Working with Autistic Children in a Regular Classroom


I noticed in my regular classroom years ago that all students—atypical and neurotypical—appreciated predictability. But for autistic children, predictable routines were very important. Carefully prepared schedules in which parts of each lesson were repeated every day in a similar manner seemed to result in a calm reaction on the part of autistic children. Content presented in my lessons was based on knowledge delivered a day or two before. Any changes in the daily schedule were discussed with the students ahead of time with visual reminders on the chalkboard. Routines complemented the academic building blocks.

Encouraging autistic children to make eye contact was not a good idea. Looking into somebody’s eyes can overwhelm an autistic person’s neurological system, causing anxiety, inability to concentrate, or a meltdown—especially if they are repeatedly asked to look us in the eye during a stressful moment. Amythest Schaber, a Canadian autistic activist from British Columbia, stated in her video series “Ask an Autistic #21” that making eye contact could be not only painful, unnatural and difficult for autistic people, but can also limit their hearing and understanding abilities.

Meltdowns are difficult for autistic children and everybody around witnessing them. They require a very careful response, skillfully designed by the teacher for individual students. Of course, the most important thing is to know the triggers for a meltdown and to find the best way to avoid them. The mistake that some teachers or parents make is to confuse a meltdown with a temper tantrum.

I learned through my experience working with autistic children that we shouldn’t say “no” to a request from an autistic child. “No” heard by a neurotypical person means “no” for now. An autistic individual thinks that the abrupt “no” without any explanation means “no” forever. Orion Kelly who is autistic and has an autistic son, shares the same opinion. He has a YouTube channel called “That Autistic Guy.” In his videos, the Australian advocate for autistic communities explains in detail how to avoid unnecessary triggers. Instead of saying “no” to my autistic students’ requests, as often as it was possible, my answer started from “yes” or “this is a very good idea.” After agreeing initially, I was frequently adding, “We can do it right after we finish what needs to be done now.” This usually puts an autistic child at ease and preempted a possible meltdown.

Currently, we can hear autistic female voices coming from young women who were diagnosed when they were teenagers or much later in their thirties and forties. Several non-fiction books have been published recently on the topic of women going through life and not knowing that their depression, social anxiety, suicidal thoughts, learning difficulties, and inability to form safe, respectful relationships originated not necessarily from mental illness, but from undiagnosed autism.

Julie Dachez, in her biographical graphic novel titled Invisible Differences, helped me understand a female perspective on social anxiety due to an almost unnoticeable autism in girls and women. A few times during my more than twenty years of teaching, I observed girls who were exhibiting high anxiety, but they succeeded in various fields of performing arts.

One of my former female students spent two days calling a TV station because she wanted to be a part of a program addressed to children her age. At the age of seven, she talked to the producer, her mother was asked to call back the TV station, and soon after we were watching my student on TV. Her anxiety didn’t disappear after this success, but she learned that she can achieve her dreams, which I found very helpful for her developing self-esteem.

Another very sensitive female student became an actress in a show for young children. She had the ability to transform in front of the camera into the most happy-go-lucky, sweet, and carefree character.

I can’t say with certainty that any of my anxious female students were autistic. However, I would now pay much more attention to their behaviour than I did years ago. I would make sure that they receive appropriate support if they were showing signs of anxiety due to possible autism.

To finish up my reflection on what I would change today while planning my inclusive program for the primary grade atypical and neurotypical students, I have to mention stimming (repetitive or unusual body movement or noises) and masking (hiding stimming behaviour). I am quite certain that self-regulation through repetitive movements and sounds called stimming was often misunderstood by neurotypical parents, teachers, and professionals.

I understood at the time that neurodivergent students, such as autistic, hyperactive, obsessive-compulsive, or sometimes dyslexic, had difficulties sitting still, and I tried to accommodate them in my classroom. Rubber balls, finger puppets, spinners, and many other fidget toys were available to soothe their anxiety. However, I think that it was not enough. Stimming, such as flapping hands or clearing the throat, is normal for an autistic person and necessary to regulate his or her anxiety. Masking is usually more hurtful than helpful. Although it’s much easier to deal with children who have figured out how to hide their needs and autistic behaviours (masking), the cost of pretending in order to fit in is too high. Autistic children could be at risk of being depressed later in life. Accepting behavioural differences in our regular classrooms could help autistic children feel appreciated for who they are.

Amythest Schaber – YouTube video series “Ask an Autistic”

Orion Kelly – YouTube channel “That Autistic Guy”

J. Dachez, Invisible Differences, ONI-LION Publishing Group, LLC, Portland, First Edition: August 2020.


Anna Nike Leskowsky
Anna Nike Leskowsky is a retired elementary school teacher who lives in Toronto. She always welcomed autistic students in her regular classroom. She contributed articles and essays on various topics to the Toronto Star, college textbooks, the Canadian Immigrant Magazine, and the Canadian Art Therapy Association Magazine “Envisage.”

This article is featured in the Fall 2022 issue of Canadian Teacher Magazine.

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