’ autistic profile. The autism wheel can represent the unique profile of two different individuals.
The areas of difference a person can represent in each section could follow the list of differences above but can also be unique to the individual or context.
As a teacher, teaching assistant or classroom practitioner, you can use this information to identify how you are going to teach, stretch and support the autistic individual to achieve their full potential.
How can being autistic impact on a pupil’s learning style?
Some of the differences an autistic individual may experience can impact on how they learn, and these are things we need to be mindful of in the classroom. Research from both a medical and social model informs what we know about autistic learners.
Although there is no ‘one size fits all’ model, having knowledge of the differences an autistic individual may experience can help us to enable them at their level of challenge. Some of these differences are:
- Differences in central coherence
The term ‘central coherence’ refers to someone’s ability to determine meaning from a collection of details. Differences in central coherence are considered a person’s cognitive style – it’s the way they see and process the information around them. Frith (1989) began research into autism and central coherence, and found that autistic individuals were more likely to focus on and have a memory for detail and information in its exact representation, in contrast to processing the larger whole.
When looking at a picture of a street with many buildings, instead of processing the whole street, the autistic individual with differences in central coherence may process and focus on the different shapes they see. For instance, they may focus on the pattern or shapes within one building, rather than the building as a whole.
An understanding of differences in central coherence is important for us to consider in the classroom, as the autistic individuals we work with may need information presented differently, or may process the information we share with a different focus to the one we intended.
Monotropism is a theory embraced by the autistic community as one of the most accurate theories of autism. Monotropism is a cognitive style characterised by intense and narrow interests or passions. It describes how autistic people distribute their attention.
Autistic people describe monotropism as an attention tunnel or torch beam- it is an intense focus that gives them pleasure. Monotropic ‘flow’ is an enjoyable experience and may help explain why autistic individuals find it difficult to shift their attention quickly.
Consequently, pupils in the classroom may find it difficult to switch their attention on request or find it difficult to engage in topics other than their passion or special interest.
- Differences in executive function
Our executive functioning skills help us complete a variety of daily tasks.
Our eight main executive functioning skills are:
- planning and prioritising
- task initiation
- impulse control
- emotional control
- flexible thinking
- working memory
Autistic learners are more likely to have executive functioning differences. This may explain why a pupil has difficulty planning a piece of writing or prioritising which questions to answer. Learners may also need support organising their equipment or processing instructions, eg, the order in which they need to get changed for PE. Visuals, now and next boards and task cards can help support executive functioning.
Executive functioning differences may explain why a pupil ‘says what they see’ even if it seems inappropriate, why they may appear to ‘overreact’ to a situation, find feedback difficult to process or take time to recover when something ‘goes wrong’. Autistic learners with executive functioning needs may appear ‘rigid’ in their thinking or get frustrated at being asked to explain something from a different angle. They may forget directions, instructions or requests, particularly if these are delivered verbally.
If an autistic pupil in your provision has executive functioning differences, it’s important to reflect on how you can remove the barriers to learning so that the individual is successful.
- Differences in theory of mind
Theory of mind is a form of ‘social intelligence’. It develops in a typically developing child by the age of five. However, since the 1980s, there has been research into whether autistic people fully develop theory of mind. Studies have found that some autistic people find it difficult to understand that other people have thoughts, beliefs and feelings that are different to their own (Baron – Cohen 1985). This does not mean that they are not empathetic; this is a myth. Autistic people are empathetic, but there can be occasions where they demonstrate differences in seeing things from other people’s point of view.
Within the classroom setting, this can present barriers to learning across the curriculum, particularly when an autistic pupil is asked to infer or deduce a meaning that is not explicit. Misunderstanding may also occur during social times, as autistic learners may find it difficult to understand others’ perspectives.
How can you support the autistic learners in your classroom or educational setting?
1. Meet environment and sensory needs
Autistic people may experience differences in sensory processing. This can impact on their ability to function and process information. They may be hypo- or hypersensitive, requiring more or less stimulus at times to regulate. Creating an ‘autism-friendly’ environment in your classroom or setting is crucial. In particular, think how you can reduce unnecessary stimuli by following these top tips:
- Keep walls a neutral colour
- Only use displays which are functional
- Use fabrics which are plain or neutral rather than those with patterns or bright colours
- Reduce clutter - this can be overstimulating
- Use as much natural light as possible- fluorescent light can be distracting
- Remember that some pupils may have sound sensitivities and need tools such as ear defenders
- Keep neutral smells in your environment, eg, by using perfume-free cleaning products and cosmetics. Some autistic people can find certain smells unbearable
- Reduce touch – some autistic people can find touch they are not in control of painful
- Consider the space the individual needs. Some may need a focussed, functional space, whilst others need an open space to feel safe and calm. Some may require the use of equipment to rock, balance or swing to help them stay regulated
- Maintaining a structured environment with clear routines can reduce anxiety and support executive functioning
When designing your environment, think about the seven senses:
- proprioceptive (the body’s ability to sense movement, action and location)
- vestibular (a person’s sense of balance and spatial orientation)
How do the individuals you are working with process these seven senses? For children with acute needs, an occupational therapist can help you complete an in-depth sensory assessment which can support your environmental and sensory planning.
2. Structure communication
Autistic pupils may show differences in communication that require different communication scaffolds. Spoken language is fleeting, it’s gone within seconds and we can’t reflect on it. The more we structure communication and give it permanence, the more likely someone with communication differences will be able to process it.
Temple Grandin (1994) shares that, as an autistic person, her strengths are in ‘thinking in pictures’. She’s a visual thinker who processes visual information more efficiently than spoken language. She has participated in neurological studies that have evidenced that the neurons in an autistic brain are ‘wired’ to process visual images more effectively than language. Using visuals supports effective communication.
Visuals don’t always have to be a picture or an object of reference. They could be written instructions or a list, particularly when used with older pupils. They key question to ask yourself is whether your communication method has permanence.
Some pupils may experience communication overload and be unable to process lots of verbal language or lengthy written communication. If you are supporting a child who presents with this difference, ensure that you simplify the language you use. Focus your communication on what is functional and what is ‘information carrying’ to support processing. A speech and language therapist will be able to help you identify if a pupil has a more significant communication need.
3. Help develop social knowledge
For years, autistic pupils have been placed in social skills groups to learn ‘acceptable’ social skills to function in a neurotypical world. Autistic adults’ accounts about these childhood experiences tells us that this didn’t equip all pupils with the social knowledge they needed to be successful in adult life. Social skills groups can follow a particular rigid pattern that doesn’t always give the opportunity for the autistic individual to apply their skills functionally and within a range of contexts.
To ensure that autistic children have the social knowledge to function as adults we must collaborate to identify the barriers to successful social experiences. Remember, what you deem as successful may not be the same for the autistic person or necessary for their life experience. There are strengths in social skills programmes, but it is important to adapt them to support the development of functional social knowledge and meet the needs of the individual.
There are a variety of factors that may impact on the autistic individuals you support. The information we have reflected on will help you apply strategies to support autistic individuals to achieve their potential.
However, the most important factor to remember is that each person is an individual who presents in their own unique way. As Dr Steven Shore states, ‘When you have met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism’. Knowing an individual’s strengths, talents and interests will help you to support them with meaningful and engaging learning experiences.
Follow the advice above to help your autistic learners be authentically themselves and authentically autistic in your classroom.
The National College offers a range of resources to help you understand and support pupils with autism and promote inclusion in your education setting.
If you’re concerned about keeping up to date with the latest education policy, practice and research, consider a membership with The National College. Not only does it provide access to thousands of professional development resources for all staff, but also enables leaders to create training programmes precisely tailored to individual and collective needs, to help ensure compliance and drive up standards.
National Autistic Society, ‘What is autism?’, 2023 - https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/what-is-autism
Scottish Autism, ‘Weak Central Coherence Theory’, 2023 - https://www.scottishautism.org/about-autism/about-autism/thinking-styles/weak-central-coherence-theory
Baron-Cohen, S., ‘Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”, 1985 - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2934210/
Grandin, T., ‘Thinking in pictures’, 1994 - https://www.amazon.co.uk/Thinking-Pictures-Temple-Grandin/dp/0747585326/ref=sr_1_1?crid=V8CSF6GJZYZ2&keywords=thinking+in+pictures&qid=1694167747&s=books&sprefix=thinking+in+pictures%2Cstripbooks%2C66&sr=1-1
Healis Autism Centre, ‘When you meet one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism’ 2020 - https://www.healisautism.com/post/when-you-meet-one-person-with-autism