Skip to content

Blog post

Creating an inclusive learning environment for autistic pupils at primary school

Alison Eason, Head of the Additionally Resourced Provision (ARP) at Chalgrove Primary School

When you think of a typical primary school classroom, what comes to mind? Most likely it’s a brightly lit, stimulating space full of colour and sound – all designed to engage curious young minds. However, for an autistic child, an environment like this can be overwhelming. Even the day-to-day sensory information we routinely process, such as cooking smells wafting in through the window, or the mains hum of a charging laptop can provoke sensory overload, which causes stress, anxiety and possibly physical pain for an autistic person.

Some autistic children learn to hide the fact they are uncomfortable in the classroom, but the National Autistic Society suggests the long-term effects of masking or camouflaging one’s autistic traits can be damaging to mental health. That’s why it’s important for primary schools to break the patterns of masking behaviour early in a child’s life.

Promoting understanding of autism

A whole-school approach is a good way to encourage neurotypical pupils to accept that their autistic classmates have different needs. Part of our curriculum is called ‘why it’s good to be me’ where children discuss what is special about themselves and others. This has helped in situations where our autistic pupils ‘stim’. Stimming is one of the diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder, and is described as ‘stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech’. Children use movements like tapping, rocking or vocalisations to regulate their emotions. It is an essential coping mechanism for some children, but can sometimes draw unwanted attention. By explaining to the class that stimming is a natural part of being autistic, we help all children recognise and accept this behaviour without judgment.

‘By explaining to the class that stimming is a natural part of being autistic, we help all children recognise and accept this behaviour without judgment.’

Reinforcing a sense of belonging

When autistic children are able to participate fully in the school day, they are less likely to mask their traits. One way we help them join in, is by using visual prompts and resources which benefit all children. Makaton signs support speech and communication among all pupils, while Widgit symbols represent tasks such as ‘write’ or ‘draw’ to enable pre-verbal and verbal children to interact and take part in class activities. Children use symbols to tell us they need a break or they want an object such as a wobble cushion for sensory regulation. We also label resources so children with spatial awareness difficulties can navigate the classroom and feel independent.

Some of our autistic pupils find unexpected changes during the day difficult to process. Using symbols we create visual timetables to help children deal with daily transitions, along with illustrated social stories. These describe a particular situation or event like a new member of staff in class, with specific information about what to expect and why.

Assessing pupils’ sensory needs

Processing everyday sensory information can be difficult for autistic children, and often affects how they feel and act making it harder to flourish in a conventional classroom. To identify our pupils’ sensory needs we carry out an assessment using a checklist from the Autism Education Trust (AET) which schools can access through the AET’s training programme. The checklist contains 50 behaviour descriptors such as ‘finds crowded areas very difficult’ or ‘enjoys feeling certain materials’. Practitioners can talk through each of these with a parent or carer, to see if they resonate with the way their child behaves. It doesn’t take long to assess each child, but it’s an important step towards understanding a pupil’s individual requirements.

Adapting the environment

With this information, schools can make adjustments to help pupils with specific sensory needs. Very often these are simple to put in place and can benefit other children in the class. They might include putting a mat on a hard floor to minimise the effect of sudden, loud noises or closing a blind to reduce harsh sunlight.

Children with vestibular system hyposensitivity often have an increased need for movement and crave vigorous activity. Something as simple as the playground swing, which all children enjoy, helps to rebalance and restore calm. Similarly, some autistic children have an under-sensitivity to body awareness or proprioception which leads them to gain sensory input by banging objects or bumping into people. A weighted blanket can provide pressure on the body which helps the child process sensory feedback.

By promoting good autism practice early on and making adaptations to accommodate sensory differences, schools can give autistic pupils the confidence and freedom to be themselves.