In this article, Rebecca Duffus suggests her top tips and strategies for supporting all learners in the classroom.
When suggesting strategies to support neurodivergent learners, educators sometimes worry that they will make one specific child ‘stand out’ or appear different to their peers. This concern comes from a good place – we want to empower young people to be proud of who they are and feel accepted in their community. However, there are three important points to be aware of:
- Being different to our peers is what makes us all unique and this difference should be celebrated.
- At least 1 in 7 people are neurodivergent. Therefore, many of the strategies that are initially intended to support one child, will benefit many others, who may not have a diagnosis.
- Autism- and ADHD-friendly strategies are actually ‘learning-friendly’ strategies and often benefit all children (and certainly won’t harm any!).
Rebecca’s autism strategies (supporting all learners)
1. Supporting all learners through communication
If you can use fewer words, do so! This can help with processing, as can including other communication forms other than solely verbal input. Brain scans have shown autistic individuals have weaker connections in the areas associated with language and therefore find it harder to process lots of talking. In comparison, there are strengths in the lobes that are linked to visual abilities, therefore it’s much easier to process the information shown visually. Temple Grandin even states, “When somebody speaks to me, their words are instantly translated into pictures”.
Support what you are saying with actions, symbols, or keywords on a post-it note or mini-whiteboard. For example, at the start of the lesson write down the key steps to success (words or pictures). This means that the student can tick them off as they go along, and keep track of the lesson.
2. Remember the attention tunnel
Now widely the most accepted autism theory, monotropism suggests that autistic learners (as well as other neurodivergent individuals) are often fully immersed in the thing they are focusing on. This means they may find it difficult to shift attention. Polytropic thinkers may be able to flit from one topic to another – and this is generally what we expect in the classroom. The benefits of monotropic thinking, are that the individual is generally exploring that topic to a greater level, rather than just surface level for polytrophic thinkers.
To support with this, ensure young people are given enough time (and warning) to finish a task before you move on. Offer them processing time to allow them to shift their attention to the next item. Support young people to understand their own sensory system and know how they can access sensory-regulating activities. This will help them focus on classroom input rather than a distraction from another sense.
Remember, a sensory need can be like an itch – if you’re told to ignore it, it doesn’t go away!
There needs to be an appropriate activity or resource on offer that can help, gain or reduce sensory stimuli. This type of activity will help them to concentrate.
Finally, give opportunities for students to share their feelings so they can then focus on the learning. If an all-consuming thought is going round and round in their head, it will be near impossible to focus on your lesson, so invest a little time at the start, to help them engage. A quick morning check-in can do wonders not only for engagement, but also in developing positive relationships with your students.
3. Celebrate each identity
Many autistic people spend large amounts of their days ‘masking’ and go home exhausted. Masking is when someone behaves in a certain way in order to ‘fit in’ or because they feel this is what is expected of them, but it does not come naturally and so they are constantly observing, imitating and acting. We often hear of young people who have seemed ‘fine’ in school, but families report a different situation altogether at home. Feeling accepted as their true self in school could make a big difference to this. Many autistic adults only felt able to ‘remove the mask’ once they have understood and owned their autistic identity.
As a whole class, frequently celebrate different ways of processing and interpreting the world (such as being autistic). In lessons, feature autistic individuals such as Willard Wigan MBE, Jessica-Jane Applegate, Holly Smale, Wentworth Miller and Chris Baker and use language around neurodiversity, neurodivergence, difference and autism positively, and regularly.
On an individual level, an in-depth understanding of your diagnosis is key to future self-esteem and wellbeing. I have recently created a workbook for young people, plus guidebook for the adults involved, that can support with this process, through 6 structured sessions.
Article written by Rebecca Duffus
An experienced Advisory Teacher with a Psychology Degree and a Masters in Autism and Education. Rebecca has many years of experience supporting mainstream and specialist education settings, as well as local council and education services, to consider their provision for autistic pupils. She is passionate about supporting young people to develop a positive understanding of their autism diagnosis and the impact of this on their identity. Rebecca has been a speaker at conferences across the UK including the TES SEN Show, Education People Show, and Schools and Academies Show.
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