The environment (which includes physical, social and routines) can place a great deal of demands on autistic learners. With understanding and thought around individual responses to the environment, suitable changes can be made which will enable a child or young person to thrive. Each of these areas is considered in more detail below. 

Physical environment (click here)

The physical environment consists of the sounds, smells, lighting, layout and visual aesthetic of a space and can all have an impact. It is important that reasonable adjustments are made to the classroom environment to reduce as many barriers to learning as possible. As with any young person, barriers will differ depending on the individual. Any adaptations can often benefit all young people in the classroom not just the autistic learner.  

The structure and ethos of the classroom are important tools for helping autistic learners understand expectations and access the curriculum. All learning environments should provide a positive influence and clear structure for autistic learners, this encourages independence and helps reduce anxiety.  
A well organised, calm, supportive classroom with clear structure and routines can help make the environment a more predictable and accessible place, reducing distraction and confusion. Where possible practitioners should create physical structure, either using furniture or even tape or a mark on the floor. Making the function and any accompanying rules of each area as clear as possible. They should consider carefully the seating arrangements in the classroom. Autistic learners may benefit from access to a quieter, distraction free area in the class, this does not need to be for the sole or permanent use of autistic learners but could be an area where any pupil can go to focus on a piece of work. The movement of other pupils as well as staff within the layout of the class is another aspect to consider particularly where several staff members may work within the room.  
Consideration of visuals within the classroom space is important. Busy displays and posters can be very distracting to an autistic learner. As a general rule practitioners should aim for a clutter-free environment. A well-organised classroom with stored items, equipment and books in clearly labelled cupboard/ areas will promote independence as well as reducing distraction. The potential for using visual supports is vast, but they should only be used if appropriate and effective and should be regularly reviewed. 

Social environment (click here)

The social environment is concerned with the attitudes, expectations and actions of those within the class and how these can affect autistic learners, either positively or negatively.  
Practitioners should aim to develop a classroom culture where autistic learners feel valued and secure, individual differences are respected, and diversity is highlighted and celebrated. These children and young people learn best when they can focus on a task and are not anxious or worried. Practitioners should reduce stress by considering each learner’s competence. When children and young people have difficulty with retaining information, understanding instructions or the complexities of language used, practitioners should differentiate their own language and instructions, as a routine part of their practice e.g. say less, slow down your rate of speech, stress key words and use visuals to support understanding. Using a variety of teaching styles and allowing additional thinking/ processing time can be valuable. 

Routines (click here)

Routines are events that happen in the same way with regularity. The start, middle and end of the routine becomes predictable through repetition.  
Daily routines help autistic learners to know and anticipate what comes next and social routines can enhance enjoyment of interactions with others. Autistic learners tend to benefit from a degree of order and consistency in their lives. It may be useful to consider routines in terms of how the day/week is structured and how lessons are delivered.   
Autistic learners may need developmentally appropriate visual support to help them recognise predictable routines and additional visual supports to help them understand changes to these routines. Having a consistent format for the start, middle and end of each lesson can be beneficial. Preparing learners for change, for example giving clear notification (preferably communicated visually) if another member of staff will be covering the class, can be very beneficial. Simple approaches such as having consistent seating plans can help reduce the risk of anxiety or distraction and setting regular days for giving out and collecting homework can help learners develop good habits for completing it. 

Practitioners should consider using a consistent format to lesson delivery which can help autistic learners know what to expect, so that they can be prepared. Stating the learning intentions at the start of the lesson, ensuring that these are understood and referring to them regularly may help learners at conversation partner stage to focus. Reviewing and summarising learning outcomes may help these autistic learners understand if their personal learning targets have been achieved.  

Practitioners should encourage autistic learners to see themselves as respected and useful members of the class, this can be promoted by regularly assigning positive roles e.g. group leader or peer supporter. This can help reduce negative views that some autistic learners may have of themselves. 

Further information and resources

The CIRCLE Framework provides a variety of ways to assess and modify the learning environment as part of universal support. Click here to access CIRCLE tools. 

This sensory audit tool from the Autism Education Trust supports practitioners and schools to consider the suitability of the sensory environment for autistic learners:Sensory Audit for Schools and Classrooms (education.gov.scot)