Kids have less autonomy, or control over what they do, in the classroom than they have at home. This leads to disruptive or aggressive behaviors from autistic kids and may stress teachers. Here are 5 strategies for autism in the classroom.
Strategies for autism in the classroom
All of these strategies have been tried on both autistic and non-autistic children to create a successful school situation.
None of these strategies use applied behavior analysis (ABA). ABA focuses on training the autism out of the child, which ignores how autism works. This is why the autistic community considers ABA “autistic conversion therapy”.
1. Create a sensory-sensitive classroom.
By default, classrooms are often noisy and not sensory-friendly at all. Sensory overload leads to stress, meltdowns and aggressive behavior.
Visual sensory stimuli
Bold, dark colors mixed with bright colors, pastels and any other color you can get your hands on is a migraine and a meltdown waiting to happen. In interior design, there is the 60-30-10 rule:
- 60 percent is your primary color
- 30 percent is your secondary color
- 10 percent is your accent color
If you want four colors, use 30-30-30-10. You can also do 40-30-30.
Themed classrooms using only a few different colors are friendlier on the eyes. Lots of colors and posters create unnecessary noise. I remember most of what the posters in classrooms said, but I don’t remember the teaching.
If you must use posters, please put them at the back of the classroom. Keep the solid-colored shapes, like stars and borders, inline with your color scheme. Aim for color palettes that have a bold, bright and soft color — these are typically less noisy.
Visual noise plays a part in sensory overload, though some autistic students may find it calming. Find what works for your classroom.
Heat makes a lot of sensory-sensitive, and neurotypical individuals alike, angry. It’s not a competition, but think of this sensory input as worse when autism is in the picture.
Sensory sensitivities can cause emotional dysregulation, which disrupts our ability to think straight. I cannot function when it’s too hot, because I get sweaty, sticky and mad, which tacks on two sensory inputs I don’t have the energy to tolerate.
Cold can negatively affect autistic students, too. Being too cold leads to clammy skin, tiredness, and shivering.
Try different temperatures to find what helps your students regulate. Pre-pandemic, some teachers had blankets in their classrooms for their students. Ask parents to send sweaters and layers of clothing.
2. Don’t focus on rewarding positive behavior. They’re not dogs.
ABA recommends you reward positive behavior with food. DO NOT DO THIS. Rewarding with food is not only against many Early Childhood Education (ECE) programs regulations, but schools may ban it as well.
Because children learn that they get to eat when they’re good and don’t get to eat when they’re bad. Food rewards have been abused as tactics by teachers and parents alike.
Autistic children often take things literally. The literal context in this situation is:
- I was good, so I get food.
- I was bad, so I don’t get food.
Which is turned inward and looks like:
- I pretended to be “normal”, so I get food.
- I did something that made me uncomfortable, so I get food.
- I accidentally forgot to be “normal”, so I don’t get food.
- When I am myself, that is bad, so I don’t get food.
Autistic individuals are more susceptible to developing eating disorders. Rewarding with food is a manipulative way to punish behavior you deem bad and reward behavior you want repeated. Reading between the lines, you might think nothing is wrong with that.
Here’s why that reward behavior is the worst:
- Autistic people, especially those assigned female at birth, are more likely to be taken advantage of sexually. This reward system is similar to that of grooming behavior.
- Child and domestic abusers use this same exact tactic, only not always with food.
- It prevents autistic children from developing self-reliance and forces them to mask.
Instead, ask the hyperactive ones to assist you in class. Assign classroom roles to teach responsibility and encourage kind behavior.
Understand that autism defines autistic children. Removing the autism from the child in your mind means you are not seeing them, accepting them or understand them. Encourage neurodiversity, not non-autistic behaviors.
3. Offer real choices.
Autistic kids need to feel like they have some control in life, so offering choices is great. Make those choices real choices and not fake choices.
Do you want to ____ now, or do you want to in five minutes?”
This is a real question and gives option to say no, which angers or frustrates the asker and results in manipulation. Also is manipulation.
Do you want to color ____ or ____?
This is a real question. The child has real options, and it is not a manipulation.
Teachers and parents often use the bad question to avoid meltdowns, only to find themselves dealing with a meltdown anyway. This is because they’re not asking the child anything — they’re telling the child what is going to happen in the format of a question.
If you do this, the autistic person is not going to learn emotional regulation. Instead, consider using this phrase:
Five more minutes, and then it’s time to ____.
This is not a choice, because it was never a choice to begin with. Don’t disguise required events with optional expectations. Autistic individuals learn to see this manipulative behavior for what it is, and it ruins their trust in you.
4. Use transitions and visual cues.
If you’ve watched TV, you know the feeling you’re bombarded with when the show cuts off mid-scene for a commercial break instead of fading to black. Don’t be the commercial that cuts off mid-scene.
Transitions help kids prepare for and adjust to a change or shift in the current routine, even if they’ve followed this routine for months. Autistic students need consistency and predictability. The routine part of the equation is the umbrella.
Routines provide us with comfort, but that comfort can be taken away the instant the commercial starts. This is why meltdowns happen. It looks like a tantrum or like the autistic kid is upset they don’t get what they want, but actually it’s a meltdown.
Visual cues and instructions help autistic people understand and communicate.
5. Teach coping techniques instead of punishing negative behavior.
What if, instead of punishing autistic people for meltdowns and sensory overload, we instead of taught them coping techniques? The outcome is amazing and mostly stress-free.
Teaching coping techniques is difficult at first, but you’ll also help them learn self-awareness by identifying their reactions more quickly.
Coping techniques help autistic children learn how to rely on themselves to keep their emotions in check. If you want to spend more time teaching lessons and building relationships with your autistic students, help them learn how to cope. Read books about emotional regulation.
Click here for more on specific IEP and 504 accommodations for autism.
Teach them to be self-reliant, strong individuals — because this is a skill they will appreciate in adulthood.