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May 31, 2024

Mental Health Supports for Students with Autism

What an *autistic student might experience in the classroom can be exceptionally different from what other students experience. Classrooms filled with bright lights, buzzing conversations, and unpredictable changes are the reality for many autistic students. While autism manifests differently in each person, navigating a world that feels different and overwhelming can lead to mental health challenges, particularly anxiety and depression. The research** overwhelmingly confirms that autistic individuals have significantly increased risks of mental health challenges.

While early diagnosis and intervention are key to supporting students with autism, it’s also important to understand reasons why autistic students can develop anxiety, depression, or other issues that affect their mental health. Some of the ways autism manifests can be seen in the following examples:

  • Challenges in decoding social interactions, humor, and cues can feel isolating and lonely. 
  • Feeling overstimulated with bright lights, loud noises, and crowded spaces. This overstimulation can trigger anxiety and make focusing in school difficult.
  • Structure and routines provide a sense of security. Unanticipated changes can cause anxiety, whether it’s a fire drill, new seating arrangements, or even a substitute teacher.

The good news is there’s so much we can do to empower these bright students and support their mental well-being, many of which you are likely already doing! Take a look:

  • Sensory spaces: Create designated quiet spaces with calming tools like noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys, or weighted blankets.
  • Predictability: Post visual schedules, communicating about transitions, and provide reminders if there are any changes to the schedule or routine.
  • Communication: Maintain open communication with students, families, and mental health professionals and develop an individual support system for each student.
  • Celebrate Differences: Foster a classroom environment that celebrates neurodiversity and mental health awareness. Teach about autism and encourage students to learn more!

Every autistic student is unique, with their own strengths and needs. Through curiosity, understanding, and implementation of supportive strategies, we can create a safe and supportive environment where autistic students can thrive, both academically and emotionally.

If you would like to learn more about autism and related behavior challenges, check out course 5311: Behavior Support for Students on the Autism Spectrum for additional strategies, information, and more!

*This blog uses both “person-first” and “identity-first” language, as the field is currently divided on preferences. You can read more about it in “Writing Respectfully: Person-First and Identity-First Language,” from Shannon Wooldridge, National Institutes of Health, and “Person-First Vs. Identity-First Language for Discussing Disabilities,” by Sarah Scott, Very Well Family.

** Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Autism Speaks, and the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.


About the Author

Betsy Butler (she/her) is a Professional Learning Specialist at Teaching Channel. She holds a B.A. in English, a Master’s in Education, and has been teaching since 1992. Betsy uses her three decades of teaching experience to write and revise our courses while selecting the perfect accompanying texts. Her specialty areas include ELA, special education topics, behavior management, and mental health.

Fun Fact: Betsy’s daily conquest is solving the New York Times crossword puzzle!

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