3.7 Supporting autistic learners in an educational setting

Inclusive learning environments

Learning environments and adapting learning environments to specific needs. Creating an inclusive learning environment through positive relationships and behaviour is the responsibility of everyone in each community of learning. This approach will improve the support for autistic learners and their families as awareness of autism inclusion, wellbeing and equality is embedded across the school community. Information and professional learning on inclusive practice can be shared at:

  • parental/carer information sessions
  • staff information sessions
  • blogs
  • setting up and leading a collegiate/network group
  • linking with the schools in your management group/cluster/family group/local area
  • engaging with the development of school policies
  • school websites
  • providing professional development sessions at in-service events.

Inclusive classrooms

'The Inclusive classroom is fundamental to inclusion and the core of best teaching practice'.

(Inclusive Learning and Collaborative Working: CIRCLE Secondary, 2016)

Inclusive classrooms support all learners and reduce the extent to which further additional support is required and allows the implementation of individual support to be minimally intrusive. Developing an inclusive classroom therefore is a child-centred approach which meets professional and legislative duties. It is also an effective use of time management. For example:

  • Ensuring appropriate labelling and visual supports are in the classroom supports learners who experience language and communication difficulties, and also English as an additional language.
  • Effective planning and organisation will save time and support learners.
  • Liaising with support colleagues and, if appropriate, ensuring effective management of any resources and their support staff time.

What makes a classroom feel inclusive to autistic learners?


  • When each autistic learner is an individual and is included in developing their inclusive classroom.
  • When the classroom routines are accessible e.g. use of visual supports.
  • When we provide anticipatory supports.
  • When we simplify communication.
  • When the ethos of the school and classroom is one that values difference and expects diversity.
  • When we incorporate the special interests of autistic learners into the lesson.
  • When we provide planned movement breaks.
  • When we take account of sensory preferences.
  • When we implement the use of an individual safe space.
  • When we agree a method to support a ‘Time in our safe space’. Discuss how this is worded.
  • When we use emotional regulation approaches.
  • When we ensure the whole class has an opportunity to explore diversity and equality.
  • When we incorporate the special interests of autistic learners into the lesson.
  • When we reduce sensory overload.
  • When we create a quiet area in the room.
  • When we prepare learners for unexpected change.
  • Making reasonable adjustments to all aspects of school life e.g. curriculum materials, class routines and assessment arrangements.

Collaborative support

In partnership with families, colleagues and, where possible, the learner, find out what’s desirable and regulating, then build it into a day that is as routine or predictable as possible for your autistic learners.

Activity 10

In your Reflective Log, note down how you can find out this information as soon as possible, ideally before the learner joins your class/setting.

Here are some examples.


  • Speak to parents, carers, whoever seems to really know and understand the child. Perhaps ask them to fill out a sensory checklist.
  • Find out what supportive strategies and accommodations have been working recently.
  • Get to know the child – If they are not yet using words (social partner), you will have to rely on others' reports, then watch their reactions very carefully as you 'test' what might work. If they have a few words (language partner), or more than 100 words (conversation partner), they may still need photos, symbols, objects or at very least, written choices, to communicate.
  • Consider your whole school environment. How can you reasonably adjust the classrooms, corridors, gym hall, lunch areas, playground, toilets, etc.? For example, can you switch off noisy air-con or hand dryers or muffle bells? If not, can the child have headphones? Can we make their working space any better with partitions, less clutter, etc.? Which toilet feels easier to use? Where are they comfortable eating lunch?
  • Think through a typical day at school. Would it be helpful for them to arrive before or after others? Or to come in through a quieter door or corridor? Should they have a calming activity before joining the group? Would it be helpful for them to leave classes early to avoid rush and crush?
  • Communicate their timetable in a way they can understand. Do they need symbols, photos?
  • Teach them to use their individual safe space where they can choose to go to without asking and can stay as long as they feel they need to.

How to use a safe space

Simply creating the space is not enough. Learners need to be taught how and when to go to the safe space in a calm moment, and they need to learn to trust that adults will use it in a consistent way.

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Other adjustments that can help

  • Own choice of clothing, which still looks 'uniform'.
  • A locker or safe place for things that help them calm down; pocket sized items that help concentration or are calming, sometimes called 'fidget objects'.
  • Regular timetabled physical activity or 'movement breaks' (even when they seem calm – it’s 'fuel for their tank!').
  • Regulation 'menu' (photos, symbols or a written list of chosen regulating activities).
  • Visual supports for regulation such as zones of regulation materials.
  • Discuss helping the child’s peers understand that some people have sensory differences. It may help to teach how to support or react to unconventional behaviours like a child’s need to ‘stim’ or the likelihood of upset outbursts.

In conclusion

Support is a marathon, not a sprint. Once you have got strategies in place, keep going. Review regularly, but ideally make changes in tandem with those who know the child or young person best, and make sure you pass what you have learned on to those who support the child. It is extremely important to share this to support any transition – macro or micro.

3.6 Sensory differences

3.8 Autism and anxiety