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How Autism Affects the Inclusive Classroom

Autism spectrum disorder, recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), is a developmental condition affecting communication, behavior, sensory processing, and social interaction. The disorder falls on a spectrum because affected individuals display a wide range of symptoms ranging from mild to severe, which can present symptoms as early as within the first two years of life.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that, to the extent possible, children with disabilities, including those with ASD, receive education alongside their peers. With this mandate, inclusive classrooms are becoming the norm.

What Are Inclusive Classrooms?

Because ASD influences the way children behave and interact with others, it can present classroom challenges for students and teachers. In the past, schools addressed this by separating students with disabilities from the larger student body into their own classrooms.

However, after IDEA went into effect in 1975, schools began to include students with disabilities into mainstream or general education classes. These “inclusive classrooms” are thought to benefit both students with disabilities and those without. Students with disabilities receive more instructional time, have fewer school absences, and achieve better post-secondary outcomes. Neurotypical students benefit as well by having opportunities to form and build relationships with their peers, regardless of disability status. Today, more than 60% of students with disabilities spend 80% or more of their school time in regular classrooms, according to an Education Next article on the inclusion model in special education.

Teachers of Inclusive Classrooms

But all students need to feel safe in order to learn. And teachers in these classrooms must be keenly aware of the academic, social and emotional needs of students on the autism spectrum. For example, students on the spectrum usually process information differently, requiring teachers of inclusive classes to tailor instruction and procedures to make sure all students can benefit from them.

One of the first steps toward creating a healthy learning environment is to get to know the needs of each student. Family members, former and special education teachers and school administrators are members of each student’s educational team. Vital information about effective strategies for the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of each student with autism comes from all members of the team.

Physical modifications to classrooms may include:

  • Changing the lighting by adding more natural light, lowering light levels or giving students permission to wear sunglasses.
  • Reducing ambient and loud noises with soft goods, like throw rugs and pillows, providing ear plugs or noise-reducing headphones, placing tennis balls on the legs of chairs to reduce scraping sounds, and playing soothing music either in the classroom or privately with a personal listening device.
  • Providing different types of seating, like rocking chairs, bean bags or seat cushions.

Socially, teachers often need to adjust aspects of classroom management.

  • Students on the spectrum work well with predictable classroom routines.
  • Some students need time to distance themselves from the larger group to “reset” before rejoining an activity.
  • They may engage in coping behaviors that are soothing to them, such as scribbling or flapping their hands. Teachers who recognize and allow such behaviors create a safe space for students to express themselves.
  • In some cases, behavioral modifications may include the whole class: If the sound of applause is overwhelming for certain students, a teacher might direct the class to express its appreciation in a quieter way, like wiggling their fingers.

Taking into account the individual needs and sensitivities of students with autism ensures that all students are able to participate to the best of their abilities.

General Education Students in Inclusive classrooms

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act makes little mention of how the behavior of a student with autism could affect fellow classmates. Likewise, special education case law does not offer much clarity on whether that can or should be a consideration when placing a student with disabilities in an inclusive classroom or not.

Despite concerns that inclusive classrooms could interfere with learning for non-disabled students, the limited research that exists on the subject is not conclusive. Proponents of inclusive classrooms argue that non-disabled students benefit from interaction with their peers who have disabilities like autism. Studies have shown that neurotypical students gain social skills, friendships, and better acceptance and understanding of students with disabilities when they share classrooms. But it will require further research to determine if the benefits to students outweigh potential downsides.

Learn more about Lamar University’s online M.Ed. in Special Education program.


National Institute of Mental Health: Autism Spectrum Disorder

ASCD: Inclusive Classrooms: Looking at Special Education Today

The Atlantic: How Teacher Training Hinders Special-Needs Students

Reading Rockets: Getting Comfortable in the Inclusive Classroom: Supporting Students With Autism

Organization for Autism Research: Inclusion in the Classroom

ASCD: What Are Outcomes for Nondisabled Students?

Education: Has Inclusion Gone Too Far?


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