Setting up an autism friendly classroom

There are over 100,000 students in schools across Australia who have autism. This creates a challenge for schools. Everyone needs to have an autism friendly classroom, and every teacher needs to know how to support autistic students.

The University of Wollongong talks about flexibility, creativity and persistence as being important in designing inclusive classrooms. Having flexible space to self-regulate, being proactive around supports and demonstrating creativity in assessment are three areas where designing for autistic learners takes flexibility, creativity and persistence.

1. Space to self-regulate

A key difficulty for neurodivergent students is experiencing big emotions and needing to regulate. The school day is full of things that can lead to big emotions.

  • Frustration around learning that is too easy/boring or too challenging for right now
  • Frustration around navigating social conflicts such as games at break time, sharing materials in class or being friends (or not friends as the case may be)
  • Frustration around sensory inputs such as loud noises, crowds of people in the classroom, or strange smells, bright lights and itchy school uniforms
  • Tiredness from masking and using mental energy understanding social interactions
  • Changes in body energy from morning, to running around at breaks to back in the classroom
  • Transitions between lessons, rooms , teachers.

Setting up a classroom where students have the space, flexibility and ability to self regulate is step 1.

The autism-friendly classroom for regulation

A classroom that supports self-regulation may include

  • Having a quiet corner with a couch or tent or beanbag in a dark corner or break out room.
  • Making fidget or sensory toys available, or permission for students to carry them around in their pocket
  • Making sure students are allowed to move around naturally. This includes being able to walk around the classroom or safely outside if required to regulate
  • Giving students permission to listen to music, eat, drink, got to the toilet, use noise cancelling headphones when they need. Being able to manage sensory inputs and bodily needs is important in humanizing education. Having to ask permission, put a hand up or use a break card may not be successful with why, masking or socially unaware autistic children. Just being able to do what they need when is a step towards teaching self management.
  • Having a range of furniture (stools, chairs, beanbags, couches), lighting (dimmer and brighter parts of the room) so students can self select what’s most comfortable for them
  • Teaching calming (regulation) strategies such as breathing, listening to music, going for a walk, having a cool drink. Include these into day to day routines for everyone.
  • Don’t talk at them when they are heightened – see more about the heightened autistic brain.

2. Support for daily planning and routines

When routines changes, this can confuse and trigger autistic children. If there’s an assembly when normally it would be a normal class, students may refuse to move. If there are many transitions between classes, different teachers, and different rooms, this can cause regulation problems because the change is too much. And if ADHD is in the mix with ASD, then organisation, time management and executive functioning can be under-developed.

Some suggestions to support autistic children in the classroom include:

  • Using a variety of communication methods to appreciate that autistic kids don’t often give eye contact or may not want to verbalise
  • Use visual schedules to set up day and lesson routines, giving predictability to the day
  • Use schedules and visual supports for planning, both time management, reminders for regulation, and breaking down tasks
  • Use organisation strategies such as colour coding books, using a big binder, having reminders on locker doors etc

Many of these supports are tools that can be set up in your autism friendly classroom in advance.

3. Creativity and support for learning

Teachers can set up their autism friendly classroom to support learning from the very beginning of learning design. Consider that autistic students often have special interests that are motivating (and everything outside of that isn’t very interesting). Also consider many of the traits of autism around communication, eye contact, social understanding, vocal tone. Don’t include traits/features of an autism diagnosis as a requirement for a task or assessment!

The autism friendly classroom for successful learning

Here are some suggestions for the learning design to support autistic learners:


  • Providing choices and agency throughout the learning. Being able to connect to interests (especially obsessive interests) will enhance motivation, engagement and work to their strengths. Also be aware of any triggers. Our daughter is scared of dogs. She refuses to do any task that relates to dogs. The simple fix is to remove the word ‘dog’ and replace it with another animal – then she’ll complete the task!
  • Provide clear instructions both verbal and written. Follow up with a one on one check in for clarification. This helps support memory, comprehension of tasks and auditory processing delays. Our son often comes home and is frustrated because he doesn’t remember the verbal instructions of tasks he is meant to complete at home. Providing a written option helps support his executive functioning memory.


  • Provide universal scaffolding in tasks. All students can benefit from structure and guidance in their writing. A list of key words, a template for writing, or providing a structure (like TEEL, OREO or CER for different writing) helps.
  • Assess in a variety of ways. A test or long extended essay may not support all students. Look for evidence of learning that might be in the form of a portfolio of progress over time, a conversation/oral assessment, using reduced words on PowerPoint slides, evidence from other subjects or outside learning, or maybe a reflective photo journal of learning through hands on experiences. Using technology to help with typing (rather than handwriting) or talk to text may help. And also consider that a whole class oral presentation may not suit, especially if the marking criteria requires eye contact and excited voice -a monotone voice and lack of eye contact are autistic traits. In addition, any tasks that require perspective taking (pretend you are ‘x’ role) may be difficult for autistic children.
  • Consider that many students with ASD will also have ADHD. They may need support with time management, working memory, organisation and planning.

What do you do when…

Every autistic student is different. So a blanket response isn’t always going to work. You might have to try different strategies to find what works best in your classroom. Be persistent.

Here are some things to experiment with:

What are the most calming activities that are effective for regulating?

Some kids like reading, listening to music or drawing. Others might have a cold drink and a walk around the oval. Some may prefer playdough and being busy with their hands (read: fidget toys). Alternatively, others may respond to cuddles with pillows on a couch or dark tent. 

What helps transitions?

A school day is full of transitions. A daily visual schedule might be enough. Or a timer to signal the end of one task. But co-regulation may be required with big transitions or movement around the school – a support person or calming activity may be required.

What are their interests?

Allow them to connect to these through their learning.

How do they communicate best?

Some students can verbalise their needs. Others may, especially when heightened, become mute. They may be able to communicate by writing on a whiteboard, drawing pictures, talking through a toy, over email/chat, or only after a period of calming regulation time.

How do they respond to getting told off?

If they get in trouble, what’s the strategy for responding? What’s not going to work is a lecture and being backed in the corner. Aim for no talking or only simple commands. Redirect away and to a quiet place for calming down or to a different preferred activity. Listen to their point of view. Also, aim for a restorative conversation, which may involve social thinking to understand the situation. But be brief and precise, without asking abstract questions that they may not know the answer to ( ‘what were other people thinking?’ is a particularly tricky one to answer without social awareness).

Also worth considering here is who are their trusted adults at school? Autistic children can take a long time to form trusting relationships with peers and adults. So if you are a new teacher to them, they may need more time to develop a connection to you. Keep persisting, talking to them in positive ways, sharing experiences, and being kind and understanding.

What formats work best for their learning and assessment?

You may find extended assignments never get finished (too big and kids may have poor organisation and time management). A one on one conversation may be most effective for collecting evidence of learning. Breaking essays down into PowerPoint slides may encourage written work, and having shared documents via Google.

Setting up an autism friendly classroom really comes down to being inclusive of every individual. It includes allowing students agency, choice, the ability to manage themselves and self-regulate, while providing appropriate supports, creative assessment and flexible learning.

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