Sensory challenges in the classroom

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We have just published an exclusive article from the hugely respected Intensive Interaction practitioner and author, Phoebe Caldwell. Phoebe's article explores the sensory challenges that autistic pupils may face in the classroom, and outlines ways in which staff can reduce sensory overload.

We would love to hear your views on the article and about your experiences, both personal and professional in supporting autistic pupils with sensory needs. 

March 28, 2017 - 1:11pm

Hi, I think Caldwell's article is very helpful. Sensory needs are too often underplayed. Hopefully this will change when research pays more regard to the accounts of autistic children and adults themselves, and universities employ more autistic researchers.

I think it's essential to work closely with parents in the first instance to explore what the sensory triggers are, especially as is often the case, the child is "containing" in school but having meltdowns at home. Parents know the potential triggers and when treated as equal partners in planning for their child it works well. ABCC charts can be helpful for exploring sensory triggers. Sometimes the triggers aren't obvious but observations can help. TAs partly work this way in MITA trained schools.

Agree with the comment about displays. I think they're more effective when plain, simple and neutral colours. I see a lot of laminated work on displays. This makes the writing stand out but the glare could be distracting for autistic and dyslexic children.

I taught in a school where there was a mismatch of old, tatty furniture with different coloured tables and chairs in every classroom. The Headteacher bought new furniture, colour coordinated for year groups. Initially everyone thought it was a waste of money, but when it arrived you could see the calming effect it had on children. Another thing I've seen work well is colour co-ordinated zones within classrooms, consistent across the school.

I recommend wearing unperfumed deodrant when working with autistic children. Perfume/aftershave is a no-no. 

A really good strategy from Attention Autism about communicating is to show a toy/resource first, make wow sounds to get attention then introduce the vocabulary. We tend to introduce the visual and verbal simultaneously (TMI?) but separating them out in an exaggerated way makes such a difference to attention and engagement.

March 31, 2017 - 11:21am

Thanks for sharing Jacqui, that is really useful advice and information!

You may be aware of the National Autistic Society's TMI campaign - it's so important to understand how sensory issues can impact on autistic pupils within the classroom and beyond. 

We've just added an article giving advice to teachers on autism and diagnosis, and it highlights that many autistic children present differently at home than they do at school. As you say it's so important to speak with parents to get a true picture of what sensory triggers the child may have.

Thanks again,


April 02, 2017 - 5:11pm

Thank you for this, Chris, it's very helpful. I like the bit about what to do when a parent approaches with concerns. Also, about doing observations, some schools in the LA where I work have been MITA trained and they're starting to think about using TAs in different ways to benefit children. We'll share the article with SENCOs when we do our training on identifying and supporting 'hidden' autism. We have a few of the TMI virtual headsets and will be passing those around as well. Thanks again.

April 03, 2017 - 1:33pm

We shared this thread on Twitter and here are some of the responses we received – some useful tips!

“By keeping the classroom floor plain and grey. Walls blank except for prompts and theraputty for flapping”

“Stop having lots of pictures/info on walls, have the music room in a separate mobile unit, less chemical cleaning products, no lesson bell”

“We always seek input from the student and always have sunglasses, earplugs/headphones and tactile stimulatory items on-hand”