How to use modelling to engage pupils with autism

  • How to use modelling to engage pupils with autism

Adele Devine explains how modelling can play a crucial role in engaging pupils with autism…

Have you ever tried getting a pop-up tent to go back into its little bag? Imagine that’s your task – as you wrestle with this enormous tent, you wonder how on earth it’s possible. The instructions are unfortunately only printed in Chinese, with no pictures, so you look around in desperation and luckily see someone else with the same type of tent about to tackle the same task.

You watch what they do, observing how they twist the tent into a circle before simply popping it into the bag, and suddenly you feel up to the challenge. You will try that confident ‘twist it into circles’ technique. If they can do it, you can do it!

Often, when we see someone else complete the steps that a task requires it can seem less daunting and more achievable – in essence, showing can be far more effective than telling. This is especially true when it comes to teaching pupils on the autism spectrum – so here are ten simple ways to incorporate that thinking within your practice…

1. Surprise me!

Gina Davies, creator of the Attention Autism approach (see says that we should ask ourselves, ‘Is my activity absolutely irresistible?’. According to her, if we want to get our students’ attention and sustain it, we must ‘Offer an irresistible invitation to learn.’

If staff show how excited they are, and if support staff can model that sense of wonder, then the students will want in as well.

2. Staff modelling

Instead of helping students complete the steps of a task they’ve been set, staff should set about completing an identical task of their own. As they complete each step, the students can look and see what they need to do, reducing their dependence on prompts and improving their self esteem.

The students will learn to first look and see what others are doing before asking for help, thus promoting their independence. Think back to that pop-up tent…

3. Peer modelling

Point out those students who are doing what you expect. If Ginny is squiggling under the table, don’t react to her but instead praise Oliver for his great sitting. Ginny may have been getting bored and wanted to provoke a reaction, but by praising Oliver you’ve shown Ginny how she can get a reaction that’s good. You’ve also given Oliver the praise and attention he deserves (and may not always get).

4. Video modelling

A video showing how to complete the steps of a task can enable students who don’t take in verbal instructions well to complete a task independently. Many of your students will be used to watching their favourite ‘YouTubers’ play through video games; in a similar way, they will tune in to ‘walkthrough’ learning.

5. Mistake making

Show that it’s OK to make mistakes. Spell something wrong, forget something, show that it’s OK. Don’t be afraid to reveal your human side. If you were once no good at handwriting or had trouble learning to tell the time, let them know.

Hearing you explain how you overcame the things you found hard could give a child the confidence to focus on their ‘can dos’ and believe in themselves.

6. Rewards

Take care when using whole school visual reward systems. Imagine how demoralising it would be if each day everyone could see your name at the bottom of the achievement tower. What would that do to your self esteem, self image and expectations? Would it inspire or dishearten you? Students don’t necessarily work harder or behave better because of such displays, so replace those ‘up and down’ reward displays with a wall of ‘Wows!’ and instead show them how happy they make you.

7. Token boards

Token boards can work as a strategy when a student isn’t staying on task, but they’re most effective when it’s clear what each token is for. They can be split into time sections, or the token itself can display an image of the expectation, such as ‘sitting’ followed by ‘listening’ and ‘writing’. When a student is anxious, they won’t be able to process lots of language. Using words can, if anything, be akin to fanning the flames, so keep your language minimal – clear visuals will be more effective.

8. Dry wipe boards

For some of your autistic students lessons may seem very long. Try outlining the structure of the lesson on a dry wipe board and crossing things off as you go to show how the lesson is broken down into sections. We started doing this in our Attention Autism sessions as suggested by Gina Davies, and were soon using it in most of our lessons.

9. Traffic light supports

Traffic light systems are a great way for students to indicate when they need help. In some schools students each have three pages in bright traffic light colours; the teacher can then ask students if they’re finding a task too easy (green), about right (amber) or too hard (red), giving the teacher immediate feedback when pitching their lesson, while enabling students to communicate openly without the embarrassment or fear of having to put their hand up. Assessment without a tickbox in sight!

10. Positive pictures

Displays can be used to showcase brilliant work and link the learning space with different topics, but we don’t want to create too much visual clutter. That said, we do want learning spaces that are uplifting and inspirational. Have you noticed how many people now display framed inspirational quotes in their homes? Try displaying an inspirational quote on your classroom wall, selecting it with care. Those words will become memories for your students, and may well stay with them for life.

Adele Devine is a special needs teacher and author; her book Flying Starts for Unique Children is available now from Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Pie Corbett