Top tips for supporting autistic primary pupils to flourish in school and in their wellbeing as their authentic selves, from Alison Eason.

Primary school can be overwhelming for an autistic child. Bright lighting, excited voices and even the perfume a teacher is wearing can cause sensory overload in a neurodivergent pupil. To avoid drawing attention, some children try to hide their sensory processing difficulties. However, when children mask their autistic traits, it can affect their wellbeing and lead to problems later in life, such as autistic burnout.

Six simple strategies

Here are some of the approaches we take at Chalgrove School to help autistic children be their authentic selves so they can flourish at school.

  1. Encourage understanding of differences

I recommend a whole-school approach to promoting acceptance of different needs and conditions. Part of our curriculum is called ‘Why it’s good to be me’ and includes lessons where children share thoughts about what makes them special. Try to encourage children to celebrate what is unique about themselves and their peers.

  1. Enable children to ‘stim’

Many autistic children practice stimming – self stimulatory behaviour – to regulate their emotions. This might involve repetitive movements like hand-flapping, rocking or tapping. Explain to the class about why stimming may help an individual, so children develop acceptance rather than judgement. You could even talk about ways we all stim in one way or another to calm ourselves.

  1. Carry out sensory assessments

It’s important to identify pupils’ sensory needs in response to certain stimuli. To do this, we use a checklist from the Autism Education Trust (AET) which schools can access through the AET’s training programme. We assess children’s sensory needs according to 50 behaviour descriptors such as ‘hugs very tightly’ or ‘is attracted to lights’, by talking through them with a parent/carer and the child themselves.

  1. Take a sensory audit

To support you in understanding your pupils’ sensory needs, you can conduct a sensory audit of the classroom and make adjustments or adaptions to help. For instance, putting a mat on a hard floor can reduce sudden loud noises, and closing a blind can keep out harsh sunlight. Find safe ways to help children develop their senses, such as providing different textures or natural scents to explore.

  1. Use visual aids for communication

Visual aids, such as symbols with illustrations of activities like ‘draw,’ ‘run’ or ‘read’, can help with accessibility in the classroom. Our pupils use Widgit symbols to make requests or if they want something to help with sensory regulation such as a wobble cushion. You can also use symbols to create visual timetables which explain to children what is going to happen during the day, with illustrations for maths, lunch or outdoor play. Knowing the routine can help pupils feel more secure in their environment.

  1. Build an inclusive environment

If all children share everyday school activities, autistic pupils will feel more able to participate in school life. If you have a quiet tent or sensory room designed to help neurodivergent children find some peaceful time, let all children use it occasionally; we call this reverse integration, so neurotypical pupils understand why it helps. Something as simple as the playground swing can help an autistic child regain a sense of balance and calm.

Just a few adaptations to the school day can have a big impact on an autistic child and help all children learn to celebrate their unique qualities.

Author

  • Alison Eason

    As head of Additionally Resourced Provision (ARP) since 2005, Alison, with a master's degree in education, is an associate member of the British Dyslexia Association and a qualified SENCO. Passionate about supporting students with SEN, she collaborates with educators, families, and children to enhance understanding and provide effective support.
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