10 great ideas for helping rather than punishing, autistic children in mainstream primary schools

I hear over and over again about autistic children being punished for “bad behaviour” whilst at school. Children that end up losing break times, sitting in the head teachers office, being shouted at, made to sit in the corridor, internal and external exclusions etc.

What is it these children have done to deserve these punishments? Usually they have reacted. Reacted to a build up of anxiety and stress throughout a pressurising day in a busy, noisy environment. Maybe they were provoked by children that find it amusing to wind them up, maybe they were frustrated that they didn’t understand the task. Maybe they didn’t understand the correct way to behave, maybe they refused to do something because they were too anxious about it. Maybe they swore at a teacher and maybe there was a reason why they did it.

Most the behaviour that autistic children are being punished for in mainstream schools isn’t them misbehaving at all, it is the outward showing of an inner turmoil caused by a buildup of stress induced by their environment and circumstance.

Most of the time the punishment given is unnecessary because the behaviour is missinterpreted. So how should the behaviour of autistic children be being dealt with in mainstream primary schools? Here are ten great ideas for managing behaviour which involve helping rather than unecessary punishment.


1. Be sure all staff are aware

For the behaviour of autistic children to be dealt with well, it is imperative that all staff involved with the child are aware of and understand their diagnosis, their needs, their triggers and their individual strategies. Supply staff and dinner time staff should not be forgotten.


2. Look at the whole picture

It’s very easy, when you have a lot of children in the class and one is suddenly being disruptive to impulsively tell a child off. Instead take a minute to look at the whole picture. Ask yourself why the child might be behaving that way. What were the circumstances leading up to the incident? How was the child when they got to school that morning? Has it been especially noisy in the classroom? Try to understand the behaviour. Understanding why will make it easier to deal with.


3. Prevention

Obviously the best way to avoid unwanted behaviour in the classroom is going to be prevention. Try reading this great article with brilliant ideas for creating an autism friendly, all inclusive classroom. Minimising stress, triggers and anxiety will also minimise children becoming overwhelmed and reacting. Being able to notice that a child is getting stressed will also help to be able to diffuse a situation before it happens.


4. Understand how to deal with the child at the time.

A lot of autistic children suffer from Sensory Processing Disorders. Shouting or raising your voice could potentially physically hurt them. The majority of autistic children, if they have reached a point where they are overwhelmed, won’t be able to understand or listen to you telling them off at the time. If anything you could easily escalate the situation into meltdown or shutdown. Normal “sanctions” won’t work and could further damage the child. Instead of dealing with the child like they are misbehaving, understand that they likely don’t understand themselves what is happening. Remove them from the situation to a quieter place, reassuring them as you go. Use a soft calm voice to talk to them. Don’t try talking to them about the situation or what they have done, that can wait, instead find them a safer quieter place and way of calming down. How will vary child to child.


5. Wait to talk to the child about the situation.

This needs to be done when the child is calm, when the child wants to talk and with a member of staff the child trusts and relates well to. It can even be done with parents or carers instead of school staff. How long it takes for a child to be able to go through the situation may vary. Don’t try to force the child to talk about the situation immediately, it could be days later. It might also be painful and emotionally draining for the child to go back through the situation so it may be a better idea to talk about generalised situations similar to the one in question so the child can look at and understand the situation without having to relive it. It can be useful for some children to address situations using social stories or other methods that the child relates well to.


6. Use positive reinforcement

Some children may not understand how to behave, even if they seem intelligent, they may not understand social norms and communication. They need a lot of patience and gentle teaching to understand how to behave in different situations. Using individually tailored, positive methods such as rewards systems and social stories may help.


7. Take it slowly.

Choose one area where you want to see improvement. Make sure that all external issues causing the behaviour are eliminated first and try to come up with alternative solutions. Could a child be getting up and jumping when they are meant to be working because they need the sensory input? Are they refusing to write because they don’t understand? Are they getting cross on busy days? Do they refuse to go to assemblies because of the noise? Is there something you can put in place to help them? Try that first. If it is a case of a child not understanding how to behave in certain situations then try to write social stories and go through them with the child when they are calm. Also send a copy home for parents to read with their child. Set achievable, realistic goals depending on the individual child. Develop a simple reward system for the child depending on their interests and level of understanding.


8. Every child is an individual.

There is no blanket way to deal with autistic children because no two children are the same. The very best way is always to get to know the individual child. If you know their triggers and you can see their stress build up, you can predict incidents before they happen and remove the child from the situation.


9.Be consistent.

If you introduce an award system, keep it in place and make sure all staff are aware of it. If you put allowances in place for a child such as not eating in the dining room or being allowed to go inside at playtime, make sure this is maintained and not suddenly changed or taken away. If you use a social story to explain something, make sure you stick to what is in the social story.


10. Involve parents and carers.

This is so important. Parents and carers have known the child the longest. They have had years of working out what works for their child. They know their child inside out and they will be more than happy to pass that information on. If you are in a situation where you aren’t sure how to progress, a quick call to mum could really help. It might not be the nicest feeling not knowing what to do with a child in your class but parents won’t see it like that, they will see a teacher that cares who is willing to listen to them and acknowledging that they, as a parent, are important in the life of their child. Believe me they would rather that call than being complained to at the end of every school day.


There are many ideas for managing the behaviour of autistic children in mainstream schools and these are just a few to start you off. If you have any other ideas or tried and tested methods of your own, we would love to hear them. Please share them with us in the comments!

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Debbie Robinson says:

    Hi great post. Do you have advice for high school? Thanks

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