In the second in this series on neurodevelopmental disorders in the classroom, developmental psychologist Kathryn Bates collates the evidence on autism. How can autistic children be supported in their learning?

Neurodiversity encompasses divergences from so-called ‘typical’ brain functions, ways of thinking, and types of behaviour. The term was coined by sociologist Judy Singer to emphasise that we all embody divergences – there is no ‘norm’. Autism, Singer argued, is merely one example. Singer inspired the neurodiversity movement, which aims to shift the focus from differences towards valuing the strengths, gifts and needs of individuals.

“Instead of trying to squeeze a child into the ‘typical’ box, the box should be moulded to the child.”

For decades, researchers studied autism by comparing diagnosed individuals with non-diagnosed, or ‘typical’, individuals. The aim was to alleviate the symptoms or even ‘cure’ autism, since some autistic individuals experience severe learning difficulties, gastrointestinal problems, and epilepsy. While the neurodiversity movement does not dispute the severity of these issues, it is changing the way we think about neurodevelopmental disorders like autism. Instead of trying to squeeze a child into the ‘typical’ box, the box should be moulded to the child.

Autism in the classroom

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is defined by lifelong social and communication issues and repetitive or restrictive behaviours. It occurs in at least 1.5% of the population. Asperger’s syndrome is no longer an official diagnosis, though many individuals still identify with it; it now falls under the umbrella of an ASD diagnosis.

Autistic children vary greatly in the type and severity of their traits. Some may have no verbal communication, whereas others, while verbal, may struggle with typical social communication. Language development may be delayed, or eye contact may be difficult.

“Consistent emotional and academic support is needed to empower autistic students to fulfil their potential.”

Many children with ASD have sensory processing issues, which may cause their senses to be either easily overwhelmed (hypersensitivity) or underwhelmed (hyposensitivity). Mental health issues are very common in autism, including anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. To ensure the wellbeing of autistic students, it is essential to understand that autism and mental health issues often go hand in hand.

Although autistic individuals face many challenges, they also have many strengths. They tend to have very good attention to detail and memory for facts. Repetitive behaviours can manifest as a special interest, such as a narrow and intense focus on a specific topic, like music, art or building computers. Many autistic individuals turn these special interests into high-flying careers. Consistent emotional and academic support is needed to empower autistic students to fulfil their potential.

Adapting the classroom environment

The support autistic children need in the classroom varies greatly, and teachers must be given time and resources to make the necessary adjustments. A child diagnosed with autism should have a support plan in place, drawn up in cooperation with the school’s special education or inclusive education coordinator. Primary school teacher Daniel Higginson points out that fellow students also have an important role. “It’s crucial that we educate peers to be aware of the needs of autistic children, so that we can build an inclusive classroom environment for these children,” he says. To encourage learning and improve wellbeing, there are also simple ways teachers can make the classroom autism-friendly, given the necessary time and support.

Not all communication issues look the same, nor do all sensory issues. Each autistic individual’s preferences need to be considered. Emily McDougal, a researcher who studies how children with and without neurodevelopment disorders learn at school, explains how small changes can make a big difference: “Many autistic children may be sensitive to sensory aspects of the classroom environment that others might not be aware of. These distractions can be so overwhelming that it is impossible to concentrate and engage with learning. This can be different for different children, so speaking to autistic children to find out if anything in the classroom is distracting them – like buzzing electrical devices or bright lights – and removing these issues can make a world of difference.”

“Understanding a young person’s communication preferences can greatly improve their wellbeing in the classroom.”

Understanding a young person’s communication preferences can greatly improve their wellbeing in the classroom. Teachers might consider slight changes in their body language, the volume of their voice or their use of social conventions such as sarcasm, rather than assuming the student can or should adhere to social ‘norms’. The young person could be asked to take the lead by explaining what would make things easier.

Embedding special interests into everyday learning can encourage development in young autistic children. A special interest in Lego, for example, could be used in mathematics for counting and size-comparison exercises. In older children, school lunch clubs organised around special interests can encourage them to interact with their peers and initiate social contact. Incorporating special interests into the school day requires school resources and planning time, but could be highly beneficial by improving social connections with friends and engagement in learning.

The relationship between an autistic child and the teacher is also pivotal in the child’s progress at school. Supportive teacher-student relationships are associated with better social and academic outcomes in all children. Autistic children tend to be less close to their teachers than their non-autistic classmates, and they are more likely to experience conflict with teachers. Teachers who nurture supportive relationships with autistic students can protect their wellbeing and enable them to thrive in school.

Autistic individuals are often collectively considered only in terms of impaired communication and not in terms of their individual differences. This can have a detrimental impact on their social development and ability to succeed in school. The first step in engaging autistic individuals in school is to abandon the notion of ‘norms’ and show more flexibility in adapting to individual needs.

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