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Teaching Strategies for Autistic Students

By Dr Michelle Garnett and Professor Tony Attwood

In this article, we provide specific ideas and strategies based on our combined experience of over 80 years to assist teachers to make the school experience a success for their autistic students. Our autistic students learn best when they feel calm and safe. The challenges of the classroom, as discussed in last week’s article, commonly lead to high levels of anxiety and feeling overwhelmed. If we can decrease our autistic student’s anxiety, we help them become ready to learn.

Decrease Anxiety

Anxiety is often a major problem for an autistic student at school. High levels of anxiety, which may present as anger, can cause a serious barrier to learning at school, both in the social and academic areas. Understanding the causes and the early signs of anxiety for the autistic student is a huge step toward helping them to learn most effectively and even enjoy school. Once the triggers and early signs are known, steps can be taken to prevent anxiety as much as possible. It is important to note that high levels of anxiety are often the precursor to temper tantrums, rage attacks and meltdowns.

Understanding the causes of anxiety for your autistic student is a good first step:

What are the likely causes?

  • An unexpected event or change in plan. Autistic students often have a great deal of difficulty accepting change and dealing with transitions. Surprises like a relief teacher or a fire drill can upset them so much that they are unable to focus on school work for the rest of the day.

  • Related to this can be the problem of a rigid thinking style. It can be difficult for your autistic student to change set, or to follow another plan or idea than the one they have already decided upon. Pressure to “change track” can be a trigger for a meltdown. 
  • Getting ready for school – all the activities that have to happen before leaving the house, eating breakfast, finding clothes and shoes, packing the school bag, brushing teeth and hair, can be stressful. It is important for parents to develop a structured routine in the mornings and to try to keep their student to the schedule. In this way the student will arrive at school in a much calmer frame of mind, and the teacher will have a better chance of being able to teach the student that day.
  • Entering the building can be stressful for the autistic student because of all the noises, people talking, chairs scraping, doors closing, and bags being dropped. We suggest compiling a list of all the sounds and activities that are difficult for the autistic student and giving them visual information such as a morning checklist to help them to cope. If it is too difficult still allow them into the building a few minutes early.
  • Sitting too close to others.  Close proximity to others may be distracting for an autistic student. You may be able to allow the student time to adjust to the classroom by initially allowing them to sit alone or with one other student. Create a list of the student’s triggers, forexample. sensory stimuli, and be familiar with their signs of discomfort e.g. rocking, a tense facial expression, humming, withdrawal – to be able to judge when to intervene. Occasional a carrel ? can be useful, or time at a desk alone, or in a corner of the class, reading, or time in a quiet sanctuary. If offering such accommodations, do offer them to the whole class, otherwise, the autistic student stands out and may feel stigmatised. The constant social contact at school is a significant source of anxiety and stress for the autistic student and needs to be taken into consideration when planning the day.  Schedule true breaks from socialising during the day.
  • Keeping up with classmates – particularly keeping up with instructions when the teacher is talking or copying from the board. This is often due to poor fine motor skills, low tone, and or visual-motor difficulties. Solutions are assistive technology such as a laptop, there are some great models (programmes/apps?) around now, or have a volunteer to do the writing for the autistic student.
  • Struggling with difficult work – work that is too difficult can really raise anxiety, and especially performance anxiety. Often students can’t tell their teachers how they are feeling and instead start showing their anxious behaviours. Students may have good days and bad days which can be confusing and frustrating for teachers. On bad days the student needs extra emotional and practical support and encouragement. Orient work on these bad days around familiar material that the student may have a sense of success with.
  • Answering difficult questions – autistic students can crumple inside when asked direct questions, they feel anxious because of being looked at or because they have word retrieval problems or are slow cognitive processors. So, allow the student additional time to formulate their thoughts. Avoid “why” questions. These can sound accusing and can be confusing.  Instead try “what” questions, as in “what do you need?” This question gives the opportunity for the person to say -–space, or cool air, or time away if they can. 
  • Dealing with sarcasm – autistic students find sarcasm really hard to deal with because it is difficult to understand until they are older, but even then they may have to think about it. It is best to avoid sarcasm or idioms  – to decrease the chance of anxiety, i.e. don’t say that the person is “off with the fairies” or “out to lunch” to “not the full can of coke today.”
  • Making eye contact – forcing eye contact can be very difficult for many autistic students and can cause anxiety. Instead, check for understanding by asking the person to repeat what has just been said.
  • Receiving a group grade – some autistic students experience anxiety about receiving a group grade because they worry about what the other group members are doing, and don’t concentrate well on their own work. If this is the case grade the work individually, it will decrease anxiety but still allow the learning experience of working in a group.
  • Interacting with peers – as discussed, the social skill difficulties autistic  students have can create secondary problems – social anxiety, plus rejection or bullying or teasing by peers. It is important to address these difficulties by creating a culture of caring, having a good anti-bullying policy at school and implementing it. Also knowing the bullies and providing assistance to them in social skill development and supporting rather than tormenting an autistic student. Because let’s face it, if you need to pull others down to feel good about yourself, you are certainly having some significant interpersonal problems yourself.
  • Navigating unstructured time. Because of social skill difficulties, unstructured or less structured times at school can be extremely difficult for autistic students. Their anxiety can really increase because they do not know what to do, and bullying is common during unstructured less supervised times. Close monitoring and supervision are necessary. This assistance is vital, not only to help with social interactions but to provide assistance. A teacher aide or volunteer time in the playground is essential to organise and facilitate play, act as a social “coach”, explain the rules of games and provide the autistic student with a sense of security. This is the case in high school as well as primary school. Be mindful that social coaching needs to occur in privacy and always includes pointing out what the student did well socially. Use Comic Strip Conversation and Social Stories to allow the student to see the situation more clearly and suggest their own solutions. You can also help structure the recess time, by creating a visual plan for the time, including time for eating, and various games with peers. Include other options, too as sometimes the autistic student may just need time away from it all in solitude. Remember how exhausting it is to learn new things.

Strategies for Assisting Autistic Students to Manage Their Anxiety

  • Know the triggers – each student is different, talk to the parents, and previous teachers, and observe. 

  • Know the first signs of anxiety – again do your homework, and talk to the people who know your student.

  • Anxiety escalates quickly – intervene as early in the cycle as possible – teach the student to know their triggers themselves so that they can intervene too.

  • Use a non-punitive strategy to help calm the student and stop the cycle, eg:

    • send them on an errand or to go for a drink
    • stand next to their desk – proximity can be calming 
    • use a signal – develop a hand signal such that only you and the student know that you are telling them that they are starting their anxious behaviour.
    • use reassuring touch – as with all strategies, you really need to know the individual student, sometimes touch can work very well to stop a foot tapping or kicking, and other times it can increase anxiety as the student feels anxious.Remember , many autistic people cannot bear light touch, the degree of ‘pressure’ is important.
    • defuse tension with humour – can break the mood, but be careful that the student does not perceive that they are the butt of the joke.
    • use support from routine – bring the student’s attention to their visual schedule and refer to the schedule for reassurance regarding the sequence of events.
    • redirect – the student’s attention away from the activity that is making them feel anxious. Start them on a different and less stressful activity.
    • use time away – while your student is sitting at a desk on his own, or study carrel (?) they can be working on their assignments – this should not be viewed as a punishment but as helping the student to avoid meltdown experiences and to remain calm.
    • acknowledge the difficulties  – stand close, and say the student’s name and calmly state a rule to cover the behaviour. For example, not sharing, say “Clayton, I know you like that particular puzzle (validating his concern) but everyone in the classroom must share the puzzles.”
    • walk and don’t talk – go for a walk with the student and allow them to talk. To say whatever they like, without interrupting. Do not react or engage in a conversation. Do not become confrontational. Just listen until they have calmed down.
    • jumping or running – sometimes physical exercise can help to calm the autistic student down, eg jumping on a trampoline, or running around the oval
    • rolling up – for some students being rolled up in a sleeping bag or getting under a heavy or weighted blanket can really help.  Know what helps the student manage anxiety and have the equipment necessary on hand. Equip the time away spot with calming down materials eg books, music, a trampoline, and stress balls – again time away is not a punishment but an opportunity to regulate emotions (a skill the autistic student has not yet mastered).

More Strategies for School

There is clear evidence that a “buddy” system incorporated in a school setting can be beneficial for an autistic student. The student should be paired with a nurturing, friendly and well-liked peer(s) who is/are willing and able to assist and rescue the autistic student when they become socially confused. Choose peers who will include the student in some play activities with some encouragement from the teacher. 

A popular teacher can also be considered as the person to play a mentor role for the autistic student. It is important that interactions with the “buddy or mentor” are structured and consistent and it is not just assumed that the autistic student will seek help from these people in crisis, as they are more likely to not seek out assistance at all, or to only do so when the crisis is beyond the point of being well managed.

There may be times at school when your autistic student will alienate peers, teachers and others in authority by appearing to “act inappropriately with intent”. However, they are typically not trying to be annoying or ‘naughty’; rather they are most likely simply missing the social understanding required for the situation to be accepted, or for them to act with diplomacy and tact. As these skills are missing and emotions are out of control the only way your autistic student can behave in this type of situation is to have a meltdown.  

Over time, with gentle guidance and validation when things that cause these meltdowns occur, your autistic student will learn to behave in a way that does not result in alienation, bullying and teasing by peers, or punishment/confrontation  by a teacher or more senior staff member .  Rather if the student’s difficulty/emotional distress etc is validated by saying for example “I can see what happened has upset you” they can typically then be encouraged to calm down by being prompted to do something that the buddy/ mentor/teacher knows will calm them down, this can avert a total meltdown. 

As social skill demands increase with maturity, your autistic student can be an easy target for bullies (social rejection/intentionally trying to trigger an outburst) and needs access to a safe place where they can go at lunchtime as needed. There also needs to be a whole school approach to bullying –including recognition of how it might present, harm minimisation, bystander responses, what to do if bullied and subsequent consequences. For more information see our Autism and Bullying blog.


Your autistic student will often have low self-esteem. This can be boosted by creating at home or school a ‘This is me’ or ‘Success Book’ that includes all of the things the student is good at or knows a lot about. As soon as the student demonstrates any of their good qualities, they can be told what they have done well and that you will make an instant record of the event in their ‘Success Book’. This way they have a record of the things they can do well – rather than just being pulled up and reminded of everything that might go wrong during their day.  This information can be shared with parents.

If what has been done well is concrete, take a photograph of the achievement and put that into the ‘Success Book’ book as “evidence” of achievements. That way it will become a potent reminder of the student’s strengths and successes. The book can be added to by the student themself, teachers, peers, and parents. This will help increase the student’s self-esteem and self-confidence. 

Perspective Taking

Your autistic student will probably need assistance with perspective-taking. When they appear angry or non-compliant and their emotional upset may have been a result of them not understanding someone else’s point of view, point out their own perspective and validate this, and then calmly, and rationally, give your own perspective of the situation or the perspective of another student.  There are two specific resources which may help you with this task. The first of these is 

  • Comic Strip Conversations– these were created by Carol Gray. They are a wonderful visual way of breaking down problem behaviour. You can use them to understand the situation from the student’s point of view, and to help teach the student to think about other people’s perspectives and thoughts. First of all, you need paper and coloured pens. Allow the student to assign a basic emotion to each pen colour. Then draw the situation using stick figures, no need to be an artist! Start at the beginning. At each step find out what (not why) the student was thinking and feeling, and what he said, and what the student thought the other people involved were thinking or feeling. Use thought and speech bubbles. Change pen colours depending on the feelings. At first, you are just asking for information and listening – later on, you can provide insightful information, or use joint problem-solving to consider alternative responses.

The second resource that can be used to help an autistic student understand the perspective of another is: 

  • Social Stories – These were also created by Carol Gray, who has worked for many years with autistic students, in the USA, in special education. These stories provide a wonderful visual way of conveying the relevant social information that the student may be missing.  They can be used for teaching a multitude of activities, including social skills and appropriate behaviour. They tell the student about other students and the teacher’s perspective

Using a calm rational approach, such as those explained in the above resources, can assist your autistic student to think about others when they are making a decision in the future. It is also important that autistic students learn that some things are not negotiable and they just have to comply. Again comic-strip conversations, and social stories can help with this. When your autistic student demonstrates they are trying to incorporate the perspective of another into their decision making (even if in a very small way) this should be recorded in the ‘Success Book’, to indicate that the student was being smart and made an excellent decision that considered someone else’s perspective. 

Create a Crisis Plan

We recommend creating a crisis plan for meltdowns, and ensuring everyone knows the plan  ,  just as you would have an emergency plan for fire by having fire drills, have a crisis plan for when your autistic student has an emotional outburst or meltdown. Train the autistic student (and other staff) in the crisis plan when he or she is calm, on a relatively normal day. The plan should be visual, written down, or in pictures, including, the antecedents to the problem behaviour, the student’s typical response behaviours at each stage of the escalation, as well as possible interventions for each stage of the emotional outburst. Use the form to also record any incidents and what happened, what worked and what didn’t work, so this information can be incorporated into the plan in the future. 

Prevention is better than cure – the idea is to have decreased anxiety, as we have been discussing, and so as to minimise meltdowns.

Two more points:

  • Don’t enter a power struggle

  • Don’t discuss anything until the autistic student has calmed down  – trying to have a calm rational discussion about what they SHOULD have done, or how they could have RE-INTERPRETED the cues, is about as likely to succeed as having a rational conversation with an angry hippopotamus.

Further Recommendations

It is always helpful to have an idea of your autistic student’s cognitive and academic abilities . The results of these tests will give a better understanding of the student’s areas of strengths and weakness and provide insight into how well suited the current curriculum is to the student’s profile of abilities. In some cases, autistic students can reach a learning plateau and will find material beyond that plateau impossible to understand/complete resulting in an emotional meltdown. Sometimes  autistic students may be functioning at a level well above their peers and boredom is contributing to their emotional/behavioural frustration,

These results will also enable the ruling out or acceptance of a specific learning disability or island of giftedness as another component of the student’s functioning that may be contributing to the current emotional/behavioural profile.   

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. 

Recommended Resources

Please note that all the following helpful resources are published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London.

The Essential Manual for Asperger’s Syndrome (ASD) in the Classroom by Kathy Hoopmann

The Everyday Autism Handbook for Schools by Claire Droney and Annelies Verbiest

Education & Girls on the Autism Spectrum: Developing an Integrated Approach edited by Judith Hebron and Caroline Bond

Working with Asperger Syndrome in the Classroom: An Insider’s Guide by Gill Ansell

Teacher Education and Autism: a research-Based Practical Handbook by Clare Lawrence

Asperger Syndrome: What Teachers Need to Know by Matt Winter with Clare Lawrence

Inclusive Education for Autistic Children: Helping Children and Young People to Learn and Flourish in the Classroom by Rebecca Wood