4 Ways to Create an Inclusive Classroom Environment for Students on the Spectrum
About one in 100 children has autism, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by difficulty regarding aspects such as communication and social interaction, and the WHO further highlights the fact that those with autism may experience varying needs and abilities that can evolve over time.
For those that are unfamiliar with teaching students on the spectrum, there are a variety of different ways that a positive difference can be made. With that in mind, ensuring that the classroom experience promotes a positive learning environment is vital in ensuring a student is both comfortable and has the foundations for academic success.
Understanding challenges (and adapting)
When seeking the best ways to provide a productive learning environment for students on the spectrum, first understanding the challenges that an individual with ASD may face in the classroom is essential. Washington.edu notes that various aspects regarding school can present as a challenge, noting that social interactions, noisy environments, sensory issues, and changes in routines can all be difficult, and mentions that “The unstructured parts of the school day, such as lunch, may present the greatest challenges.”
However, because each individual who is on the spectrum has unique difficulties and needs, what works for one student may not work for the next. While it’s recommended to consult with the student and their family regarding accommodations and what may work best for that individual, there are a variety of helpful solutions that can be worth implementing in the classroom to make the environment more inclusive.
Before making alterations to a classroom, making an effort to further understand a student on the spectrum will allow you to gain valuable insight as to what might be the best course of action. Autismspeaks.org, for instance, notes that in addition to connecting with the child’s parents, making a list of the child’s strengths and understanding how they learn can play a major role in making the classroom a positive place to learn for them. The site further mentions the value in asking for help through a classroom aid, while having a behavior plan in place for instances of sensory overload can be additional ways in preparing to effectively teach those on the spectrum.
The value in predictability via structure
Because many individuals on the spectrum thrive on structure in their daily routines and tend to have difficulties with change, ensuring that there is a sense of predictability is just one simple way to make the classroom a more inclusive environment for all. Teach for America notes that “Having predictability in the classroom eases anxiety for students with autism and will help avoid distraction. Students are less worried or curious about what will happen next and can better focus on the work at hand,” going on to recommend giving the student a schedule that can be followed.
Autism Specialty Group further highlights the value that consistency and predictability can have for those with ASD, noting that “With repetitive patterns of behavior, activities, and hobbies, children with ASD can bring stability and comfort into their lives,” further noting the benefits that stability in routine can have — including reducing stress, improving cooperation and motivation, and creating an environment of security and comfort.
Exploring hybrid learning approaches
While putting a predictable schedule into place can be a great way to support students on the spectrum, exploring hybrid learning approaches can be another that can go a long way in ensuring inclusivity. For instance, due to individuality, implementing different forms of technological support can present a solution in working to find the best approach for each student.
The use of video modeling and interactive whiteboards are just two ways to do this, though the integration of other technologies, like voice dictation tools, can be particularly useful for certain difficulties like writing. While writing plays an integral part in the classroom, a summary of one study notes that children with high functioning ASD integrated in regular schools find it difficult to perform writing tasks — something that can impair academic achievements, social availability, and self-confidence, according to experts. Schools may want to consider designing custom workshops learning a hobby or task, or parents can seeking something in the community.
Making small (yet impactful) changes
For educators teaching students with disabilties, including those with ASD, there are a variety of ways that slightly altering the teaching style can make a major difference in elevating the classroom experience. Positive Action points out several different ways that this can be done — such as by making use of visual aids when teaching, keeping verbal instructions “short and to the point,” and using the child’s interests in a lesson. Keeping the sensory stimuli to a minimum in the classroom can also be a big way to help, and can be done by eliminating loud noises (like music) wherever possible.
Positive action further notes that reducing the effect of lighting can also make a difference, noting that “Some autistic people find fluorescent light distracting because they can see the flicker of the 60-cycle electricity,” and recommends diminishing this effect by either moving the student’s desk near the window, using newer bulbs, or making use of an old-fashioned incandescent lamp.
For students who are on the spectrum, the classroom can be a challenging place to navigate — especially when considering factors such as writing, a noisy atmosphere, or social interaction are notoriously found in schools. Thankfully, there are a myriad of different ways that educators can work to provide a positive and comfortable classroom environment, whether it be through the integration of technology or predictability.
Resources for Students Outside og the Classroom
- How to design the right playground with autistic kids in mind.
- Learn how parents can use technology to help their kids with autism.