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Specialist Teacher advice for neuro-affirmative practice

I’ve worked in education for fifteen years now; as a class teacher, a reading recovery teacher, a SENCo and now a specialist teacher.  Over the years, education and society have undergone huge changes in terms of their understanding around neurodivergence.  It’s not always easy to keep up and as a parent of two neurodivergent children, and as an educational professional, I still feel I’m learning more every day and I’m sure I will continue to do so.  Looking back to my earlier days in teaching and as a SENCo there are some things I wish I would have known and many things I wish I would have done differently to support the neurodivergent pupils I worked with and their families.  We know that more needs to be done in society as a whole to fully embrace the strengths of the neurodivergent population and I can certainly say I’m amazed by my neurodivergent children every day and I want to see an educational system that allows them and their peers to flourish and thrive.  To achieve that we need those of us who are going into schools and providing advice to be offering the support and guidance that enables this to happen: that embraces difference and encourages autistic identity; that is not scared to try doing things differently; and that we can support our schools to do just that. 

There are two aspects, in my opinion, that schools need to think about to support their autistic pupils.  First, is the environment and everyone within it, thinking about the sensory environment, the routines, the demands and the pupils and staff. Second, they need to be supporting their individual autistic pupils, enabling them to communicate, to self-advocate so they are able to say what they need and to develop strategies that they can use when the world gets difficult. 

If you take my first point, historically there has been the thought process that we need to put strategies in place to make the autistic pupil develop skills that are more neurotypical, for example, advising social communication groups based on a neurotypical communication style. This is done with the belief that we need to make our autistic pupils more resilient through exposure. Research, and more importantly, the autistic voice, now tells us that this approach can cause long term implications for our pupils. What needs to be happening instead is that we are advising schools on how to make sure everyone’s communication style is accepted and valued; that relationships are built in different ways and mutually beneficial relationships come from mutual understanding.  The key to this is peer and staff awareness.  To enable the environment to be right for the autistic pupil, we need to ensure that they are understood and valued by the staff that work with them and the peers that work alongside them. 

My second point is about building a toolkit.  We all have one.  It might be that when you feel overloaded you go on a walk, you call a friend or you do an activity or hobby that you enjoy.  All pupils need that toolkit and pupils on the autism spectrum even more so and it’s the role of everyone working together to support them to develop that.  It’s about recognising how they are feeling, being able to communicate that in a way that is right for them and understood by others and then having strategies to support them with that feeling. 

I think when these elements are put together by everyone around that pupil and with the pupil themselves then we can support a safe environment in which they can learn and feel a sense of belonging. 

I’ve produced some tips that I think are helpful when advising schools on supporting their pupils, it’s not an exhaustive list and I’m not pretending to be an absolute source of knowledge that always gets it right, but I am someone who wants to and I think that’s what it is all about.

  • Listen – listen to parents and listen to pupils, working together means open communication and that includes an ability and willingness to listen

  • DIRM – Does It Really Matter?  What matters to that autistic pupil and is important for them and what is just important because it’s the way it’s normally done

  • Teach with the outcome in mind, the journey the autistic pupil takes you on is usually much more exciting than one you could have planned for

  • Involve autistic individuals in sensory audits of the environment – if you don’t, you will miss things

  • Teach strategies about recognising anxiety and managing it, provide opportunities throughout the school day to empty their stress bucket

  • Make reasonable adjustments so that each pupil has equal access to learning in an environment they feel safe, secure and valued

  • Never make assumptions. Take the time to stop, observe and listen

I’m sure more things will be added to the list as I continue in my career and we hear more from autistic advocates and autistic pupils who share their journey and learning with us but I will end on the words of my child … ‘it’s not hard – just do what I need to be happy’. 


Eve Godwin is the Lead for Autistic Spectrum for the Specialist Teaching Service for Warwickshire. She became passionate about supporting autistic pupils when her eldest daughter was diagnosed autistic at age 9 after several years of struggling at school.