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Supporting Students on the Spectrum

My name is Joanne O’ Connor, I am a teacher, author and trainee play therapist. This is my 19th year in the classroom, (can’t quite believe it!) I’m lucky enough to have worked in Dubai, Australia and Ireland, in a range of different specialist settings. 9 years ago, I was tasked with setting up an Autism Specific class attached to a mainstream Secondary School. We have grown to 4 classes with 24 students and 13 Special Needs Assistants. 2 years ago, the school moved into a brand-new building complete with 2 sensory rooms and a life-skills room, to complement our fantastic classrooms. Last year we converted a smaller classroom into a hair salon and now run salon skills as part of the Leaving Cert Applied Programme. F

I have an addiction to study which keeps my brain happy, but my bank account dry 😊 In 2013 I completed a Post Graduate Certificate in Autism , and at present I’m studying to be a Play Therapist, which is the last time I’ll go back to University, I swear!

I’m mum to my daughter Zoe (13), also on the Autism spectrum, and a very cranky cat called Barbara. In my spare time I love to listen to crime podcasts (all new suggestions welcome 😊). In 2019 I published my first book, ‘High School Hacks, A No-Nonsense guide to High School, for kids on the Autism Spectrum’.

During our first lockdown I March,I surveyed the staff in my school, and discovered that many of the staff felt under- qualified to teach our students on the spectrum, given the level of training that they’d had at University. As my daughter was about to start secondary school, I wanted her teachers to be able to best teach her in the way that she learns, and this prompted me to put together a website with free and low- cost training for teachers, and thus was born. I got together with a local early intervention school called ‘ The Lighthouse Centre’ and together we came up with three online courses, ‘Intro to Autism’,’ Supporting Students on the Spectrum in a Mainstream Environment’, and ‘Managing Transitions’. I’ve since added ‘Lego-Therapy Training’. You’ll also find me on Instagram, where I share about all things Autism, from how to write an IEP (Individual Education Plan), to tips to support positive behaviour, and all the goings-on of an Autism Classroom. You can also follow me on Instagram at @autism_education_for_teachers

Here are my top 3 tips for Supporting Students on the Spectrum, in your Classroom.

Tip#1- Use Visuals- A picture is worth a thousand words as they say, and sometimes talking is a barrier to communication. Generally speaking, our ASC students are more visual learners. Use visual supports where possible;

  • Timetables

  • Checklists

  • Graphic Organisers

  • Photos

  • Drawings etc

This helps our students with executive function difficulties they might have.

A checklist of what the essay needs to contain. Show students how to structure their answer, model, model, model, give examples. Remind students to look at their checklist for whatever the topic you’re covering is.

Colour-code books for each subject, correspond with colour-coded timetables etc. All these little supports add up to be a big help to our students.

Tip#2 – Communicate Effectively. A no-brainer, right? Sometimes our idea of effective communication is not actually very effective! Take giving verbal instructions for example, sometimes talking is too much, and our students can’t listen and process the information at the same time. What can we do?

  • Keep instructions short and sweet

  • Increase wait time (this one can be challenging for teachers!)

  • Break down a task into smaller step-by-step instructions

  • And my old favourite above, Use visuals

Tip#3- Relationships for the win. When I started teaching, the advice I was given was, ‘Make friends with the secretary, the caretaker and the librarian, they know everything’. Still good advice! I would add, get to know your students. What are they into? Can you have a conversation on a Monday morning that isn’t about school? Can you talk about the football, The new Season of the Mandalorian or cheats for the game Among Us? Developing relationships with your students is vital for classroom management, behaviour support, you name it! A familiar or kind word from a teacher can change the course of a child’s day. In the immortal words of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben (and Winston Churchill 😊),

‘With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility’

You can find me @autism_education_for_teachers, I love the Instagram teacher community and always welcome message in the DMs. If you’d like a Free, online, self-paced course, complete with comprehensive set of notes and certificate of completion, head on over to and sign up for ‘ Intro to Autism’.

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