Autism-friendly educational practices

Dr Emma Goodall

Dr Emma Goodall

20 March 2017 – Australian-based education advisor Dr Emma Goodall is an educator and autistic. She reflects on autism-friendly practices in education.

Good teaching does not necessarily meet the needs of autistic students. But good autism-friendly teaching will meet the needs of most, if not all, students in a class.

All students have strengths and support needs.

The profile of autistic students is complex with support needs that vary according to both emotional and physical contexts. The strengths of any individual autistic may be obvious or they may take time and patience to uncover.

Autism-friendly educational practices should use an individual’s strengths to help them learn new skills and knowledge in ways that minimise anxiety and maximise interest and engagement.

However, it is important to recognise that positive interpersonal relationships between teachers, teacher aides and autistic students are a pre-requisite for high levels of engagement. This can be challenging for adults who are used to particular types of social interactions.

For example, if a teacher is used to greeting their students in the morning with a smile and verbal greeting, this teacher can experience a range of emotions in reaction to a student (whether autistic or not) who does not respond to these greetings, or responds by running away.

As an educator and an autistic, I am aware of the difficulties faced by both teachers and autistic students in today’s schools and preschools.

However, with a positive, passionate, kind but firm and caring teacher who is willing to teach using the autistic student’s interests in a way that broadens and deepens the student’s knowledge, autistic students are more likely to enjoy their time in school and achieve more.

The hidden curriculum – all the unspoken norms of school – can be bewildering for autistic students as well as students who are recent arrivals into New Zealand. Autism-friendly practices highlight inclusivity and meet the needs of all students who are unable to notice the socio-cultural norms of the classroom and playground.

For example, educators should use explicit explanations, whether visual and/or verbal, to help students understand the roles and responsibilities of all the various groups of people in a school.

Without this, most autistics are unaware that a social hierarchy exists; let alone how to respond to this appropriately. This results in autistic students following instructions given by a peer rather than a teacher, not because they are naughty or obnoxious, but because they genuinely do not know that the teacher’s instructions are the ones that they are meant to prioritise.

Finally, some autistic students can manage in modern or open plan learning environments with minimal accommodations, but for others, particularly those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and those with sensitivities to noise, these types of learning environments can be both exhausting and extremely distressing.

Usually this distress will manifest in behaviours that interrupt and affect the learning of not only that student but also other students. Providing a very quiet withdrawal area that students can retreat to whenever they feel the need is vital to facilitating learning for these students in modern or open plan learning environments.

There is some misunderstanding about the ability to cope where autistic students have managed at pre-school and then are unable to manage in a similar environment in a school setting. However, the demands placed on children in pre-school are considerably fewer and of less consistent intensity than demands placed on students in school.

Anxiety in autistic students is not always obvious to educators and presents differently in different students at different times. Autism-friendly education takes into account the sensory profile of students and ensures that the environment is not overly stimulating but still provides engaging and motivating prompts for learning.

This article was first published in Altogether Autism Journal Issue 1, 2017 read the latest edition.