I want to lay out some concrete strategies for working with autistic kids, and others whose ways of thinking overlap with parts of autism. Most of this is good sense for teachers regardless, but getting this kind of thing wrong can make school absolutely intolerable for some kids, while for others it just means having trouble with learning – or even with relaxing.
These suggestions are based on my experience as a teacher and a member of the autistic community – I was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 32 – and on broad reading and discussions. I was pleased to find my ideas backed up strongly, and supplemented, by research done by people such as Julia Leatherland.
These strategies could help many autistic students, but if you want to know what’s hard for someone you teach, and what might help them, your best bet is probably simply to talk to them. Try to believe them when they tell you something is difficult; autism is characterised by “spiky profiles”, meaning great variation in ability between different areas. No end of problems stem from assuming autistic people should find something easy, even when they know they won’t. That said, just because someone can’t do something now doesn’t mean they won’t be able to later: people never stop learning, but abilities come and go.
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1. Coping with multiple channels is hard
This can be sensory channels or other information streams. If you want to ensure instructions are taken in, don’t just say them. Provide them in a clear written form, so students can refer back to them when they need to, and don’t have to rely on filtering out your voice from the noise of the classroom. Be prepared for students to miss things because their focus is elsewhere, or because you gave them too much to deal with at once.
Misunderstandings are common, in both directions. Teachers often misread signals from autistic students, which leads them to overlook needs and misconstrue requests for help. Worse, they can stigmatise students’ own body language and communication styles, forcing them to express themselves even less effectively. Too many try to stop people moving without understanding it as a pressure release, or insist on eye contact, without understanding how overwhelming this can be.
2. Filtering is tricky and error-prone
“Sometimes I can’t tune things out; other times I filter them out completely,” a pupil might say. Think about strategies for reducing noise, visual clutter and social demands in your classroom. The satisfying focus that comes with mastering a thing is one of the most powerful tools in education, and it’s a tragedy if schools don’t allow all pupils to enter “flow” states at least sometimes. That means finding a way to let them focus as much as they need to, on a task that interests them.
Make sure you have plans for what students can do if they get overwhelmed – they really should have a quiet place where they can go, decompress and stim (self-stimulate) unself-consciously.
3. Changing tracks is destabilising
Task-switching is hard, and new plans take work. Going from one task or emotion to another takes time and energy. A predictable environment is easier to deal with: it reduces cognitive load, and the stress of switching from one focus to another. We feel more unstable the more things come as a surprise, and the world is often surprising to autistic people. To gain a sense of stability, we need to feel like we fully understand the situation, and have sufficient control over it – but not more than we can handle. This can be an acute need for autistic people: you see it in the way we ask questions, the way we stim to control our sensory environment, and the way we use rules to make sense of things. Feeling that something doesn’t make sense is a huge barrier.
Structure and clarity prevent anxiety. Unstructured time with high social demands can be especially stressful – like breaktimes where there is no escape from the throng, or when kids are left to find their own partners or groups to work with.
4. 'I often experience things intensely (usually things that relate to my concerns and interests)'
The things that grab our focus can really grab our focus. Engaging with our passions is central to our wellbeing. That’s probably true for everyone, but it’s crucial for autistic people: both because our interests bring us such joy and because it can be so hard to pull attention away from them. Working with rather than against an autistic student’s interests can bring huge personal and educational rewards (see Rebecca Wood's recent research) but their idiosyncratic nature sometimes makes teachers reluctant to try.
Things that go wrong are often felt very powerfully, too. Many pupils are uncomfortable when singled out for attention, for example, and that can be much harder for autistic kids who struggle with feeling exposed.
5. 'I keep looping back to my interests and concerns – it’s hard to let things drop'
If something feels unresolved, it can be near-impossible. The “but why?” instinct is strong in many autistic people, and it gets us in real trouble sometimes. It can feed into our interests, too – there’s a great satisfaction in understanding how something works, often by applying logical rules to solve problems, and then learning practically everything else about it.
Reasons are a key tool in any educator’s arsenal, and friction between teachers and autistic students often comes from the expectation that they should take things on faith, or on authority. Sometimes, the reasons they’re looking for will be more detailed than most students would ask for. And honestly, that’s something you’ll just have to work with.
6. 'Other things that drop out of my awareness tend to stay dropped (I may need reminders)'
It’s hard to organise your life when you tend not to think of things unless your attention is actively drawn to them. This is one of the reasons routines and diary-keeping can be so useful: reminders come from time passing. The downside is that they can conflict with the need to feel in control of the situation, and control is absolutely key in attaining a sense of stability. Navigating between those two can be a difficult path for many autistic people, who may need help strategising.
Overall, it’s important to remember that everyone is different, which is why these recommendations are not more prescriptive. Understanding how other people experience the world is difficult for everyone, and the less someone thinks like you, the harder they are to understand. The more insight we can gain into the people we work with, the better we can work with them.
A framework for understanding
What I hope I’ve given you here is a framework for understanding some of the common difficulties autistic people face, and how to ease them, particularly in a school environment. Try to put yourself in your students’ shoes, with an awareness of how challenging that is – perhaps you can think of a time when you were asked to keep track of way too many things at once, or you experienced sensory overload, or you were pulled out of something absorbing and had to deal with a completely unexpected situation. See if you can imagine what it would be like if you had to deal with these things multiple times every day, often simultaneously, and you were punished if you ever acted oddly as a result. Maybe you could ask your students what it’s like for them.
Working with different kinds of minds is always a learning experience, and it takes careful attention and a degree of humility to get it right. If you don’t manage that, you’ll be left managing behaviour with little real insight into where it comes from – and that is much more work in the long run.
Fergus Murray is an Edinburgh-based teacher of chemistry and maths and co-founder of the Autistic Mutual Aid Society Edinburgh (AMASE). He tweets @MxOolong