Supporting students with autism

There are a number of research-based strategies that educators can implement to empower students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) to fulfil their potential in the classroom.

In the journal article, Supporting Students with Autism: Strategies that Really Work in the Classroom, Dr Roselyn Dixon (Academic Director of Inclusive and Special Education at the University of Wollongong) outlines practical strategies for educators to consider. These include using visuals in their teaching, managing the physical and social environment of the classroom, and approaching changes in routine.

The use of visuals

‘As most students on the autism spectrum respond to information presented visually rather than relying on language or verbal instructions, one of the most commonly used strategies to support learning is the use of specialised visual supports,' the journal paper reads.

Tasks that can be enhanced with the use of visuals include identifying and exploring feelings and reflecting on personal experiences and behaviour patterns. Another useful visual support is a checklist which breaks down a complex task into smaller ones.

While it's important for teachers to assess whether the evidence-based approaches will be appropriate for their students with ASD, the strategies are beneficial to the entire classroom, Dixon says. This is particularly true for the use of visuals.

“If you think yourself, if you get a diagram rather than just following verbal instructions – it definitely lowers the level of difficulty for everyone… but it's particularly relevant for students with autism because they're very, very visual learners.”
- Dixon explains

The journal article also recommends some simple changes teachers can make to the physical environment to make it more accommodating for students with autism. Setting up a calm zone in the classroom is one suggested strategy and visual clutter should be reduced as much as possible to avoid a visual overload.

Keeping language concise and simple

Dixon says a lot of students with autism can handle the curriculum quite well, it's the social-emotional environment of the classroom they often find great difficulty with.

When it comes to communication in the classroom – whether it's verbal or non-verbal – the evidence shows simplifying language can be effective. In particular, it's suggested that metaphors, idioms or sarcasm shouldn't be used – be as literal as possible.

“Keep language concise and simple, saying exactly what you mean, telling the student exactly what to do.”
- Dixon writes

“For example, ‘Clean up the science lab’ should be ‘Put the microscope back on the shelf’.”

There’s also advice on managing changes in routine. For example, to plan for an excursion, educators could display a photo of the excursion setting in advance and remind students of when this event is coming up. If an activity for during the day has changed, educators who are using visual timetables can display this change on the timetable with the alternative activity. ‘Do remember to remind students of what is not going to change,' Dixon writes, ‘such as all the other activities, the classroom and break times'.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Teacher magazine and has been reproduced with the permission of the Australian Council for Educational Research. To read the full article and to read more articles like this visit