Five ways to help autistic students get settled

A new school year is always a challenge, and can be especially so for young people with autism. But simple steps can help them to settle better, says Viv Berkeley

autism students

The start of a new academic year brings many changes.

Whether it’s new teachers, new timetables, or starting at a new school or college, many students will be nervously anticipating what is to come this term.  

And students with autism can find this transition particularly difficult.

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Big changes to previously familiar school routines can be overwhelming and heighten anxiety.

In the worst case, this can result in displays of behaviour that are physically and emotionally draining for the young person (often referred to as “meltdowns”) and also has an impact on those around them.

Careful planning and preparation are key to avoiding this and allowing autistic young people to move smoothly into a new learning environment. 

Here are five practical steps that schools and colleges can take to support autistic students at the start of the new term.

Get to know the individuals

Every young person with autism is different and has different support needs, so it’s vital to get to know them as individuals. 

Read all their paperwork before the start of term – such as an education, health and care plan (if they have one) or any reports from previous educational establishments. Also speak to your Sendco to find out more about their individual needs. 

Then, at the start of term, speak to the young person to find out what makes a good day for them.

Prepare students for a new environment

Unfamiliar places can be more challenging for young people with autism. Helping students get used to a new environment in advance can reduce anxiety and ensure they are ready to learn. 

This could include inviting a student into the school or college a day early to show them around before the corridors fill up with other students, or providing them with a visual guide of their new building in advance.

Providing pictures of staff and key information about them is also helpful. One-page profiles are a great way to capture important information about a person in a simple format that can be easily shared by staff and young people alike. 

Consider the classroom   

People with autism process their sensory environments differently, so things like harsh lighting or too much noise can have a much bigger impact on them than their neurotypical peers. With this in mind, working out a comfortable place for the young person to sit in the classroom – and keeping this consistent – is important.

Some people find it hard to interpret verbal instructions and may find communication difficult. Having visual supports such as picture boards and communication aids can be helpful in enabling students to access access learning.

Minimise disruption

Consistency and routine are important to young people with autism, so timetable changes can be difficult to manage. 

If a lesson changes, or a teacher is replaced, make sure the student is told in advance if possible to minimise anxiety. It’s also worth giving the student a named person they can turn to should they need help to navigate a disrupted timetable.

Increase understanding of autism

Many young people with autism experience bullying, loneliness or isolation due to their perceived difference from other students. Increasing understanding and acceptance of autism is a key way to tackle this.

As part of student induction, deliver sessions aimed at challenging perceptions of autism and celebrating difference. For example, highlighting positive autistic role models such as the climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Viv Berkeley is executive principal at Ambitious College in London

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