Post by:

Kristine Spindler Denton and Deiera Bennett

Created on:

January 31, 2024

10 Ways to Create a Positive Learning Environment for Autistic Students

One of the most important goals of a school or district administrator is to ensure that every student feels welcomed, supported, and included at school every day. Most schools are designed and organized to align with neurotypical norms. However, autistic students and other neurodivergent students often have different needs from their neurotypical peers. When these needs go unaddressed, neurodivergent students can be left feeling excluded and unsupported. Administrators must be mindful of these needs and take action to create a positive learning environment where every student can thrive.

Here are 10 ways to create a positive learning environment for autistic students:

1. Build Sensory-Friendly Spaces

Sensory-friendly spaces are areas that appeal to the students’ senses. This can be a space within a classroom or a full classroom. Sensory-friendly spaces often incorporate items such as noise-canceling headphones, adjustable lighting, water beads, fidget gadgets, books, and other items that students enjoy interacting with. Sensory-friendly spaces are important because autistic students and students with ADHD can sometimes become overstimulated or overwhelmed in traditional classrooms. These spaces also give students the opportunity to practice their coping skills. In schools that are full of spaces that are not built for neurodivergent students, sensory-friendly spaces offer a place of peace, calm, and enjoyment.

2. Rethink Assemblies and Campus-Wide Events

Assemblies and campus-wide events might seem like the most effective way to communicate information with the entire student body. However, these events tend to be overstimulating and disruptive for autistic students. Consider offering smaller, quieter alternatives for students who are not comfortable in large groups. When large events are unavoidable, provide assistive technology such as noise-canceling headphones to reduce the stimulation and allow time for students to spend time in the sensory-friendly space afterwards. 

3. Host Campus Tours for New Students

The first day of school can be scary, especially for autistic students who are uncomfortable in new places. By hosting campus tours before school starts, students and their parents can become comfortable with the layout of the school, which can make them feel more confident when school starts. This is the perfect time to talk to parents and students about the different ways you can support them as they become acclimated to the new environment. If a student starts in the middle of the school year, consider partnering with a friendly student to lead the tour. This can help the new student feel comfortable on their first day of school because they’ll already know someone.

4. Set Inclusive School-Wide Expectations

Expectations are the foundation for a positive learning environment. While each classroom may have different expectations, the school should have specific expectations that are communicated frequently and displayed throughout the building. The expectations should focus on inclusivity, kindness, and respect. Encourage teachers to have open and honest discussions with their students about what inclusivity looks like. Not only will these discussions ensure that everyone understands the expectations, but they’ll also reiterate the school’s culture of acceptance.

5. Create a Peer Mentoring Program

Peer mentoring can foster a strong sense of belonging and community on campus. Through peer mentoring, students can strengthen their self-awareness, empathy, patience, and relationship skills. With guidance, these opportunities to grow and learn from each other create communities where everyone is valued, understood, and supported.

6. Establish Training and Awareness Programs

All staff members, whether they’re in a classroom or not, can benefit from training and awareness programs. It’s important for every adult in the building to have empathy and a desire to support students in the best way possible. By equipping educators and support staff with strategies to effectively engage and support autistic students, we can foster a more inclusive environment and empower staff members to have positive and supportive interactions with all students.

7. Offer a Variety of Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities offer autistic students the opportunity to make social connections, gain important life skills, boost self-confidence, and nurture talents. Ensure that these activities are inclusive and have procedures in place to support all students. Gaming is a popular hobby for autistic children, with approximately 41.4% of autistic youth spending free time gaming. Games like Ava by Social Cipher give students a fun and educational way to gain shared experiences while learning valuable SEL skills. 

8. Ensure IEPs Are Implemented

Autistic students should have individualized education plans (IEPs) that are tailored to their specific needs. These IEPs are not only required by law, but they’re crucial to the student’s academic success and play a large role in their school experience. Ensure these support plans are communicated and implemented consistently across all departments. This will create a reliable support system that increases the student’s feeling of safety and trust, which inevitably supports learning.

9. Get to Know Your Students

Many autistic students have extensive knowledge about their favorite subjects, and asking them to share their expertise can empower them to be themselves. When you embrace and highlight your students’ skills and expertise, you foster a sense of value and belonging for all. You also serve as an example for students that it’s important to learn about different topics and perspectives. These life skills will serve all students well as they navigate the real world and encounter people with a variety of strengths and challenges.

10. Seek Feedback

Invite students to provide feedback about their comfort levels and/or concerns with the campus environment. While teachers and administrators can assume students are comfortable, you can only gain true insights by speaking with autistic students. After seeking feedback, take time to review it and discuss it with staff members, so everyone can play a role in making changes that improve the learning environment.

Every action, procedure, and initiative taken by administrators contributes to the campus culture. By integrating inclusive practices across campus, administrators can cultivate an environment where every student feels empowered, supported, and valued as a member of the school community. Embracing neurodiversity across all aspects of campus life not only enriches the experience for those neurodiverse students, but also improves and enhances the school experience for all students, staff ,educators, and administrators.

Creating a positive learning environment for autistic students is not difficult. It just requires thought, empathy, and understanding of what can make students feel more comfortable and welcomed. When every student feels supported and a sense of belonging, the result is a learning environment where students thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.


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