For autistic children, unstructured time at school can be particularly challenging. With no specific task or activity to focus on, some may feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable with the lack of direction or structure. Fortunately, there are ways that teachers and SENCOs can support autistic children during these times to ensure they feel safe and comfortable in their environment. Let’s look at three tips for helping autistic children navigate unstructured time at school.
Provide structure and routine
Autistic children often thrive when given structure and routine. So, it is important to provide them with a framework for how their unstructured time will be spent—even if it’s just a brief outline of the activities they will engage in. This way, they are aware of what is expected of them without feeling overwhelmed by the lack of direction or purpose. It also helps to provide visual cues such as timetables, posters, pictures or reports so that autistic children have something tangible to refer to when things become overwhelming or confusing.
Encourage social interaction
It is important to encourage social interaction between autistic children and their peers during unstructured time. Encourage activities that involve working together as a group such as board games, puzzles or outdoor playtime. If the child has difficulty communicating with others verbally, then use visuals such as flash cards or symbols; this will help them understand better what is being said and make it easier for them to join in conversations with their peers. It is also helpful to give clear instructions on how the activity should be done step-by-step so that everyone understands what is expected from them. Many schools use a buddy system or identify opportunities for prefects and school councillors to support activities and opportunities like this.
Offer sensory stations
Sensory stations can be incredibly helpful for autistic children who struggle with sensory overload during unstructured time in primary school. A sensory station provides an area where a child can go when feeling overwhelmed by the noise, chaos and confusion in the classroom environment; it should include items such as fidget toys, calming music, scented pillows calm lighting or weighted blankets which can all help reduce levels of stress or anxiety associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Additionally, providing a quiet corner where an autistic child can take some time out from socialising with others can also be beneficial as it gives them a space where they can feel relaxed and decompress, away from any potential triggers which could cause sensory overload.
Unstructured time at school can be particularly challenging for autistic children due to lack of structure and direction. However, there are many ways teachers and SENCOs can support these students during this period including providing structure and routine; encouraging social interaction; offering sensory stations; providing visual cues; using flash cards/symbols; and offering a quiet corner away from potential triggers which could cause sensory overload. By implementing these strategies into your classroom environment, you will ensure that all students have an enjoyable learning experience regardless of ability level or an ASD diagnosis.
About the author
As a qualified teacher, Lucy Alexandra Spencer founded Education Boutique with the hope of impacting education globally. She now travels the world as a trusted education adviser, winning Female Entrepreneur of the Year at the Thames Valley Awards 2021 and, most notably, joining the Eteach team in 2021. She is thrilled Education Boutique has become the tutoring element within the Eteach Group and feels so lucky to be able to combine her passions for teaching and educational consultancy in this dynamic partnership.