People often think that creating an autism friendly classroom is difficult, and costly both in terms of time and money. But the reality is it really doesn’t need to be that way.
Every single one of you can create an autism friendly classroom on a shoestring budget, in less time than it would normally take you to plan a lesson. Being autism friendly is far more about willingness and forethought than about money and resources.
Create A Visual Timetable
Students with Autism benefit greatly from knowing what is coming next. Simply by writing down what will be happening each day you will reduce anxiety levels, decrease the chance of Meltdowns and increase the chance of successful lessons. How you decide to do it is totally up to you; there are lots of visual symbols available online to use’, some teachers decide to take photographs of real activities happening in their classroom and others write the activities on a corner of their whiteboard. For those of you teaching older children, you can even delegate the job and have a visual timetable monitor to set up the schedule each day.
Worried about what do do if something on your schedule needs to change? Check out this video here.
Smile When You Are Happy
There is nothing that makes my student more anxious than a non-smiling teacher. For many of them, anyone who doesn’t look obviously happy is angry. And no one wants to go into class with an angry teacher. I know forcing a smile can feel artificial at first, especially if you’re teaching a serious subject. But trust me, something that simple really can make a huge difference.
Think About Noise Levels
Think how distracting it would be if you were trying to work whilst listening to the TV, the radio and the iPod all at once. Add in your children trying to talk to you and your husband calling your name from the next room and it’s unlikely that you would get much done. For many children and young people on the Spectrum this is what being in a classroom feels like everyday. Background noises are amplified, anxiety levels are heightened and learning impossible to concentrate on.
Think carefully about how to structure group work so that it’s less overwhelming, having an item to hold when you are talking can help stop everyone talking at once. Whilst during independent learning having access to ear defenders or being allowed to listen to music through headphones (one consistent noise is much less distracting than multiple noises coming from multiple different directions) can be helpful to some.
Make Recognisable Zones
Help students to transition more easily between tasks and expected behaviours by having designated zones. Some teachers like to colour code their areas, with the independent work area, collaborative work area, and play areas all being different – this can be done by simply having a few key items in the designated colour.
Having clear expectations in the different areas will help students to feel less anxious about transitions between activities, and will really help those with less verbal understanding to understand what is expected of them.
Create A Quiet Space
Having space in your room where students can go if they need some time to be by themselves can really help to stop both fight and flight responses from kicking in. A dark den or small children’s tent is ideal as the space feels more secluded and private than just a corner of the room. Filling it with cushions or beanbags, and a weighted blanket if you have one can help children and young people to feel safe and secure whilst they regulate their emotions enough to rejoin the class.
Start Using Visual Timers
Make transitions easier by visually showing students when a task is going to end so they can prepare themselves emotionally for it happening. There are lots of free ones online that you can display on your whiteboard, or on iPads or laptops if different students are transitioning at different times. If you have some budget to use giant egg timers are also fantastic – and very difficult to break – as they’ve can be easily carried around the classroom and used outside if needed.
Make Some Time Out Cards
Often when students start to become upset they find it difficult to put their feelings into words. They can find it difficult to approach the teacher appropriately and worry that their friends will laugh at them. Their fight or flight response therefore kicks in, and you are left wondering why a child has just run out of your classroom and whether they are going to be safe.
A simple piece of paper saying ‘I need to leave the room now please’ printed or handwritten and then laminated can make all of the difference. Agree on the rules for time outs, where the student needs to go when they leave your room and how long they can be gone before needing to catch up on work (I usually say ten minutes, as I want students to have a chance to be able to calm down properly). Then when they become upset they simply need to hand over the card – no words are needed.
Break Down Tasks
Often looking at a task as a whole can seem incredibly overwhelming. Students simply do not know where to start, and before they have even begun they have already decided it’s a task that feels to complex. Breaking it down into small tasks, through the use of a check list, post it notes, or our writing prompt cards which can be downloaded below really can help to reassure them that this is something they know how to do. For many children and young people, this also allows them to work significantly more independently throughout the lesson itself.
Pre-Warn Your Students About Change
Change is something that can cause an enormous amount of anxiety, so the more advance warning you can give about an impending change the better. Events like play rehearsals that mean lessons are moved, the absence of a teacher for an upcoming lesson or the change of the dinner menu should all be explained in advance so the student knows exactly what to expect. It’s important to qualify that forewarning a child oryoung person will not mean that’s they don’t get upset or anxious about the change – the likelihood is that they will. It does however mean that not only will they cope more easily when the change happens, but also that they will spend less time being anxious about unexpected change because they trust you to be honest with them.
Build Relationships With Parents
Last but definitely not least, it’s incredibly important that you try to build strong relationships with parents. See parents as equal partners in the process and listen carefully to everything they tell you. Taking onboard their ideas and sharing yours will ensure a much greater degree of consistency and therefore a much better long term outcome for everyone involved. Tips for making this work can be found here.
Why not join our lovely, friendly Facebook Group full of parents and teachers working together to share strategies to help our children.
If you do want to learn more you might find our autism section a useful place to start. It’s full of different strategies to try out.
Our online autism courses are also a great place to learn more.
As always if you have any questions at all please don’t hesitate to get in touch, I’m more than happy to help.
If you’d like a copy of our writing prompt cards to help young people find writing less overwhelming please subscribe below and we’ll get them to you right away.