What accommodations are helpful for an autistic student? - Autism Awareness

What accommodations are helpful for an autistic student?

Autistic students often find learning in the classroom environment overwhelming. There are many demands and expectations such as shifting focus, taking tests, listening, following instructions, doing homework, coping with a noisy environment, processing information, socializing, and organizing tasks. These are just a few examples.

Most autistic students will require accommodations to support their unique learning styles and needs. The word accommodate means to give consideration to or allow for, so when we use accommodations we are considering someone’s needs.

Because every autistic student will have unique needs, teachers will be more effective if they have a variety of supports and strategies that they can use. There isn’t a one size fits all. We should think about ways to provide predictability, support, and empowerment, while also reducing anxiety and building on a person’s strengths.

Let’s explore some accommodation options that can help make the day better for an autistic student.

The Classroom Should Be a Structured Environment

A structured environment describes the conditions under which a person should be taught and supported rather than where they should be taught or what to learn. This is a system for organizing environments, developing appropriate activities, and helping people understand what is expected of them.

A structured environment is comprised of the physical set up of a room/space, schedules, work systems, routines and visual strategies, and the visual structure of materials. All of this can help a person sort out what information is relevant vs. nonrelevant, provide predictability, give visual cues as to what comes next or what to do, support transitions, and reduce stress and anxiety.

The physical space should:

  • support predictability and stability through routines and visual supports
  • have defined areas of appropriate size for an activity
  • give clear cues to children and staff about expectations for the area
  • allow for supervision
  • contain areas that support targeted skills for scheduled activities
  • have areas that limit distraction and help with focus
  • provide an environment that increase engagement and prevent challenging behavior
  • give support for independence through routines and everyday activities
  • have defined work spaces

Use Visual Supports and Schedules

Using visual supports are important because autistic students tend to be better visual than auditory learners. The spoken word is fleeting; visual information is fixed and permanent. Visuals create predictability, enhance understanding, provide structure and routine, build confidence, and adults tend to communicate better when using them.

We can use visual supports for:

  • making choices – Throughout life, we have to making choices every day. Start by teaching this concept with a preferred and non-preferred activity so the student starts to understand they are making a choice. Allowing for choice also supports autonomy and respects a person’s preferences.
  • first/then – Ex. First we clean up/ Then we go outside for recess. First/then can also be motivational.
  • single messages – going to toilet, art class, recess
  • timetable, schedules, sequences of activities
  • task breakdown – the individual steps for a task such as washing hands, dressing for outdoors, or performing a science experiment. This supports recognizing relationships between steps of an activity.
  • to show units of time – 1 minute, 2 minutes, 5 minutes

Offer Flexible Seating Arrangements

Not everyone can sit in a chair and remain focused. Some students may need to move, stand or feel “hugged”. There are lots of great seating options such as:

  • bean bag chair
  • Howda hug chair – This chair holds and hugs giving a deep, sensory embrace.
  • yoga ball for those that need to move while seated
  • bouncy band for chairs – This band strings across the legs of a chair and lets a person bounce their feet or sway to release excess energy
  • a wiggle stool
  • a balance cushion placed on a chair
  • vibrating cushion – These vibrate when squeezed and can be use as a back rest or foot rest.

Allow Time for Sensory Breaks

Sensory breaks allow students a chance to regroup and refocus their energy throughout the day. These breaks involve activities that help regulate sensory input and promote relaxation. There are many options for sensory breaks such as:

  • drinking water
  • using fidget toys
  • doing yoga moves
  • going for a walk
  • wall pushes
  • jumping jacks
  • resistance bands
  • listening to music

Break Down Tasks into Manageable Steps

Tasks that might look simple to do or appear self-explanatory may not be so for autistic students. Direct instruction on how to do tasks needs to be provided because a student may not learn them simply by watching other people do them.

Breaking down a skill into smaller, much more manageable tasks/steps is called task analysis. This allows for practice of a smaller step, and then over time chaining together multiple steps together until the person can complete the task successfully. You can learn more about how to do task analysis here.

Incorporate Technology

There are so many technological tools available to enhance and support learning. For example, video modeling can be a great way to teach a task. There are apps that can help with organizing, language building, reducing anxiety, academic subjects to list a few. Autism Parenting Magazine has a comprehensive list of autism apps.

Keep in mind that technology should not replace real life experiences and tactile, hands-on learning, especially with younger students. They need to interact with their environment and handle objects in order to understand their properties. Ex. how much force is required when holding a pencil to make a mark on the paper.

Take the Pencil Out of the Process

Many autistic students have difficulty with the physical printing and writing process – difficulty which is significant enough to interfere with academic performance. During the writing or composition process, intellectual or cognitive processing takes a backseat to the difficulty and effort involved in the physical processing that must go on in order to put pencil to paper. The alternative to writing would be to use the keyboard.

I can remember when my autistic daughter was in third grade, she had to keep a journal. When she had to write with a pencil, she only wrote two sentences. When she was allowed to type the entry, she would write several paragraphs. This still true for her today at the age of 24.

Incorporate Interests into the School Day

Incorporating a child’s interests into the school day supports happiness and well-being, provides enjoyment, motivation, and adds meaning to activities and the curriculum. Interests can also be expanded upon to increase knowledge and learn new skills. I have written a couple of blog posts on the importance of interests and how to use them in different aspects of the curriculum.

In my post on monotropism, I talked about the DSM V having one of the diagnostic criteria for autism as restricted or repetitive interests. In reality, what is really happening is an intense focus on an interest. Interests often get defined as repetitive or restricted because of what those interests are – we place judgement on them as observers.

There are many fields of study that require an intense focus in order to be successful- science, technology, math, and the arts to name a few. Allowing time in the school day to pursue an interest can make things a little bit brighter, more meaningful, and life a whole lot richer.

The school community plays a big role in a child’s life. If an autistic student’s learning strengths and needs are supported and accommodated, the outcome is a strong one. Education is the springboard for lifelong learning and enjoyment. The classroom experience should be a positive one and it can be with some accommodations such as a structured physical environment, sensory breaks, alternative seating and clear visual supports.


7 Helpful Accommodations for Autistic Students – Songbird

20 Common Classroom Modifications for Students With Autism – Parent Press

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  1. Valérie says:

    Great post and great reminder. However, this works in elementary school and possibly middle school. But what about high school for students placed in regular classrooms? We’ve personally seen an increase in anxiety that led to school refusal and then burnout despite being a student with a strong intellect. However, coping strategies have their limits and sadly in high school, given the different teachers each day, accommodations are on paper in the IEP but few are actually implemented and left at the teachers’ discretion.

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