Classroom accommodations allow autistic children space to learn and embrace their differences and find success in their education.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) creates unique needs for autistic children in the classroom, but educators, parents, and caregivers can work together to create a successful learning experience by accommodating each student on an individual basis.
ASD doesn’t look the same in every child. The severity of the autism, the child’s personality, home environment, and many other factors affect how the child interacts with the world.
There isn’t a one size fits all solution to integrating an autistic child into an education system designed for non-autistic children. It takes a case-by-case look at the classroom and the child.
We consulted Sharon Kay-O’Connor, LCSW, from Manhatten, NYC, and Richard Weinfeld, a special education consultant and director at Weinfeld Education Group in Maryland, Washington DC, and Virginia for their expert advice.
For autistic children, verbal communication and eye contact may be difficult or even painful. Words often get translated into pictures, which means instructions might be missed.
“Some students might feel more comfortable communicating via sign language or AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) devices, as opposed to spoken speech,” says Kaye-O’Connor.
“Some autistic kids may be more sensory-seeking, while others may fit a more sensory-sensitive profile. Knowing your child’s specific sensory profile will provide insight into what kind of environment and sensory supports will help them thrive,” explains Kaye-O’Connor.
Each child is different and how they process sensory information varies based on their:
- individual sensitivities
“Some autistic students may also need the flexibility of movement or seating to be able to listen and learn most effectively,” says Kaye-O’Connor.
Wiggle seats or periodic exercise breaks to carry heavy books or simply use a fidget spinner can help children stay focused.
“I always recommend whenever a child is autistic (or maybe autistic), consult with an Occupational Therapist (OT) to better understand the child’s specific sensory needs and the sensory supports that will be most helpful for them.” Kaye-O’Connor. An OT may use:
- Play therapy: Play is often how autistic children express their thoughts and emotions. An occupational therapist can use play to teach children how to connect with people through a medium that makes sense to them.
- Joint attention symbolic play engagement and regulation (JASPER): Although more research is needed to support the effectiveness, JASPER teaches autistic children how to focus on two things at once, namely a toy and a person. According to 2021 research, children who engage in JASPER often show a marked improvement in their attention, social, and language skills.
- Integrated play groups (IPGs): IPGs give autistic children an opportunity to play and learn from their peers in a guided, safe environment.
Autistic children often have an area or specific topic of interest that they enjoy learning and talking about.
Kaye-O’Connor points out, “Special interests are one of the great joys of autistic life. Support and encourage your child’s interest in their favorite topics, and join them in their enthusiasm.”
A work area that reduces distractions, which could be sensory information like noise, bright colors, and smells can help with focus. The area could also include earplugs or a wiggle seat, depending on the child’s needs.
All children need an occasional break, but those breaks are even more important for autistic children. Their sensory sensitivities can make a classroom environment overwhelming and sometimes painful.
A designated area that’s free of sensory stimulation can help autistic children continue to put their best selves forward.
Autistic children thrive off of routines. Changes in routine or transitioning from one activity to another can be difficult. Printed schedules with words and pictures are a way to help and reassure autistic children.
If there will be a change in the schedule, letting the child know a couple of days in advance gives them time to prepare, though they may still have difficulty with the change.
Autistic children are often the subject of bullying and teasing because of their behavioral differences.
“Teachers can head this off by educating the general education peers about students with autism in general and making the class aware of the strengths and needs of this student in particular,” says Weinfeld.
Children learn from their peers, and supportive peers can help autistic children develop and expand their social skills. “Teachers should be careful to group the student with other students who will be supportive of them.
The student with high-functioning autism may be given a specific role to perform in the group,” says Weinfeld.
Weinfeld continues, “Providing opportunities for the student to interact with a general education student who has the same or similar strengths or interests can facilitate good communication.”
- be on watch for teasing and bullying
- support autistic students’ interaction with neurotypical students
- educate student peers and teach them how to interact with their autistic peer(s)
- create, post, and keep a regular schedule
- build sensory breaks into the schedule
A couple of final tips for educators that deserve extra attention.
From Weinfeld, “Teaching ‘theory of mind.’ Students with “high functioning autism” need help in understanding that other students have their own thoughts that are separate and may be different from what the student with lower support needs is thinking.”
Try to give autistic children flexibility in their seating whenever possible.
“Some autistic students may also need the flexibility . . . in seating to be able to listen and learn most effectively. Some autistic kids may be super social, and others may prefer to spend free time or recess time alone,” says Kaye-O’Connor.
- Get to know your child’s specific sensory needs. As Kaye-O’Connor puts it, “Knowing your child’s specific sensory profile will provide insight into what kind of environment and sensory supports will help them thrive.”
- Set up a regular time (usually weekly) to communicate with your child’s teacher about their successes and areas of improvement. Weinfeld suggests sharing this information with any specialists or therapists your child works with outside of school.
- “Provide opportunities outside of school for your child to develop their strengths and pursue their areas of passion,” says Weinfeld. Children build confidence and may identify potential career areas later in life.
- Reach out if you need support from friends, family, school resources, and outside resources.
- Create a distraction-free or low-sensory work area at home.
Autistic children see and interact with the world in different ways than nonautistic children. Understanding the child’s specific sensory sensitivities and learning what interventions work for them can make all the difference in their educational experience.
You may consider providing:
- a wiggle seat
- a scheduled quiet time in the afternoon
Parents and educators looking for more resources and information can go to the
They also provide a list of organizations, from research institutes to advocacy programs with resources for autistic people and their caregivers.