Teaching children with autism: strategies for the international school classroom

Teaching children with autism: strategies for the international school classroom

Teachers managing autism in the classroom face some complex challenges. We spoke to autism expert Stacey Melifonwu to find out more about the disorder and the strategies you can employ to be inclusive of all your students. Stacey has a Primary PGCE and a Postgraduate Certificate...


Teachers managing autism in the classroom face some complex challenges. We spoke to autism expert Stacey Melifonwu to find out more about the disorder and the strategies you can employ to be inclusive of all your students.

Stacey has a Primary PGCE and a Postgraduate Certificate in Autism from the University of Roehampton. She spent the first few years of her career working as a primary school teacher in the UK before moving to an international school setting in Santiago, Chile. Since returning to London she’s worked in two schools specialised in teaching children with autism as a class teacher, assessment coordinator and most recently assistant head.

What is autism spectrum disorder?

One in every 59 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and boys are more likely to be affected than girls (1:37 and 1:151, respectively). So, the chances are, at some point in your teaching career, you’ll have an opportunity to support children with autism in your classroom.

But what exactly is ASD? 

According to the National Autistic Society (NAS) in the UK, it’s a “lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.”

Autism expert and assistant head teacher Stacey Melifonwu explains that autistic people may be sensitive to sensory input from the environment and that no two cases of autism will look exactly the same.

“Every autistic person is affected by their autism in different ways and to a different extent, which is why it is described as a spectrum disorder,” she says.

If you suspect a child in your class is on the autism spectrum, you should take notes on the behaviours or situations that concern you. “Pass your concern onto your Special Needs Co-ordinator or the equivalent in your school, who will be able to advise on next steps,” she says.

It’s also very important to include the parents or guardians in the process. “It can be a very sensitive issue, so make sure you seek advice for the best way to talk to the parents,” she says. “This may change depending on the individual child or family that you are working with.”

What are the biggest misconceptions about autism?

Because autism presents in so many different ways, there are lots of misconceptions about the disorder.

“There is a common myth that autism only affects boys, however boys and girls can both be autistic, their symptoms might just present differently,” she says.

There is also a lot of debate and controversy – especially online – about the causes of autism.

“In the past, people believed that autism can be caused by vaccinations or bad parenting. Both of these views have been proven to be incorrect and while a single cause of autism has not been found, it is widely understood to be down to genetic factors,” she says.

Stacey further explains that autism is often misrepresented in the media. This has led many people to believe that all autistic people have a special talent or ability like Dustin Hoffman’s character in the film, Rain Man.

“However, just like everyone, all autistic people are unique individuals and have their own strengths and weaknesses.”

What are the challenges teachers face dealing with an autistic child in their classroom?

Autistic children might find it difficult to work in large groups or in a busy classroom environment. Stacey explains that “this might also make it difficult for other children in the class to understand why an autistic child is behaving in a particular way, adding to a teacher’s classroom management challenges.”

‘Meltdowns’ are one such behaviour. When a child with ASD is feeling overwhelmed by their situation they might temporarily lose behavioural control. According to the NAS, “a child might express that they are upset verbally (e.g. shouting, screaming, crying), physically (e.g. kicking, lashing out, biting) or in both ways.”

Stacey says that “teachers should be aware of the child’s triggers – the things that make them feel very anxious – and there should be a plan in place for minimising or helping the child to cope with these triggers.”

For example, changes to classroom routines can be distressing for some children with ASD. Perhaps they are moving to a new school year, going to have a new teacher, or are about to tackle a new school subject. In these cases, knowing how difficult it will be for the child, you can prepare them well in advance, using social stories, photos, schedules, etc.

If a meltdown appears to be imminent, you need to take action:

“If a child is feeling very anxious, they should be given lots of time and space to calm down. It might help to turn down music and lights and to ask others to move away in order to protect the child’s dignity.”

What strategies can teachers use to help, teach and support children with autism?

When planning classes it’s important to think about inclusivity: how can your activities be adapted to benefit everyone?

One way to ensure you’re serving the needs of all your students is to link class work to the children’s interests and motivators. As the year progresses, you’ll get to know what excites the children in your class. Autistic children are no different: if you find what they love doing, you’ll engage them more in the learning process.

When planning individual activities for your whole class, ensure you have a well structured plan with clear instructions.

“Many of the resources and teaching practices that help children with ASD are also likely to benefit other children in the class,” she says. For example:

  • Visual supports can help learners process the information. These can include lists, schedules/timetables, symbols to support writing, real objects to support the teaching of abstract concepts, and signing to support teacher talk.

  • A calm approach and awareness of students’ facial expressions and body language.

  • A quiet space for children to go to if they are feeling very anxious or overwhelmed.

Stacey explains that it’s also important to bear in mind that autistic children might find it difficult to block out visual or verbal distractions in class. They may benefit from their own individual workstation where they can focus without looking at busy display boards or listening to lots of noise in the classroom.

“Ear defenders can also help to minimise background noise and to help children to feel calm and focused.”

When should a teacher ask for help? 

“A teacher might need to ask for help if the autistic child is unable to access the curriculum independently,” she says. “They may be working at a much lower academic level than the other children in the class or they might be working at the same academic level but be unable to focus or regulate their emotions without extra support.”

Stacey goes on to say that some children with autism might need extra help during less structured times, such as break times. During these free moments, they might need support to have positive social interactions with other children.

“A teacher might also need to ask for help from other professionals, such as a Speech and Language or Occupational Therapist,” she says. “For example, if a child is non-verbal or finds it very hard to structure their verbal or written sentences, they may need support from a therapist so that they can be taught to use alternative methods of communication in the classroom.“

Further reading/resources

If you have more questions about autism, the National Autistic Society has a wealth of autism resources for teachers.

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