Teaching Autistic Students: An Educator’s Guide

Reframing Autism Teachers Guide Autistic Students Education AustraliaIf you’re an educator, you’ve likely already taught an Autistic person. And if not, then you’re likely to very soon!

And if you’re here, reading this page, chances are that you would like to know a little bit more about how to support your Autistic students to thrive in your classroom. So, thank you!

We appreciate you being part of the change, for wanting the very best for the Autistic students in your care, for being so invested in the wellbeing of your students that you are willing to search out new information to make their educational journey more fulfilling. We can’t support our Autistic community across the lifespan without people like you: committed, empathetic and curious!

Every student you have ever taught – and will ever teach – has a unique presentation of strengths and challenges, across social, emotional, intellectual and academic domains. Your Autistic students are exactly the same. They come to you with a unique profile of strengths and challenges, and although those strengths and challenges might seem quite different to your non-autistic students’, the principles you employ to utilise strengths to overcome challenges remains the same. One thing that all students need in order to learn, is to feel safe.

For Autistic students, feeling safe in your classroom might take a lot more conscious and concerted effort on your part.

On this page we consider some of the core ways for you to foster a welcoming and safe learning environment for your Autistic students. Learning about Autism is an important step to providing great support to Autistic students.

Read more about Autism here.

Beyond formal education

The best way to educate yourself about Autism is not through University postgraduate study or textbooks, but by listening to Autistic voices and testimonies directly.  Autistic people are the pre-eminent experts in Autism and we can provide insights into what your students might be experiencing, and how best to support, respect and teach them. We understand what it feels like to be Autistic, what challenges we face, and what strengths we might bring to mitigate those challenges in the classroom, on the playground, and beyond.

So, it’s lucky that you’re here! Because a good place to begin is right here, on this site. We have many workshops, courses, free articles, and resources, the vast majority of which are Autistic-produced, delivered and led. You might like to start by learning more About Autism, or you might like to read some articles about specific challenges that your Autistic students might be facing, such as sensory issues, communication differences, or social differences.

We know from research that Autistic learners face many challenges in accessing school environments, including sensory, demand, intellectual, and social and emotional overwhelm. We also know from research that many teachers just don’t feel equipped or knowledgeable about how best to support their Autistic students, even though they desperately want to. If that’s you, you’re certainly not alone.

The more you learn from the Autistic community, the more empowered you will be to make informed, respectful and relevant decisions to support your Autistic students, and to help them to thrive educationally.

The more you learn, the less likely you are to inadvertently “do harm” through misunderstanding, invalidating, or exacerbating your Autistic students’ needs and challenges.

Providing neuro-affirming education

Neuro-affirming education is that which doesn’t just include Autistic students, it’s education that actively welcomes and values Autistic contributions in the classroom. It is the type of education where students feel that their neurotype is understood, and is grounded in safe, respectful relationships with teachers and peers alike. Autistic children can thrive and flourish in schools, when they experience neuro-affirming education. Here are some first steps you can take as a teacher to establish a neuro-affirming classroom:

  • Attend to the sensory environment. Autistic students are likely to have heightened sensory needs, and will feel sensory overwhelm much more easily than their peers. That means if it is too loud, too visually busy, too smelly (even with “nice” smells), or too tactile (think, brushing against other students), they’re much less likely to be able to attend to learning.
  • Encourage stimming. Similarly, some Autistic students will seek movement and will “stim” (engage in self-stimulatory behaviours) to help them to process information, to self-regulate, and to manage elements of overwhelm. Encouraging stimming and modelling it (e.g., using a fidget toy while you’re concentrating) will likely not only help your Autistic students to learn, but equally all of your students regardless of neurotype.
  • Try UDL. Universal Design for Learning is a set of principles or guidelines that allows students to access information in different ways, engage with information in different ways, and demonstrate their knowledge and skills attainment in different ways. It can help you to differentiate the curriculum and ensure that the processing style and learning differences of your Autistic students are catered for.
  • Be interested in your students’ passions. One of the best ways to develop a genuine, trusting relationship with your Autistic student is to show a real interest in their interests. Let them teach you! Even inviting them to share about their passions for five minutes at the beginning or end of the day, or at lunchtime, will make an enormous difference to their feeling of worth in your classroom.
  • Answer the why. Many Autistic students struggle to understand the relevance of many elements of the curriculum. And they are much less likely than their neurotypical peers to simply accept the need to learn “irrelevant” information. Providing a rationale for what you’re teaching (and why they should learn it) can be really powerful!
  • Presume competence. All students deserve the presumption of competence, which is the least dangerous assumption. Presuming competence means that you presume that a child can, rather than assuming they can’t. It means you don’t put a ceiling on their potential, so that you can offer than limitless opportunities to grow, learn, and participate.
  • Communicate Autistically. Autistic communication is often literal, straight-forward, and honest. Your students will appreciate your commitment to using literal language (rather than slang, idiom, and metaphor), which will take away one potential cause of miscommunication.
  • Offer breaks. Breaks are needed when they’re needed. Often, this isn’t at the mandated or scheduled break time, or when it’s convenient. That doesn’t make breaks any less necessary whenever they’re indicated. Definitely schedule lots of brain, body and movement breaks in your classroom timetable, but be attentive to the possibility that an Autistic student may well need a break in addition to, or outside of, these scheduled breaks. Giving our kids breaks when they’re needed will lessen their overwhelm, and increase their self-regulation (and learning potential!).
  • Continue accommodations. Often, when an accommodation works for an Autistic child, teachers are tempted to discontinue it. But if an accommodation is working – if it is promoting your Autistic student’s feeling of safety and welcome – it is definitely something you should continue. Don’t be tempted to fade supports when they’re doing what they should!
Read more: Flourishing in education

An ethics of care

All of the above suggestions are underpinned by the principles of an ethics of care, as described by Nel Noddings (1984). Noddings argued that effective teachers should enact an ethics of care, by which she meant a deep, genuine connection and relationship grounded in care for self, students, and others. This care is not an obligation, but is seen as a personal responsibility, with the empowerment of students at its heart. Teachers who ascribe to an ethics of care commit to being and doing with their students. They validate, respect and accept their students’ needs, insights, and feelings, and these are considered valid, relevant and valued. Student involvement is thus paramount.

We believe that adopting an ethics of care is a vital way to frame teaching so that Autistic learners’ needs can be met, behaviours be understood, and they can experience welcome and inclusion in schools.

Read more: Respectful relationships within schools

How you talk about Autism

As an educator, you will already appreciate the how the use of language shapes our understanding of a topic. Using affirming language has real world implications for how all students understand Autism, and, importantly, for how your Autistic students think about themselves.

Generally, the Autistic community prefers identity-first language (“I am Autistic”) to person-first language (“I am a person with Autism”). Person-first language reinforces stigma by implying that Autism is a disease or illness. We cannot be separated from our Autism – it is integral to us and fundamental to our identity. At Reframing Autism, we actually capitalise the word “Autistic” because of our connection to this identity.

Functioning labels such as “high functioning” or “low functioning” or indications of severity of Autism are disrespectful, reductive and establish an “us and them” mentality which is not conducive to inclusion. Autism is a spectrum, but it is not a linear spectrum. Functioning is not static – Autistic people, like all other humans, have moments of being better equipped to self-regulate, and moments where they may be distressed.

The use of functioning labels can be detrimental to Autistic people because individuals dubbed as “high functioning” are often denied supports and accommodations due to their ability to mask their needs, whereas those deemed “low functioning” are denied agency, dignity, strengths, opportunity and the presumption of competence.

If in doubt, ask your Autistic student what language they prefer.

Read more: Neurodiversity-affirming language

Responding to unexpected behaviours

There are lots of ways to communicate – communication isn’t just talking. And many Autistic people will communicate in a variety of ways (including non-verbally) that may be unexpected or atypical if you are non-autistic. It can be challenging, if you’re not sure what to do, to view these expressions or behaviours as anything other than atypical… but if you work with your student to learn how they communicate, you can hopefully begin to understand their specific mannerisms, and what they’re trying to communicate with you.

Some examples of communication differences may include:

  • Low or no eye contact, which is often interpreted as rudeness or disinterest but is usually an Autistic student trying to reduce their sensory overwhelm or focus on processing information.
  • Echolalia (repeating words or phrases) which is sometimes without clear reference to or connection with the topic at hand. Autistic people often make unusual connections between information and echolalia is a functional communication tool to emphasise a point, to ask for something, to answer a question, or just to help with processing information. If you’re not sure what a student’s echolalia means or its intent… ask them! If they’re not able to share that with you, it is much safer and less dangerous to presume that the echolalia has communicative intent (and try to find that), that assuming it is just annoying, random, or purposeless.
  • Rocking back and forth, rubbing hands together, jiggling a leg or other physical “stims”, which are often interpreted as anxiety or agitation (and sometimes can signal that) but are usually an Autistic person’s way of self-regulating or self-soothing. These are not an annoyance or a distraction, they are functional, important ways for your Autistic students to regulate and to learn!

Many Autistic people rely on other methods of communication to interact with the world around them, such as communicating mostly in writing, using pictures/photos/objects/videos, using gestures, using sign language, or using computers, tablets and other devices. Having some of these options readily available and welcomed in your classroom for all students to use when they require, helps to build trust that you genuinely accept communication differences.

However the Autistic students in your life communicate, try to keep an open mind.

Try to avoid seeing their communication as odd or defiant, and instead approach it with curiosity. It is better to ask than to assume, so, where possible, ask (kindly), “Can I ask – if you’re comfortable sharing with me – what XYZ communicates/means for you?” And if your student isn’t able to share that information with you, your non-judgmental curiosity might help you to understand and tap into their specific communication.

What not to do

Autistic people, like many other marginalised groups, have usually experienced discrimination, stigmatisation, exclusion or bullying over their lifetime. It is sad that many of these experiences happen at school, and can lead to shame, guilt, fear and anxiety. So, when you’re supporting Autistic students, we advise the following: 

  • Avoid asking or forcing the Autistic student to stop flapping / rocking / stimming. These behaviours are often largely out of the person’s control and although it may look distressing or annoying to you, it is often what is actually helping us to self-regulate. 
  • Avoid trying to force the Autistic student to make eye contact. It can often feel uncomfortable or even downright painful to an Autistic person with sensory sensitivities or cognitive overwhelm to hold eye contact, and many Autistic people are better able to hear and absorb information when they’re not forced to do so. Many Autistic students will tell you that they can do eye contact, or they can learn. It’s rarely both simultaneously! 
  • Avoid making surprise changes in routine or activities. Where possible, always try to give forewarning of any changes to an Autistic student (and remember that changes can be big – like a relief teacher or an incursion – or small – like a change to the furniture arrangement). 
  • Avoid giving multi-step verbal instructions particularly when the environment is busy, noisy or when the student appears distracted. Scaffolding learning by breaking down tasks into discrete steps and delivering steps individually can be very helpful for Autistic students! 
  • Avoid using idioms or vague language. Many Autistic people are literal thinkers, and ambiguity can lead to anxiety (e.g. “ “that’s a dog’s breakfast” might be a very confusing way to describe a student’s work, and could easily be replaced with “that’s a bit messy”). 
  • Avoid relying on metaphors, analogies or multiple meanings that rely on context for interpretation. Did you know that at some of your Autistic students will have aphantasia (an inability to form visual images in their minds) so relying on metaphors or analogies (e.g., “picture this….” or even “imagine…”) can leave the student feeling ashamed and confused. 

Supporting Autistic students

When in doubt, ask the student. Whether it is about sensory needs or communication preferences, asking the Autistic student what you can do to support them and accommodate their needs is vital to establishing trust and rapport. 

For example, many Autistic students will experience sensory overload from stimuli that others may find harmless. It is important to understand that some Autistic students may not enjoy common physical gestures such as hugs, pats on the back, handshakes or being in close physical proximity. This can make the classroom a very challenging place! And similarly, where other people might enjoy atmospheric background music, a scented candle burning, or a brightly lit airy room, all of these things can be uncomfortable – and even painful – for many Autistic people. And whilst displaying lots of students’ works all around your classroom is a beautiful celebration of what your students produce, the visual clutter may be distracting or distressing for some Autistic students. 

When working with an Autistic student, we suggest asking them what their sensory preferences are, and how you can respect them. You might consider asking them: 

  • Is there anything in our classroom that I can change to make you feel more comfortable? 
  • What helps you to learn? 
  • Do you like handshakes, high-fives, or would you prefer not to be touched at all? 

Easing anxiety in Autistic students

Anxiety is an exceptionally common co-occurring condition for Autistic people, as is depression. Worrying about uncertainty, having unexpected changes in routine, and feeling anxious about sensory, social and demand overload in school are all commonplace, daily occurrences for many Autistic students. This can leave your Autistic students feeling on edge, burnt out or anxious. 

If you notice that an Autistic student that you’re working with seems overwhelmed, anxious or panicky, you might like to ask them firstly how you can adjust the sensory environment to make them feel more comfortable. They may benefit from dim lighting, low/no background noise, soft voices and a stim activity to calm them while you speak (such as fiddling with a fidget object, or colouring or doodling). Having a sensory space for them to access is often important if it is feasible. You could also ask how you can adjust the intellectual content of your lessons (are you covering too much, too fast? Are there too many demands and expectations? Do they need a written summary?). 

Each Autistic person is different in how they handle stress and what helps them calm down. Learn more about your students and how they respond to triggers and what they prefer while calming down by asking them, their parents, their formal supports (like allied health professionals), and by tapping into the experiences of the broader Autistic community. 

Ongoing steps

There’s no right or wrong way to start (or continue!) on your journey to being a neuro-affirming educator who cares and supports the Autistic students in your classroom– you can take whichever steps you need and whichever order you need! It’s also important to note, we believe that the journey of learning and discovery never ends. 

As we learn about and embrace the Autistic community more and more, we will invariably uncover greater ways to be an advocate, ally and educator. 

Here are some steps that you might like to consider, in no particular order:


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Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.

The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Amangu, Awabakal, Bindjareb, Birpai, Whadjak, Wiradjuri and Yugambeh peoples.

We are committed to honouring the rich culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this Country, and the diversity and learning opportunities with which they provide us. We extend our gratitude and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to all Elders past and present, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal.

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