4 main difficulties at school for autistic children

1 in 100 Australians are autistic, making it likely that there is an autistic child in almost every classroom. From 2018 data, there were an estimated 106,600 autistic children (aged 5-20) in schools around Australia. Of those, over 80% reported difficulties at school according to ABS data. So what are the main difficulties at school for autistic children?

We reflected on the experience of our autistic children in primary school and those that we’ve taught. Also referring to the data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics on autism, the main difficulties at school for autistic children can be summarised by 4 Rs – regulation, routine, remember and relationships.

1. It’s about Regulation

Kids can’t learn unless they are in an attentive, calm state. If they are overwhelmed with lights, noise, and strange smells they won’t be able to learn well. If they are seeking sensory input to be able to focus, then they won’t be able to pay much attention until they have their sensory needs met. From the ABS data above, 18% of children with autism reported difficulty sitting at school.

Sensory needs aside, regulation is also about emotional regulation. Autistic kids often have poor regulation. They get frustrated easily, or upset easily, and need skills and opportunities to calm down. This could be through providing sensory calm or inputs.

Our daughter spent the first several weeks in a new classroom under her desk with a cushion. She was seeking a quiet calm space to be able to regulate herself through the new transition. That was the safest place she could find to support her regulation.

For teachers, this means providing appropriate spaces for sensory sensitivity and calm. This could include a calm corner with cushions, soft toys and a beanbag. It could be a darker, quiet area of the room with access to noise-cancelling headphones. Alternatively, it could be a high backed chair or pod that can cut out visual and auditory stimuli.

It also means providing appropriate brain breaks or physical activity breaks. You could put in a wobble stool or sensory cushion, but kids also just need to get outside and run off their extra body-energy.

2. What’s the Routine at school?

Many autistic kids thrive with predictable routines, consistency and clear rules. Classrooms can be noisy, unpredictable places. Each school day is different and has new activities. Our daughter struggled whenever a relief teacher taught. She also really disliked having to move classes for different lessons, and often refused to leave her classroom. These transitions were tricky for her, and made her feel out-of-control. But building up a consistent routine helped.

For our son, unstructured break times have always been the worst times of the day. More on that in Relationships.

For teachers, understanding the importance of routine and structure is key. As is providing time and space for regulation when there are transitions or unavoidable changes in routine. When overwhelmed, our daughter can’t talk. She can express herself through toys, or in drawings/writing, but not verbally. This confuses her teachers who expect verbal communication, and relates to the 52% of students who reported communication difficulties at school.

3. How do I Remember at school?

62% of autistic students were reported to have learning difficulties at school.

Every child is going to be different and learn slightly differently. So, it’s important to get to know each child to know how to support their learning best. In general terms, there may be 5 areas of support:

  • providing written instructions – verbal instructions of multiple steps are easily forgotten. Our daughter gets incredibly frustrated when she gets stuck and can’t remember the next step, but is unable to communicate or ask for help. Written instructions in clear simple steps, accompanied by a verbal explanation, can help.
  • breaking tasks down – big tasks are overwhelming. Our son doesn’t even know how to get started, leading to procrastination. This then leads to meltdowns when he runs out of time and due dates approach. Breaking tasks down into smaller steps and clearly listing them can help with starting, and completing tasks.
  • harnessing areas of interest – autistic kids often have obsessive interests that they are super passionate and knowledgeable about. Where possible, allow choices and options so autistic kids can research within their area of motivation and interest. Our son once complained that nothing at school interested him – meanwhile, he was pouring over history books on world war 1 and 2 and learning a ton.
  • considering assessment – school often emphasises written assessment. This can disadvantage autistic kids who struggle to get their thoughts onto paper, or have low muscle tone that makes writing tiring and laborious. Consider alternative assessments such as verbal conversations, using talk to text technologies, recording oral presentations, or drawing evidence from ongoing work rather than one ‘summative’ piece.
  • checking in one-on-one – autistic students can ‘mask’ their confusion or lack of understanding by mimicking others around them. After giving instructions, check in one-on-one for understanding. During tasks, check in as they are unlikely to put a hand up to ask for help. One-on-one support may also be required to co-regulate, break down tasks, get started, dictate, brainstorm first, maintain focus, or supervise regulation breaks.

4. What about difficulties with Relationships?

The most prevalent difficulty experienced by autistic students is difficulty fitting in socially, with 63% of autistic kids reporting this difficulty. Many autistic kids get bullied or picked on, have small social groups, and have trouble playing with others during unstructured times. In class time, they can also struggle to form groups (‘go pick someone to work with’) or work within a group. They may prefer to work on their own, or to be placed in small groups instead of finding their own.

For teachers, this can mean providing structured lunchtime activities like clubs. It might mean explicitly teaching social skills through a curriculum such as Social Thinking or What’s the Buzz. It’s also worth recognising that sometimes autistic children are happy being on their own and don’t need huge social groups at lunchtime to be enjoying school.

Conclusion: difficulties at school for autistic children

Four main difficulties at school for autistic children include regulation, routine, remembering and relationships.

For teachers and schools, it’s important to:

  • take the time to form relationships and know kids one on one
  • provide opportunities to regulate, whether through calm corners, physical activities, quiet breaks or sensory spaces
  • providing adjustments to curriculum, assessment, instructions, and pedagogy to suit students in terms of strengths, interests, motivations

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