5 Calming Techniques for Students with Autism That Work Within the Classroom

by | Dec 2, 2023 | Autism

Calming techniques are helpful for all students, but especially students with an autism spectrum disorder. 

Many students with autism over or underreact to sensory information. As a result, they are sensitive to their environment. They may also struggle with social skills, communication, and self-regulation, preventing them from getting needed support.

Having various calming strategies can provide a positive way for students with autism to understand their feelings, learn how to calm, and perform their best in the classroom. 

Why do teachers need calming techniques for students with autism?

Students need to feel safe and calm to learn. This is especially true for students with autism, who may have social, emotional, communication, and sensory challenges that make learning and staying calm harder. 

Calming techniques can help students with autism:

  • Feel safe
  • Increase focus
  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Avoid meltdowns or reduce the duration
  • Be more successful in the classroom 

They can use calming strategies to help calm themselves down and cope better with whatever is occurring at that moment. Teachers can also use these tools to help students process their emotions and learn from their experiences.

When to use calming techniques for students with autism in the classroom

You can use calming techniques in the classroom to:

  • Proactively keep students with autism calm and happy
  • Reduce stress, anxiety, or difficult behaviours early in the process before the situation escalates
  • Respond to a meltdown

a teacher giving a high five to a student. Teacher is trying to apply a calming technique to a student with austism

The goal is for these techniques to help prevent and reduce stress and anxiety so disruptive behaviours and meltdowns occur less often. 

In addition, these techniques can also help teach students with autism how to manage their emotions, learn more about their emotions, and what helps them calm.

Recognizing early signs that a student with autism is becoming overwhelmed

It’s easier to help anyone calm down when you can identify the early signs that a person is struggling. But students with autism often have difficulty letting you know when they are getting stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed. 

Recognizing a student’s signs or knowing their triggers improves your chance of helping them calm down before they get too overwhelmed or have a meltdown. Ideally, talk with the student (if they are verbal), their parents, and past teachers for insights and early signs that the student is experiencing sensory overload.

Often, students with autism will engage in stimming behaviours, or self-stimulating (and usually self-soothing) movements, to help calm themselves. Or they may try to block sensory experiences. 

Some examples of signs include:

  • Covering their ears
  • Covering their eyes
  • Hand or arm flapping
  • Finger-flicking
  • Spinning
  • Foot or finger-tapping
  • Rocking back and forth
  • Humming
  • Repeating words or phrases
  • Hard blinking 

How you respond matters

Teaching students with autism is rewarding but also challenging at times. As a teacher, you have to juggle multiple responsibilities and roles within the classroom. So, when a student is becoming overwhelmed or acting out, it’s understandable if you become more stressed.

However, staying calm, positive, and grounded can help the student from emotionally or behaviourally escalating further. As a result, you can assist the student in calming down and redirecting them easier.

What if a meltdown happens?

Meltdowns are not temper tantrums. 

A temper tantrum is an outburst designed to get a specific goal or outcome (e.g., attention, not having to do something, getting an item they want). It’s a learned behaviour.

However, a meltdown is involuntary and not a willful or manipulative choice. It’s a result of the student’s nervous system being overloaded, usually by problems with sensory processing and emotional regulation or a skill deficit.

The student with autism can’t control it. But you can help them during the event and the recovery period by:

  • Staying calm and ensuring the student and other students are safe
  • Being reassuring and understanding
  • Using as few words as possible during the event
  • Avoiding telling them to “stop” or “calm down”
  • Allowing them space to safely self-regulate
  • Letting them rest and relax once the event is over in a safe space

Talk with the student’s caregivers or past teachers to learn what best helps that student during and after a meltdown. These events aren’t in the student’s control and can be scary, frustrating, and embarrassing for them. 

How to use calming techniques in the classroom

Let students know the options and how the techniques work when they’re feeling calm. Pre-teaching the strategies and calming down process lets you encourage the student to use the techniques without explaining it when they’re upset and unable to think clearly.

This pre-teaching is also helpful at the start of the school year or semester. You can also use this time to evaluate what rules and processes will best fit that student — because no one strategy or method works for everyone. For example, some students may be able to request or access calming techniques independently. Other students may need you to prompt them.

5 Calming techniques to help children with autism in the classroom

Every child with autism is unique and has different needs. That’s why having a variety of calming strategies and tools available is essential. It allows you to tailor your approach and strategy to the specific student and situation.

1. Provide access to preferred sensory activities and tools

Sensory activities engage all areas of the student’s brain and can meet their sensory processing needs. For example, sensory activities they enjoy can help them calm, fidget less, facilitate self-regulation, and reduce stress and anxiety.

a teacher pointing to a globe, applying a calming technique for students with autism

These tools are handy when the student starts to feel irritated, frustrated, stressed, or restless. 

Various options are ideal so students can select the ones that best work for them.

Here are some examples of sensory activities and tools:

  • Stress balls
  • Textured objects
  • Sensory balls
  • Kaleidoscopes
  • Spinning tops
  • Calming music
  • Humming to a song
  • Wearing noise-reduction headphones or earmuffs
  • Go for a brief supervised walk
  • Sensory bins or bags (if you want to minimize mess) containing items like slime, playdough, kinetic sand, or dried beans
  • Squishy gel pad
  • Blow on a pinwheel
  • Wiggle Seats

2. Create a calming corner or chill zone

The goal of a calming corner is to have a safe space where the student with autism feels comfortable and where they can go to self-regulate. This space doesn’t have to be large or contain a lot of items to be effective.

Ideally, tailor the calming corner to the needs of the student with autism. You can consult their parents and the student to see what may best help them. It helps to have a defined space that minimizes visual or auditory inputs. For example, you can use an inexpensive screen to define the area or use a pop-up tent and keep noise-canceling headphones there.

So this space gets used correctly, discuss the zone’s rules and when to use it when students are calm. For example, determine when they can access the space, what signal they give you that they need it (visual or verbal cue), and whether they can go there on their own.

This space is also great for providing some sensory or other calm-down activities. But make sure they don’t spend too long there. The goal is for them to calm down and then return to the class.

3. Design their workspace to promote self-regulation and staying calm

Reducing triggers and known distractions in their space can help minimize stress and increase engagement.

For example, if they struggle with the pencil sharpener sounds, make sure their seat or space is located as far from that object as possible. Or some students may do best if they are near a window, while others may need to face away from it. 

Consult with the student’s parents and past teachers to see what accommodations you can make in the classroom.

4. Provide access to quiet sensory tools they like at their desk or workspace

Allowing students with autism to have a few quiet sensory tools or materials at the desk can help them self-regulate while staying in the classroom. It may also help with focus and reducing stress.

Here are some examples of quiet sensory tools you can use in their classroom space or at their desk:

  • Wiggle chair or other sensory seating
  • Calm strips or velcro strips under or on the student’s desk or attached to a laminated card so it’s portable 
  • Small fidget maze
  • A quiet fidget toy that engages the hands
  • Squeeze ball
  • Soft fringe (such as short strips of yarn) attached under the student’s desk
  • Squishy gel pad
  • Stretchy resistance band

5.  Incorporate tools and activities that involve deep pressure

Deep pressure or deep touch pressure engages the student’s tactile sensory inputs. Deep pressure includes actions like firm hugs, squeezing, compression, or swaddling. 

These can have a calming and organizing impact on students with autism, including helping with focus and decreasing stress. However, consult with an occupational therapist or parent and the student during a calm time to find out what (if any) deep-pressure activities and tools may be helpful to them.

Here are some examples of deep-pressure tools and activities:

  • Weighted blanket or toy
  • Deep pressure rolling pin
  • Rolling a therapy ball on the student’s legs, arms, or trunk
  • Being wrapped firmly in a blanket
  • Encourage self-hugs if that’s helpful to the student
  • Have student sit on the floor, bring their knees to their chest, wrap their arms around their knees, and gently squeeze

Sometimes, the techniques may not work as expected — and that’s okay

Some days will go smoothly, and some days will be challenging. And sometimes, calming strategies work wonders, and sometimes, it’s still a struggle to help the student with autism calm down.

It happens. And it’s okay.

As a teacher, all you can do is provide options and strategies to help and do your best. Plus, you don’t have to do it all alone. 

Work with the student and their parents to identify what types of calm-down techniques best help and under what circumstances. As you spend more time with the student, you may notice signs that suggest encouraging one strategy over another, or you may realize some techniques don’t work as well with that student. 

Combining calming techniques with other effective autism teaching strategies can help you successfully support a student with autism at school.