Teaching Religious Studies to those with Autism Spectrum Condition

by Ann Clucas

How do you teach about the abstract and symbolic to those who may be most comfortable with the concrete and literal?

How can you explain wildly varying opinions of what is true (and what truth itself means) to those who may struggle to see more than one point of view?

Each person with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) is an individual with a unique experience of life and pattern of strengths and needs. The difficulties pupils with ASC have in common are a triad of needs: social communication difficulties, language communication difficulties and narrowly focused areas of interest, often with repetitive actions. Another common feature is a heightened response to sensory experiences such as flickering light, particular smells or some textures. Some pupils may have apparently little empathy, whilst others can feel overwhelmed by their emotional responses. Many children with ASC have high levels of anxiety. So how can a teacher in a classroom enable this group of pupils to learn well in RE?

Supporting verbal communication and processing

One strategy that is nearly always useful for those with ASC is to make things visual. This supports verbal communication and enables people to process at their own pace.

  • Use religious artefacts whenever possible. They enable communication without language, especially if we can show real life examples, video clips or pictures of them in situ.
  • Transfer information to tables and diagrams. So, for example, when discussing different views on when life begins during pregnancy and how this affects people’s attitudes to abortion, you could create a flow diagram. Or a Venn diagram could be used to illustrate the beliefs and practices that Sikhs have in common with Muslims and Hindus.
  • Use a visual timetable, so that it is clear how the lesson will progress, to reassure those who will be anxious.

Supporting and enabling positive social communication

RE lends itself beautifully to discussions and debates. However, we need to ensure that those who find them tricky can feel confident.

  • Ensure you address the student by name – they may not realise a question posed to the whole class refers to them also.
  • You can ask students to prepare a sentence on the topic, perhaps on a mini whiteboard, which gives them something to fall back on when they speak.
  • Some students with ASC can be over emphatic and ignore others in their desire to communicate the view they feel is right. This can be avoided to some extent by setting up clear rules for discussions.
  • Silent debates, where pupils contribute by adding their thoughts using sticky notes, give you a good starting point for discussions. Those who are unsure can look at others’ contributions to help them work out their answer.

Supporting students with a narrow focus to see the ‘big picture’

  • Using an enormous piece of paper to draw a diagram linking together beliefs, lifestyle and actions and placing what you are currently studying within it means that children can see where the specific piece of learning they are doing fits into the whole. This literally helps them see the ‘big picture’.
  • Many pupils with ASC have a very specific area of interest. If you can help them link that in some way to what you are studying, then you are on to a winner.

Supporting sensory issues

Many people with ASC have a heightened sensitivity to touch, taste, smell and so on. It is worth being aware of this when you are either setting up visits to places of worship or planning experiential lessons using items like incense sticks. Once one is aware of the issue it is easy to prepare a child as to what is happening in the lesson and give them some options, such as sitting by an open window.

Enabling pupils to cope with unregulated empathy for others

In RE we sometimes deal with tragic issues. Some people may respond with apparently little emotion because they have difficulty making the imaginative leap to understand the situation. Others will not express their feelings, but may be struggling to cope internally and only showing it through withdrawing from the situation or seeking comfort by stimming (repeated actions such as
flapping hands or rocking). We need to validate both extremes of responses. I have done this by trying to pre-empt such situations by commenting that some might find this topic distressing. I would normally scan the class and quietly approach any pupils who seem to be having difficulty, rather than relying on them to approach me. For those who seem almost uncaring, I might give them an opportunity to rate their response using a one to ten scale, rather than using emotional vocabulary, and explain that they are not being marked on their feelings.

In many ways RE is a wonderful subject to teach those with ASC. They learn how and why other humans think differently, believe differently and live differently. It gives a structure to develop understanding and ways to respond. If taught well, it can be a subject that reduces anxiety both in the classroom and out in the wide world.

Ann Clucas has been a teacher and youth worker for nearly forty years. She is the author of Oxford Teaching Guides: How to Teach Everybody and has she has also contributed to OUP’s GCSE Religious Studies Exam Practice and Revision Kerboodle for AQA and Edexcel. She has written training materials and resources for teachers, youth workers and churches.