Supporting Autistic Kids in Classrooms: Four Things Teachers Can Do Right Now

Annie Newman
6 min readJan 3, 2023


Emmy and Bee’s first day of post-Covid, in-person school

I am in a unique position: I am the mother of autistic child, and I am a substitute teacher at her elementary school. I see, first-hand, what good support can do for my Emmy* and children like her. I also see how frustrating it can be to have a child like her in a general education classroom. But this isn’t a zero-sum game. I think teachers and autistic children can be less frustrated in the classroom. And while major policy changes need to be implemented to make schools more inclusive in general, there’s no need to wring our hands in defeat while we wait…because we could be waiting a long time. As a teacher and a parent, here are my main suggestions to support autistic kids in school right now:

1. Recognizing early signs of sensory stress/overload:

I didn’t know what sensory stress even was until I had an autistic daughter. Sometimes it can be subtle, and sometimes it can be confused for defiance. I feel it is pretty easy for teachers to identify the children who are or might be autistic (or ADHD, or neurodivergent or whatever term you want to put in here.) It may be less easy to identify when they are just beginning to struggle. Many times, children who are approaching overload start to shut down: Less eye contact, not responding to questions, no longer doing their work, are all signs that this kid is tapped out. When a kid is exhibiting these behaviors, be extra kind to them. To that end:

2. Create a sensory-supportive classroom:

Some things are out of our control. Loud bells or announcements, how much sunlight does or does not enter a classroom — both my girls are in windowless classrooms this year, much to my chagrin — and HVAC noise cannot be helped. But there are some simple things that are within our control. Reducing exposure to fluorescent light (a surprisingly common trigger for sensitive children) through dimmed lights or even lights-out breaks can be helpful for the whole class. Additionally, background noise can cover other, more distracting noises. I prefer a steady pink-noise sound to music but this isn’t always optimal for each class or each child. Experiment with what works with each group. You can also encourage heads-down breaks for all the kids in your class. By placing your head between your crossed arms you eliminate a lot of extra sensory information and can re-center. By encouraging this behavior with the entire class, you not only teach sensory regulation to those who need it most, but also de-stigmatize it as well. Also, if you want to learn more about avoiding autistic meltdowns, I’ve written about it.

3. Non-demanding language styles:

It is amazing how much just changing the way we talk can affect a child’s ability to listen. Many sensitive kids — autistic, PDA, or otherwise — register instructions and demands with anxiety. Even something as simple as changing from singular to plural pronouns can make the classroom feel like a more collaborative and supportive environment. For example, “You all need to be quiet” can be replaced with “We are getting really loud in here! Let’s all bring the level down, together.” or “After you do your math worksheet put it in your math binder” to “We are going to do our math worksheets now, and when we are done, it goes in the math binder.”

Additionally, changing from commands to statements can also make a classroom less oppositional. Some examples:

“Read pages five and six and then do the worksheet.” to “The reading for today is page five and six. This reading will help with the worksheet that is being passed out now.”

“Get out your language arts folders” to “Our next subject is language arts. Raise your hand if you cannot find the folder labeled ‘language arts.’”

In younger grades, songs help a lot. There is one kindergarten teacher who has a line-up song and I have never heard him once tell the kids “Get in line and stop talking,” instead, he sings the first line of the song to them, they sing it back, and each line gets them one step closer to getting ready for the hallway. All in all it takes about 30 seconds and is so much more effective than yelling and fussing.

4. Scaffolding:

This can be done with teachers or classmates, depending upon the child’s needs. Many times, my most distracted kids just need a little help with executive function. They want to do a good job on the worksheet, they just have a hard time knowing where to start. To neurotypical adults, it may seem obvious to start at number one, do all the problems, and flip the page to the second part, but not necessarily so to the child. This scaffolding can be accomplished in two important ways:

First, in scaffolded instructions. These should be clear, direct, and simple. For example, what I tell all my art classes when they are drawing. “First, we draw in pencil. Then, we trace in sharpie. Last, we color in.” Then I have them repeat it back to me. It gives clear steps. Having the class repeat it back helps ensure everyone is on the same page. Second, if they lose track of where they are or what they are supposed to be doing, they can reference these instructions themselves or with a gentle prompt. If a kid starts out using a green colored pencil instead of a regular lead one, I’ll come up and say, “Let’s go over the instructions again because I think you may have gotten them out of order.” Nine times out of ten, they say them with me then course correct on their own.

Second, partnerships are great. I had a great moment subbing for a Reading Paraprofessional recently, where I was sitting with a kid who was having trouble focusing. I brought his attention to the cut and sort worksheet. “Looks like everyone is cutting out the animals who hibernate and migrate, what do you think the first step is?” He answered correctly then followed through with the cutting.

“Now that they’re all cut out, what do you want to do?” I asked him. At first he wanted me to tell him which animals went where and that he would glue them, but that would have defeated the point of the exercise. I feigned ignorance.

“I’ve never done this lesson before! I’m not even sure what these words mean! Can you think of another job for me?” I asked. He paused for a second, then said he would tell me which animal hibernated or migrated so I could write an “H” or an “M” on each picture, and then he would know where to glue them.

Was it an extra, “unnecessary” step? You could say that. But did it give him the confidence and focus to complete the worksheet and not create problems during the activity? Yes, absolutely, so I was happy to indulge in it.

Don’t discount peer partnerships, either. I am a huge fan of partner work, especially mixed-level partner work, for exactly this sort of skill building and transference. The “higher-skilled” student practices patience and lesson reinforcement (a great way to retain learned information is by teaching it to others) while the “lower-skilled” student gets peer modeling (also a very effective learning tool) of executive function and collaboration.

The past two points in particular just touch upon communication and scaffolding skills. If you are interested in learning more, I cannot recommend highly enough Linda K. Murphy’s two books The Declarative Language Handbook** and The Coregulation Handbook.**

5. BONUS: Partner with Parents to Advocate for more 1:1 support:

This is not so much a “right now” fix, but more of a long-term one. Many kids I see in school are perfectly capable of the academic work, but they lack the social-emotional support to see it through independently. The more aides and paraprofessionals we can get in, the better. And one way to do this is to request it in an IEP. At your next parent-teacher conference, perhaps bring it up with the parents. If approved, it will definitely benefit the kid in question, but it is also a long-term, strategic move. Can you imagine if every teacher in every elementary classroom was requesting more support for their IEP kids at the same time that the parents were? It would be a national movement. I truly believe it could be a revolutionary step in the way our kids learn. There will be pushback: more aids and paras mean more money. But if enough teachers and parents were behind this, it would be something that lawmakers and money holders couldn’t ignore.

*names have been changed **affiliate links, thanks for helping a mama out!

Annie Newman is a substitute teacher, mom, and aspiring children’s book author raising two children: one neurotypical and one autistic. You can also follow her day-to-day learning on Instagram and on Tiktok.



Annie Newman

Two kids, one NT and one Autistic. On a learning and therapy journey that is constantly evolving.