The reality of autistic children in school

Between our wishes and reality, there is a whole world! The autistic child has uncommon challenges in school. Here is an explanation from Nathalie Fecteau.

We all want children with pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) to be integrated in normal classes. For some of them, the integration goes rather well but not for all. Before being integrated in a group, the autistic person must understand themselves and the group in which they will be integrated.

The neurotypical child

  • The reality of the autistic person is different from that of a neurotypical person. When the neurotypical child starts schools, they can tell their teacher that they need to go to the bathroom, that they are thirsty, hungry… All their basic needs can be communicated and are understood.
  • They understand their environment because their parents verbally explained it to them and gave them examples. If they do not understand something, they will ask an adult or a friend to explain.
  • They understand the course of a day quite well. They are comfortable following instructions.
  • They process their emotions well and can relate what is said to what has to be done.
  • They understand that there are rules to follow in class, in school and in the playground. They know that they can shout in the schoolyard but must be quiet in the halls and they know that in class, they can talk, whisper or be quiet depending on the context.
  • They know how to socialize and make friends. The neurotypical child learns these concepts through social mimicking and generalization, without realizing it fully.

The child with ASD

It is a totally different reality for most children with ASD. Because they constantly function with information learned by heart and poorly classified, it generates an anxiety that they cannot always manage and that leads to inadequate behaviours often interpreted as rigidity or, worst even, opposition. Before the child manages to control themself, we must first work with the reasons behind their behaviours.

  • At first we must help the autistic child understand what goes on in their body, decrypt it and respond adequately.
  • Afterwards, we must help them understand their environment, so they can locate themselves in a specific space, by giving them tools and by placing visual landmarks. Disturbing elements such as noise, movement, lighting, lack of space, excessive verbalization, etc. have a considerable impact on their capacity to learn.
  • We must teach them the significance of anything that can happen in school such as: the bell, interphone, fire alarm…
  • We must also explain the changes that they could perceive like their teacher's new glasses, new haircut or even their new perfume. The multiple changes that can occur like changing teachers, places, decoration, transitions, a new stain on the floor, must be explained because they cannot understand this on their own and it is an important anxiety factor.

It is important for people around them to understand the functioning of autistic children. It is easy to miss a message they send, to react improperly and to cause a lot of damage, even with the best of intentions.

Ordinary classes, even if healthy for some ASD children, often cause intolerable stress for those who are not ready, even when supported. The anxiety experienced by these children causes a blockage on their scheme of thought and becomes an important factor of regression. The child is constantly distressed.

Original publication in 2014

Nathalie Fecteau
Special education teacher

Nathalie Fecteau is a special education teacher and speech technician who works with children of all ages and their families. She has many years of experience in training and professional practice and she is certified SACCADE. She is specialized in autism spectrum disorders (autism, Asperger’s syndrome and unspecified PDD), speech and language disorders, learning disabilities and developmental delay. Her approach, combining fun and learning, is adapted to the specific needs of each child. Nathalie is also working with the media on various topics concerning children and their families. In addition to writing for, she frequently publishes articles on parenting in the magazine La Culbute and its website Dimension éducative, which she cofounded. Dimension éducative provides family, academic, developmental and professional coaching. You can contact her by email at

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