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Teaching Autistic Students

By Dr Michelle Garnett and Professor Tony Attwood

Being autistic in a classroom designed for non-autistic students brings many challenges, some of which are overwhelming for your autistic student. Understanding the challenges is the first step in becoming successful at teaching autistic students. In this article, we describe the ways in which being autistic makes being in the classroom a challenge. Based on our combined experience of over 80 years we describe the two most useful tools for assisting an autistic student to thrive in the classroom.


What is autism?

Autism describes a different neurology that is characterised by difficulties in social/emotional reasoning, often a narrow range of interests, a “one-track” mind and a different sensory system. Our current definitions define autism as existing on a spectrum, with levels that describe both level of support required and how noticeable the autism is. Level 1 indicates that autism is marked, and some support is needed. Level 2 means that autism is more noticeable and moderate support is needed, and Level 3 denotes high support needs and a very noticeably different profile. 


Social Communication Difficulty

Your autistic student, regardless of the level of autism, will have social communication difficulties as described below, unless they use masking and camouflaging as coping  mechanisms, see our blog on Camouflaging

  • different verbal social communication skills that often result in limited social and emotional reciprocity during social interaction; which are more likely to be apparent if support is not in place;
  • differences in non-verbal communication skills including difficulty reading facial expression and other non-verbal body language of others and difficulty using nonverbal communication to moderate social interaction. This may mean not showing the expected non-verbal expressions to initiate an open friendly interaction with others and or looking interested when others are talking about a topic that is not of real interest to them; 
  • Difficulties developing and maintaining social relationships with same aged peers – but may be able to relate appropriately with younger students and or adults/older young people who are accepting of their different social code. Your student will struggle with social relatedness and may have limited capacity to initiate appropriate social interactions on his own. 

Autistic students tend to experience discomfort in many social situations, increased levels of stress after social situations have occurred, and to be overwhelmed by strong emotions.  However, despite these social difficulties, the majority of autistic students experience a strong desire to interact with their peers and to make friends. 

Because of their social communication difficulties your autistic student will experience confusion about what is friendly vs unfriendly behaviour and will be vulnerable to all types of bullying, including passive social rejection, malicious gossip, and use of comments that result in humiliation, or requests that result in asking inappropriate questions or doing silly acts and getting into trouble. We have found that other students may torment an autistic student in a manner that ensures a teacher does not detect the provocation, but only the negative reaction from the autistic student. 


Difficulty Understanding and Expressing Emotion 

It is common for autistic students to have trouble understanding, labelling, and regulating their emotions. While some students cope with their emotions by adopting a pattern of avoidance to activities/events that cause an emotional reaction (i.e. demonstrate a flight response pattern to emotional turmoil), others tend to cope with their emotions by adopting an aggressive approach aimed at mastering/changing activities/events that result in an emotional reaction (i.e. demonstrate a fight response pattern). Others may appear frozen to act because of the emotions they are experiencing.

We find that an autistic student’s aggressive behaviour is an indication they are not coping emotionally, rather than an indication that they are making a rational choice to respond with angry defiance or naughty behaviour. Angry behaviour should be taken to be an indication of uncontrollable anxiety that is a direct result of being autistic. 

Instead of being punished or viewed as not acceptable the emotional response needs to be validated, by for example saying, “I can see that you are distressed” and then taking steps to manage the meltdown (see our blog on Managing a Meltdown). 


Classroom Consequences of Difficulties with Perspective-Taking

Autism is characterised by “theory of mind” difficulties which means that innately and intuitively understanding another person’s perspective is not possible. Misinterpretation and confusion about social interactions area daily occurrence. In addition, limited theory of mind skills will result in your autistic student placing their own needs and wants ahead of the needs and wants of others automatically due to a different neurology, not a character fault. Their different neurology can lead others to believe that your autistic student is ego-centric with limited consideration of the feelings of others. This major source of misunderstanding by others can lead your autistic student to:

  • be first to do something without consideration of the consequences; 
  • believe that they are the only one that is right or is following the rules; 
  • do things according to their own plan;  
  • believe they get things right the first time and refuse to do things again if they make a mistake;
  • be a social “policeman” and perseverate on what they perceive is a social injustice (“it’s not fair”) or tell the teacher about other students breaking the rules with no perception that they are also breaking rules but in a different way. They are also likely to have their own rules in their head which they see no need to share with others, believing others have the same thoughts in their head as the autistic student does
  • attend to the rules in their own head before or instead of attending to the class rules
  • not understand why anyone else cannot see things their way.


A Single-Track Mind

Your autistic student will likely often show a rigid thinking style, difficulty with changes in routine and problems with transitions.  Because they find change difficult the autistic student often does not cope emotionally with unexpected change and will find it difficult to change their focus from the current activity to another activity that has been introduced, especially if the autistic student has not fully completed the first activity to their satisfaction. It can be helpful to assist the autistic student to complete a task, but always allowing the student to complete the very final step. Another strategy is to ensure the student knows there will be time scheduled later in the day to complete the task.

Similarly, when your autistic student is focussing on their area of special interest it may be difficult for them to shift focus back to what they need to be working on before they started their special interest task.  We find that the special interest activities can be best used as “rewards” for finishing other tasks. Or be presented with a specific time frame for engagement and there is provision of multiple reminders as the finishing time get closer. 


A Different Sensory Processing System

The sensory processing difficulties of your autistic student which may present as sensory defensiveness or sensory seeking behaviour are also factors that can trigger emotional dys-regulation and distress. These sensory difficulties may be related to any one of the eight senses or to multiple senses at the same time. The senses involved are: 

  • auditory
  • visual
  • texture (touch)
  • olfactory (smell) 
  • taste 
  • vestibular system (balance)
  • proprioception system (awareness of body in space, muscle tone etc)
  • interoception (awareness of bodily sensations)

Many autistic students find a noisy, busy classroom or playground difficult to tolerate resulting in sensory overload. Sensory differences need to be accommodated rather than treated. For example, allowing time for a sensory retreat to a quiet dedicated place with access to sensory toys will assist many students to cope better with the school day. However, the overwhelm resulting from sensory overload needs to be understood as an additional background stressor for the student, which will tax their energy and increase the likelihood of the fight or flight response.


The Learning Profile

Many autistic students are visual rather than verbal learners and as such benefit from pictures, labels, mind maps and other structured visuals to assist learning.  They may also have a different way of problem-solving and an obsessive approach to particular interests. Difficulties with short-term memory, planning, taking the initiative and prioritizing are also often a significant part of having autism. Up to 70% of autistic students also meet diagnostic criteria for ADHD.


The Two Most Important Tools to Assist Your Autistic Student to Thrive

Knowledge and Attitude

The best tools for teaching an autistic person are knowledge and attitude. Firstly, knowledge about autism is empowering. Parents, teachers and others whom the student interacts with on a daily basis all need to have a sound knowledge of autism acquired from reading, research and training, and to work together to apply this knowledge with their knowledge of the student. We find that development of this specific knowledge takes approximately 6 months on overage per student.

The second tool, attitude, means adopting an attitude of optimism, respect, openness and curiosity, recognising that everyone is on a voyage of discovery into understanding each student’s unique profile of abilities.  It is about being open to making accommodations to the environment to assist the student to adapt and function the best they can within both school and home settings.   


Where To Now?

Our exciting new course, Autism in School, is specifically designed to train teachers and teacher aides to increase their understanding of autism and equip them with specific strategies for teaching autistic children and adolescents in their classroom, in Primary, High School, Distance Education or Home Schooling. Families and health professionals who support the child or teenager attending school will also benefit.