World Autism Day
World Autism Acceptance Week begins on 2nd April 2024. Check out The National Autistic Societies page here for future dates here. The National Autistic Society states, on their website, around 700,000 people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum.
In my experience, having worked as a primary school teacher and SENCo, I believe the actual number to be much higher; I think this is largely down to the difficulties in getting a diagnosis (I’ll leave that rant for another time).
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Generally I found that at least 10% of the students in my classes have had difficulties for which there is either a diagnosis of autism or autism is strongly suspected by parents, myself and/ or other professionals.
The Rights of the Child
Around 10% of the population are dyslexic and as a teacher the schools, local authorities and universities that I have worked with have all had a dyslexic friendly classroom expectation.
This is where you make modifications for the whole class to support those individuals who may need it. For example – using a dyslexic friendly font for the whole class to support all children who are diagnosed with dyslexia, but also children who haven’t. I strongly believe that this should be the case for autism and that all classrooms should be autistic friendly classrooms.
Autism is a spectrum and often it is only children and adults who have severe difficulties who get a diagnosis (again I’ll leave that rant for another day).
There are lots of children who are somewhere else along this spectrum who find day to day activities tricky and for whom small changes in the way a classroom is laid out and run can really help to reduce their anxiety and make school a happier, more productive place to play and learn. This should be a right for all children.
Take Action – Make Your Classroom Autism Friendly
For a lot of teachers their classrooms are already autism friendly classrooms. Here is my checklist to help all classrooms become more autism friendly classrooms. If you are autistic I would love to hear from you and find out what helps support you at home, school or work. Do drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Autistic Friendly Classroom Checklist
- A visual timetable clearly displayed and kept up to date throughout the day with any changes. You can make your own of these or there are some lovely ones you can purchase on Etsy.
- Simple class expectations – not too wordy preferably with visuals. This is something I like to curate with children as a project in the first week. Children will be more invested if they feel the expectations are their expectations.
- A quiet, calm, soft space to go if anxious, worried or need to calm down – consider some sort of signal a child can use to let you know what they plan to do. Sometimes it helps for these spaces to be enclosed, have blankets or weighted blankets. Get to know your children and what helps them. Some children love to sit with a book or work on a puzzle. Setting up these spaces so that children can access them freely and use them independently when needed helps children feel empowered.
- Use the words now and next to help children anticipate what will happen after.
- Egg timers, I prefer large, real ones but most interactive boards have digital ones too. These help children to anticipate when an activity will be finishing.
- Displays well kept, simple and tidy.
- Resources clearly labelled with words and pictures.
- Keep boards clear so that children can focus on their learning. Often – less is more in this area. Take a look at your learning environment. How ‘busy’ does it look?
- Always give processing time when giving instructions and asking questions. Leave an appropriate time to allow children to answer. If they look like they need a little help offer support.
- When appropriate use visual resources to support concepts you are teaching. Colourful semantics may be useful.
- Keep rewards and sanctions separate and ensure that their use is clear and consistent. I’ve got quite strong views on rewards and sanctions. I’d highly recommend looking into Carol Dweck and Growth Mindset and following Jen Foster over on Insta.
You can’t plan for everything and sometimes things are going to happen at short notice. For example a visitor turns up to your classroom you weren’t expecting or the fire alarm goes off.
For these events I always have a visual question mark close to hand with the word surprise . At these times I hold up the surprise question mark to show that there’s a change. I’ve found this really helps all children but specifically children on the spectrum to understand that a change has happened, but it’s OK because my teacher is aware and is going to help me. It a very simple visual but one that can be powerful in those moments of uncertainty. Children know when I show this that I’m going to give them instructions on what to do next. Ensure all adults in your classroom know how to use this visual.
If you are planning a class surprise, maybe the start of an exciting new topic, visitor or end of term treat then I always find it best to prepare children. I know it’s a surprise but it’s important to learn which children in your class a surprise can be too overwhelming for.
Some children in my classes have been fine with me putting up the surprise question mark on the timetable so that they are prepared for something different. Others I’ve found better to be involved and help you prepare the surprise for others. That way they know exactly what will happen. You know your children.
Don’t forget that every child is unique and that there will still be lots more that you will need to do to support an autistic child in your class, for me, this is just the basics for every classroom.
Neurodiverse Role Models
It’s important that all children can see themselves represented in the world around them. Elle McNicoll is a neurodiverse author who has published sevearl books. Like A Spark is one of my highly recommended reads – it literally moved me to tears! Incredible. She is an Own Voices writer and her characters are neurodiverse.
Student teachers have you checked out 10 Ways to Survive your PGCE Placement? Link here.