Strategies to support students with autism K-6

Teachers left a Centre for Professional Learning course earlier this week armed with strategies and resources to help them support students with autism in their K-6 classrooms.

Course presenter Dr Rose Dixon, from the University of Wollongong, ran through the wide range of characteristics of students on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). She acknowledged teachers today are experiencing an ever-increasing number of students with a disability in their classrooms, many with no formal diagnosis and no additional in-class support.

Be clear with your instructions

Children with autism can become anxious and behaviours can escalate quickly. Dr Dixon encourages teachers to provide a structured, predictable environment.

“Be clear in your instructions — instructing a child on the autism spectrum to sit down can in some instances cause the student great anxiety,” Dr Dixon said. “The child is left wondering, do I sit on the desk? Do I sit on the floor? Do I sit on the chair? Do I go sit outside?

“Be clear in your instruction and always put the child’s name into the instruction, ‘Johnny/Jane sit on the chair at your desk please’. When a clear and unambiguous instruction is given the child knows exactly what you are asking them to do.”

Visual aids help with comprehension

Visual aids will help students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Dr Dixon said. They assist the students with comprehending instructions and information, learning routines and preparing for changes.

And, they help students to understand contextual social skills, e.g. how to ask a question or how to join a group. Visual aids can also help plan for transitions and prepare students for change, give information, clarify concepts or give directions.

Participants were shown examples of visual aids, in the form of:

  • social stories – words and pictures used to describe a social situation and how to respond
  • power cards – a student’s favourite character, e.g. Thomas the Tank Engine, outlines strategies for dealing with a social situation, with the hope the student will take the ideas of their favourite character on board.

Teachers then worked in teams to develop a social story or power card they could use with one of their students. In the report-back session teachers explained the purpose of their social story/power card. Participants were able to take copies of the developed resources, for use in their schools.

Behaviour management

“The characteristics of students with autism can often lead to stressful behaviour reactions. If we set up an effective learning environment and use strategies to help students regulate their responses, we can go some way to preventing sensory overload,” Dr Dixon said. She described several situations and suggested behaviour management strategies to deal with them.

Dr Dixon listed some simple strategies to prevent rage, such as operating on “autism time” (making sure there is ample time for the student to complete the task or activity).

Rushing may cause the student to freeze or have a tantrum, rage or meltdown. When this happens the students can’t listen or learn when they are in this stage of the rage cycle. “Once you are in the red zone it’s difficult to bring them back,” Dr Dixon said.

She encourages teachers to use calming activities in their classrooms throughout the school day, and not to show a lot of emotion in their voice if unacceptable behaviours start to escalate.

“Power assertion by the teacher is not a good idea. If a student is ramping up, and you start to lecture them it results in the teacher turning into the red beast and this will not bring about a positive learning outcome,” Dr Dixon said.

In 2018, more than 5000 Federation members participated in courses offered by the Centre for Professional Learning. The Centre for Professional Learning’s 2019 program will be made available towards the end of term 4 at

— Maureen Davis-Catterall, Relieving Communications Officer