Autism Acceptance Week – Best ideas and teaching resources
Take part in Autism Acceptance Week at your school this March and raise money for a great cause…
- by Teachwire
What is Autism Acceptance Week?
Formerly known as Autism Awareness Week, the National Autistic Society changed the name of this annual event in 2021 to Autism Acceptance Week.
Autism Acceptance Week aims to raise funds to support the 700,000 autistic people in the UK. Money raised goes to delivering plans to transform society into one that works for autistic people.
The theme for 2023 is colour.
When is Autism Acceptance Week?
Autism Acceptance Week 2023 takes place from 27th March to 2nd April.
JUMP TO A SECTION
- Great ways to help autistic pupils
- Official resources and fundraising
- Social skills lesson plan
- Problem solving lesson plan
- Autism Education Trust resources
- Make storytime more engaging
- Advice for working with autistic children
- Making PE lessons better for autistic pupils
- Autism in girls
Great ways to help autistic pupils
This free eight-part series will give you practical advice for helping the autistic children in your class. There’s advice for helping autistic pupils to open up, how to make your school less threatening to autistic pupils and more.
Official resources and fundraising
If you plan to raise money for Autism Acceptance Week, join in with the Spectrum Colour Challenge. Ideas for taking part include:
- hosting a colour quiz
- wearing a different colour each day
- having a rainbow-themed bake sale
- making meals featuring only one colour
- having a crazy hair day or fancy dress day
- hosting a colouring competition or art day
Download fundraising resources including posters, quizzes and more from the official website.
Elsewhere on the National Autistic Society website you’ll find lots of education resources, including Understanding autism online training. You can also sign up to an autism practice education newsletter.
Social skills lesson plan
Learn how to bring autistic children together in a structured, interesting task that will help them learn to get along together, celebrate their skills and help them learn new ones. Download the lesson plan for free.
Problem solving lesson plan
Help the autistic children in your classroom to tackle problem solving tasks in maths and science with this free lesson plan.
Autism Education Trust resources
The Autism Education Trust has a range of education resources on its website, including case studies about good autism practice in schools and advice for creating positive relationships between home and school.
Make storytime more engaging for autistic learners
This short video from Beyond Autism features seven simple ideas about how to help instil a love of reading and make story time engaging and fun.
Working with autistic children
Lynn McCann from Reachout Autism Support Consultants explains how a tweak to your classroom or daily routine can bring huge learning benefits…
Autism is a lifelong condition and a different way of thinking. It affects boys and girls but often in different ways.
We can’t change an autistic child into one that thinks in a typical way. Instead, we need to understand how they think and build on that to help them learn.
Making your classroom environment simpler can have a calming effect on all children, but especially autistic pupils who are easily overloaded and distracted by the multitude of sensory messages.
They can find it difficult to know what to filter out, and those with hypersensitivities can find a ‘normal’ amount of noise, smell, touch or movement painful.
“Making your classroom environment simpler can have a calming effect on all children, but especially autistic pupils”
Others may need extra movement or other sensory input just to feel grounded in the space they are in. Here’s some ideas that may help:
- Leave clear spaces around whiteboards and between display boards. Try and keep displays simple.
- Make sure that the child’s desk is easily accessible so they don’t need to navigate obstacles or pass lots of other children closely to reach it.
- Check light levels, noise from other rooms and smells. Cut down on things hanging from the ceiling.
- Use table top vocabulary or maths reminders, rather than word or number walls, and only get them out as needed so they are not there all the time.
It’s always best to start with a minimum amount of sensory input and let the child tell you what they can cope with on top of that. As they settle in, involve the autistic child in discussion about what could go on the walls or on their tables.
Think about structure
Autistic children thrive on predictability. However, with preparation and support to understand how to manage the new situation, many autistic children can cope with new things.
It’s the unexpected that is likely to cause great distress for them. Try these ideas:
- Use a visual timetable and encourage the child to use it at every change of activity.
- Do what you say you will do, when you say you’ll do it, as much as possible. Don’t promise things you are unlikely to be able to do.
- Have the equipment the pupil might need easily available and well labelled. Start by putting maths or writing equipment in different coloured bags, for example.
- Use a visual schedule to help autistic pupils learn how to do things by themselves, such as getting ready for PE, packing their bag at the end of the day or tidying up.
- Try not to assume anything. If they are refusing to do something, do they know how to do it?
- Break down work tasks into manageable, clearly explained chunks. Fold a worksheet so only one part can be seen at a time or draw a coloured box around the part they need to do first.
- Use the words ‘first, then, last’ to help the child work through a task. Give them their own copy of a book.
- Pictures and written instructions are easier to refer to and remember than verbal instructions. Make them positive and encouraging.
- A workstation is a place to quietly get on with a set of tasks independently, without distractions. Some autistic pupils really benefit from having this space and structure to work with.
Social interaction is a two-way process. Working with your class to include and support an autistic child is important. Think about the following:
- Make plans to support your autistic pupil in interacting with his or her peers. This could be by setting up a games group, a buddy system for playtimes or by supporting partner work in class.
- Play and lunchtimes are unstructured times that can be a sensory nightmare. Allow autistic pupils to do things they like and help them find a calm space to refresh their batteries if that’s what they need.
Reading up about autism is helpful for teachers, but don’t assume the child in your class will be just like the ones you read about. My best advice is to get to know your pupil and their strengths, as well as their difficulties.
Don’t feel overwhelmed by what you might not know. Instead, ask for advice or help earlier, rather than later.
Here are some final ideas:
- Work as a team with your TA by planning together so that you both get to know the child well. Ideally you should be teaching the child yourself throughout the week.
- Getting to know the professional working with your autistic pupil and building an excellent relationship with them will bring huge benefits for all.
- Try and remain positive and calm. Behaviour is simply communication – try to ‘read’ what your pupil is trying to tell you.
- Build a good relationship with your pupil’s parents and accept advice and information from them. You’re in this together so find a structured way to communicate that suits you both.
Senior advisory teacher Victoria Honeybourne offers some tips for putting autistic pupils at ease when in school, but outside the classroom…
Pupils on the autism spectrum can find the mainstream classroom environment confusing and challenging, but what about the rest of the setting?
Schools aren’t usually designed for autistic pupils, and shared spaces can be just as difficult to navigate as the classroom itself.
It may not be possible to redesign your entire school, but some simple adjustments can make a big difference.
Differences in perception
Pupils on the autism spectrum can often experience sensitivity to sensory stimuli. They may be over- or under-sensitive to any of the senses – touch, smell, taste, sight or sound.
Complex patterns and colours may appear overwhelming and disorientating, or background noise can appear amplified, making it difficult to concentrate.
In addition, some pupils experience difficulties with proprioception – awareness of where their body is in space. Some may appear clumsy, stand too close or too far away from others, or may ‘hold on’ to walls and furniture to help them move around a room.
All of these differences can increase anxiety and frustration, making it difficult to focus, interact and cope. For many pupils sensory overload is not only uncomfortable but actually painful, and some pupils may go into ‘shutdown’ or ‘meltdown’ as a result.
So how can we make shared spaces more autism-friendly?
Navigating the school
Corridors and open shared spaces can present specific difficulties. With space at a premium in many schools, it can be easy for these areas to become cluttered, crowded and used for multiple purposes.
Define the use of each space. Create different ‘zones’ through colour-coding, clear signs and helpful visuals. Furniture or display boards can also be positioned to create specific areas, such as a cloakroom or silent reading area.
Use natural lighting where possible. It can become a habit to turn lights on when they’re not needed – some autistic pupils can be particularly distressed by fluorescent lighting.
“Create different ‘zones’ through colour-coding, clear signs and helpful visuals”
Low tables and storage boxes can be difficult for children with poor spatial awareness, so keep furniture against the wall to prevent trips and bumps.
Brightly coloured walls brimming with work and posters are a feature of many schools, but can be overwhelming to some autistic pupils. Keep displays tidy, relevant and use neutral background colours.
Narrow corridors can induce anxiety in pupils who are uncomfortable in groups of people. Dismiss one group of pupils at a time, or else introduce a one-way system.
Assemblies and larger gatherings
Larger gatherings can also create anxiety for some pupils. Some children may feel more comfortable at the end of a row or near the back rather than at the centre of a crowd of people. Others may find it difficult to know how close or far away to sit from other pupils.
You could try using masking tape to indicate the distance needed between one row of pupils and another, or have a clear rule (one pupil per carpet tile, for example).
“Larger gatherings can also create anxiety for some pupils”
Visuals can also be helpful to give all pupils some clear guidelines (eg ‘When queueing, the person in front should be an arm’s length away’). Space out rows of chairs so that pupils do not feel squashed.
Remember too that some pupils on the autism spectrum may be particularly sensitive to noise. If a video or music is playing, they might be more comfortable sitting further from the stage or away from speakers.
Morning breaks and lunch hours are often cited as times of difficulty for autistic pupils, typically due to the lack of structure and emphasis on socialising.
Structured activities and games led by an adult may help some pupils understand how to participate.
Create a space (indoors or on the playground) for arts, crafts and toys. This will allow autistic pupils to engage in an individual activity while still being in the company of others, reducing their feelings of isolation and loneliness while removing the anxiety of having to interact.
Buddy benches may also be beneficial. Provide a bench where any child can sit when they would like to join in with others or are feeling lonely.
“Structured activities and games led by an adult may help some pupils understand how to participate”
Other pupils can be encouraged to keep an eye out and help those sitting on the bench to take part in whatever they’re doing.
Clear zones can be helpful on the playground. Signpost which areas are for running, which are for ball games, where toys can be played with and other similarly zoned activities.
Some autistic pupils will need to spend social times alone; the interactions of lessons can be enough for them, and they’ll require ‘alone time’ in order to recover.
Provide quiet spaces which are kept quiet and peaceful. Allowing any pupil to make use of these whenever they need to will reduce any stigma that might become attached to them.
Dining halls can be especially difficult due to the mass of smells, people, noises, tastes, textures and movement that children will encounter in them. A child with heightened senses might be able to hear every crunch and every rustle of a crisp packet as loudly as their own!
Devising clear dining hall routines for lining up and eating can be helpful, as can providing quieter areas.
Adjustments of this type to the wider school environment will typically help many pupils, not just those on the autism spectrum. As pupils become older, encourage them to take more responsibility for developing their own individual coping strategies for their personal needs.
This will empower them to be able to cope independently with secondary school and subsequently everyday life.
Victoria Honeybourne is a senior advisory teacher, writer and trainer, and has a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. She is the author of Educating and Supporting Girls with Asperger’s and Autism.
Make PE lessons better for autistic pupils
Special needs teacher and author Adele Devine shares some advice for opening up gym classes and team games to students on the autism spectrum…
You arrive at work and are handed a dirty, smelly PE kit. “Get dressed and be on the field in five minutes!” You try to protest, but get shouted at. Maybe it’s rugby, rounders or hockey? It’s raining and your head’s starting to ache. You weren’t expecting this.
How would you feel? The school day can be a social minefield for a student on the autism spectrum. Anxieties from noises, unexpected changes, smells and social pressures can all cause genuine pain, and adding a PE lesson may feel like we’re rubbing salt in the wound.
Just think of the obstacles that autistic learners can expect to face in PE. In addition to overwhelming anxiety, there will be the need to put on different clothes in the environment of a changing room, which can present issues with regards to their personal space and body confidence.
Throughout the lesson, they may feel a near constant uncertainty over where to stand, what to do and what’s happening next.
Then, after all that, come the PE activities themselves and all that they entail – choosing teams, the way team games can highlight a child’s lack of coordination (which will be made even worse if the child has a tendency to perfectionism) and the general lack of order.
With that in mind, here are 10 supports that can go a long way towards making PE lessons more inclusive for students with autism.
Set aside specific areas for warm-up activities. Seeing a big ball to bounce on, equipment for practising balance skills or a goal for shooting baskets will mean the student can immediately see there’s something they can go and do.
Create an atmosphere where there’s clear order, and establish rules so that students know when it’s time to stop and listen. Rules and order make things feel safe.
Changing for PE may trigger anxieties. Providing a set space so that personal belongings can be kept in order can make a massive difference.
Could changing be staggered to avoid the rush? A visual schedule may help prompt students on what to do next. Do they know why it’s important to change for PE?
A Social Story (see carolgraysocialstories.com) may help explain this in a non-threatening, factual way.
Sometimes all the autistic student needs is time to process and adjust to the environment. Allow some time at the start of the session before any demands are placed.
Be aware that they may take a little longer to process when you speak to them. Use their name to gain their attention and keep language quite simple. A visual sand timer or clock display may help those who find PE activities difficult to endure.
The unexpected can trigger anxiety. A set routine will allow the student to know that there’s predictability and order to your session.
Start with setting out fun things to explore, then have the same warm-up, followed by an activity and a similar cool-down at the end. The more the student with autism gets to know a pattern, the safer and happier they’ll feel.
Providing a visual schedule to break down the stages of the session can make a huge difference. You don’t need to go cutting out pictures and laminating – try using large flipcharts or dry wipe boards and breaking the lesson down into three or four sections, with stick figures showing what students will do.
Cross things out as you go. Think how we count down the stops on the train. Knowing helps…
A visual can let the students to see exactly what you’re trying to explain. It’s a point of reference they can refer back to if they don’t process as quickly.
Visuals reduce the need for lots of verbal instructions; it can be easier to tolerate instruction from a visual than from a teacher.
When discussing this article with our PE specialist Amy Harwood, the first of her many useful suggestions was “Floor spots”.
She always carries multi-coloured rubber floor marking spots, since they help to show students exactly where they need to be, providing an instant visual for many different types of activity.
Find out about the individual student. What are their motivators? What will they find challenging? Observe and set them up to succeed.
Don’t allow the choosing of teams – this is a cruel tradition which can only cause social discomfort. Why not select teams in different ways? Maybe one week do it by the benches the students have sat on; another week, number them ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ or hand out differently coloured bibs.
Breaking things down
Providing a visual breakdown can make things less overwhelming. Skills develop in stages, so before playing tennis they must first learn to throw and catch, handle the racket and hit balls served to them.
Set things up so that there are opportunities for students to practice discreet skills. Without a visual breakdown the student may feel frustrated that they’re not instantly perfect and give up.
All students respond to praise. It’s an essential and easy way of providing positive feedback, showing that the student is on track and building their self esteem.
Look at what they’re achieving and show them that you appreciate their efforts and that they’re getting better all the time.
Reward charts may help some students, but not all. Keep smiling, be overly patient and be predictable. Never, ever shout!
As the retired pro basketball player Michael Jordan once pointed out, “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”
We must set our learners with autism up to succeed by pre-empting and providing the supports they may require.
Most importantly, we must build their self esteem and confidence so that they believe in themselves. Reveal their potential and praise them for having a go!
Autism in girls
Signs of autism can often be masked by girls to fit in, feel safe and gain acceptance – but it can take a heavy toll for those on the spectrum. Take a look at the following articles to learn more about autism in girls and how you can support autistic girls in your classroom.
- How to spot signs that may be hidden, by Sarah-Jane Critchley
- 10 things one girl wants her teachers to know about autism, by Libby Scott
- What it’s like to be a girl with autism, and to parent one, by Rachael Lucas
- How autism affects girls and their social relationships, by Felicity Sedgewick