When I was a teacher in a school for autistic students, it was well-noted that my biggest strength was my ability to build strong teacher-student relationships. My students engaged well in my classes, opened up to me about their problems, and even teenagers who had never trusted a teacher in their lives seemed to feel surprisingly comfortable around me.
It was often assumed this was because I was autistic too. And I won’t lie, my own autism was a large part of it. (But if that were the only factor, how come I had the exact same strength when I was teaching in mainstream primary schools?)
Honestly, the biggest factor was the fact that I was willing to prioritise their wellbeing over all other factors (yes, all of them), and that involved developing trusting and respectful relationships. There’s no point in your school saying “the welfare of our students is paramount” if you’re not making it easier for them to actually trust you with their welfare.
What makes the building of relationships so important (not just from a wellbeing perspective but even for academic success);
How to build those relationships with autistic students (frankly the advice applies to humans in general, but especially neurodivergent and/or vulnerable humans).
As always, before we begin I’d like to thank my Patreon supporters for enabling me to write for this site (and its Facebook community) for a living: providing me with a stable income in exchange for various perks and rewards. I literally wouldn’t be able to do this without you, so thank you.
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The importance of positive relationships
A close friend of mine – the mother of one of my autistic godsons – is a teacher in a pupil referral unit (a PRU, which in the UK is often seen as a student’s ‘last chance saloon’ after they’ve been excluded from mainstream and special education – often as a result of not having their needs met by the adults around them). Recently she told me this story in conversation, and it’s stuck with me.
One day, she came out of a meeting to find a panicking colleague saying “thank goodness you’re out of the meeting – James has been up a tree for the last two hours and he’s not coming down!” [Obviously I don’t know the student’s name. I pick ‘James’ for most stories.]
After wondering why she hadn’t been alerted to this while she was in the meeting, she headed outside and found James still up the tree. And after she said these magic words…
“Come on James, come down!”
…he climbed down from the tree and went back to class.
Now, some people may ask “how on Earth did she manage to get James down from the tree in two seconds?!”
The answer is that she didn’t. She got him down from the tree in three years and two seconds.
It’s a short and effective story about the long-term benefits of building up strong relationships and mutual respect with your students. If you want your fifteen-year-old student to engage in lessons, be trustworthy when they’re twelve.
Of course, there are more benefits to relationship-building than getting kids down from trees…
A non-exhaustive list of areas that a good teacher-student relationship can impact:
Self-esteem – probably the most obvious one. Students will feel safer and happier if they can tell that an adult genuinely cares about them.
Motivation – there were students who would engage in my maths lessons excellently, despite having not engaged at all in their previous schools. People work harder for those who believe in them, and this is true for adults in the workplace too.
Engagement – if the tree story above doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will.
Ability to form relationships in later life – from future work colleagues to social situations, modelling healthy relationships can have a huge impact on young people’s perception of them. Speaking as an autistic person myself, I’m grateful to the stable, consistent and balanced adults around me who modelled what I grew up to believe healthy relationships to be.
Attendance – in schools like mine this was particularly true, but it will also apply to students who struggle with school-based anxiety (often mislabelled as school-‘refusers’). Sometimes the knowledge of a trustworthy adult being at school will be the deciding factor for whether they show up.
Safeguarding – yes, the big one. All teaching staff are trained in how to handle a safeguarding disclosure, but not enough emphasis is given to enabling those disclosures in the first place through building safe and stable relationships.
This following quote (which I said in teacher training and liked so much that I memed it) might be the most important thing you get from this article.
So, how do you do it?
Well the overarching theme (and I dearly hope I’m preaching to the choir here) is make sure the phrase “our students’ welfare is paramount” is more than just a line in your policy documentation.
‘Paramount’ is actually my second least favourite word in the English language (behind the word ‘inappropriate’). Because every time a scandal gets in the news about a devastating incident at a school, safeguarding or otherwise, what’s the generic line every school trots out in response? “The welfare of our students is paramount.”
It’s all very well getting the documents on your school website to say the correct things, and I never underestimate the importance of having solid school policies and sticking to them… but what does putting welfare first practically look like?
1. Truly, genuinely care. It’s not unprofessional.
One of the unhealthiest misconceptions in teaching is that it’s automatically unprofessional to feel emotional attachment to the job or to the people. Essentially, that you need to make yourself less of a human in order to meet the needs of other humans.
And meanwhile there’s me, who has often said (semi-jokingly), “if you’re not worrying about your students on the drive home, you’re not doing your job right”.
Obviously there’s a limit to that. It’s one thing to drive home worrying about James after he’s punched the walls in furious tears because he’s “shit at everything” (and yes, this is coming from a real-life example), but if you’re still worrying about him at 2am instead of sleeping, it’s time to talk to someone.
But for any readers who worry for their students and are keeping it secret because they think it makes them ‘unprofessional’, let me offer some insight.
It is not unprofessional to care deeply about your students. It’s the judgements you make and the actions you take in response that decide your professionalism.
The James I just mentioned above? From the age of 11, he was one of many students I was cheering on as a person as well as a teacher, and the subject of many of my worried drives home. And through professional reflection, and transparent discussions with other colleagues (and with my supervisor, and even my therapist occasionally), my response to my emotions was to focus hard on how best to address his difficulties, discussing my ideas with colleagues and keeping them informed of his wellbeing needs.
I left the school when James was 14, with him having overcome the bulk of his historical difficulties, and well on his way to becoming the young man we all knew he could become. And I know this was, in some part, due to him knowing that his teacher truly cared about him – and that his teacher unfailingly behaved like a teacher should.
(In all fairness to him though, he did the heavy lifting. To this day I’m deeply proud of him, and that’s not unprofessional either.)
2. Understand your students’ comfort zones, and actually respect them.
We do a lot of jumping up and down over the fact that autistic people often struggle with comfort zones. But sometimes the same people who mourn our social deficits will readily steamroll over our comfort zones in response. (Ask any ABA practitioner who tells a parent to destroy their child’s beautifully lined-up toys, because it’s ‘inappropriate play’ or some anti-autistic rubbish.)
When people act like our boundaries don’t matter, they teach us that our boundaries don’t matter. Which really, really plays into the hands of groomers. So valuing our autonomy doesn’t just help build healthy relationships; it teaches us what unhealthy relationships look like.
Respecting comfort zones goes both ways, and this doesn’t change just because the other person’s autistic (or in fact, a child). If you have no problem respecting your spouse’s comfort zones when they come home from work and need fifteen undisturbed minutes on the couch, you should have no problem with letting an autistic student have a few minutes to themselves after a lesson that’s left them just on the border of sensory overwhelm.
Most people know, from their own personal experience, who respects their boundaries and who doesn’t. And this has a direct impact on who we trust.
3. Listen. And truly listen, without correcting.
Yes, I’m not teaching you anything new by mentioning the importance of listening. But of course, this point goes beyond that.
A big part of it is providing opportunities for students to meaningfully talk to you. In my last school I held specific wellbeing sessions, where I sat down with teenagers for 45 minutes and we talked about life and autism and stuff. And those sessions were more valuable to those students than anything I taught them in maths.
And those talking opportunities are valuable even if the student does not choose to take them. I spent months having sessions with one 13-year-old who never opened up to me about the troubles I knew he was experiencing. But our sessions were not ‘wasted’. He understood that the opportunity was there if he ever changed his mind, and that in itself helped with his wellbeing and made him more comfortable in school.
Now, about the “without correcting” part: what would your response be if you asked a student why they were feeling sad, and they answered “it’s because I’m terrible at maths”?
If you’re the kind of teacher who already knows the importance of point #1, your first instinct might be to say “no you’re not!” in the form of encouragement.
Except, the child’s response is unlikely to be “well, I guess I’m not terrible at maths anymore! Wow, my problems are over!”
They’re more likely to interpret your words as “I don’t believe you”.
My response to a student telling me they’re terrible at maths has always been to ask, in a caring and non-judgemental tone, “okay, what makes you think that?” Because that way, they get the chance to express some long-held feelings, and it becomes a proper discussion. (Any child who trusts me enough to open up will already know I have faith in their maths ability. I don’t need to hammer my disagreement home from the opening sentence as if trying to win a debate.)
Oh, and one final point – listening is good for building relationships with people in general, but autistic children are often the last people who get listened to by adults. Speaking as a former autistic child, there’s something about us that subconsciously persuades people that our words just don’t carry as much weight as those from a confident bright-eyed neurotypical. So believe me, it’s disproportionately important to listen to autistic children.
4. Authenticity matters.
Before I qualified as a teacher, someone once told me that “half of teaching is just acting”.
Truthfully though, I was always a terrible actor. I was just too authentic for it.
But that probably explains why so many of my students (autistic or otherwise) were ready to put their faith in me. Because young people, just like adults, are surprisingly good at knowing when they’re talking to a genuine person.
(And yes, this includes disabled students too. In my experience of working with teenagers with complex learning difficulties, even those with profound disabilities can tell the difference between a staff member who likes them and a staff member who’s paid to like them.)
Speaking of which, authenticity is an often-undervalued autistic trait. When we’re not masking as a survival strategy (and you know you’ve got the environment right when a student no longer feels the need to hide their real selves for the approval of others), one of the best things about us is that you know exactly who you’re with.
My authenticity helped my students to trust me. Because as humans, we usually don’t trust authority figures. We trust people. (If anyone disagrees, you’re welcome to try explaining why a child is more likely to make a safeguarding disclosure to a warm and trustworthy TA than an authoritative, unapproachable headteacher. Authority doesn’t come into it.)
In fact, here’s a photo of me at a Rubik’s cube tournament, taken after my first successful blindfold solve. (Yes, it’s possible to blindfold solve a Rubik’s cube. My record is three minutes and four seconds including memorisation time… but the world record is 14 seconds.) Notice the shirt I’m wearing.
I wear my Autistic Not Weird shirt at every competition I attend – not merely to plug my website, but as a form of outreach. There are about as many autistic attendees as you’d expect, many of whom are very nervous newcomers, and seeing an ‘out and proud’ autistic person can be an important factor in helping them feel welcome.
Seriously, it’s amazing how many people see me wearing this shirt and instantly warm to me. Like I said, people can usually tell when they’re with an authentic person… and the presence of authentic people enables them to be their own authentic selves, just like they deserve.
5. You don’t have to be autistic. But you do have to appreciate autistic brains.
Me being autistic did help. I was the go-to person for those who wanted to talk through their autistic experience with a trusted adult (and often the other staff asked for my insights too), and I could directly empathise with a lot of my students’ experiences. In many cases, I’d worked through their exact struggles myself.
But I wasn’t the only trustworthy adult. And I wasn’t the only adult who found the autistic brain fascinating. The school was full of staff members who acknowledged the students’ autism-related difficulties, whilst understanding that without their autism, they’d be entirely different people (and that this would be a bad thing).
I’m also not one of those people who says “you can only truly reach an autistic child if you’re autistic too”. Because, leaving aside my neurotypical mother, my neurotypical partner (both of whom have done pretty awesome jobs of raising autistic children), and my neurotypical therapist, friends and so on, I believe this attitude sends the unhealthy message that “if you’re non-autistic, you might as well just give up on helping your autistic students”.
The common factor between my non-autistic friends is that they all appreciate my autistic way of thinking. For example, a church friend of mine (just about the ‘least autistic’ person I know), openly admits how much she prefers the company of autistic people, because she knows exactly where she stands and she values our openness and honesty (see point #4) as well as appreciating how autistic brains process the world around them. Plenty of the best teachers of autistic students I’ve known have the same attitude.
Of course, if you see the autistic brain as automatically lesser, or look at autistic behaviours in terms of ‘appropriateness’ (read: normalcy) rather than looking at what is being processed or communicated, or if you see their personality as something that needs “fixing”, don’t be surprised if your students would rather open up to a different staff member. (There’s a difference between “overcoming autism-related difficulties” and “becoming less autistic”. The former is about building a person up, the latter is about replacing a person’s being, and it’s harmful to conflate the two.)
6. Actually tell the students that you have faith in them. With words.
When it comes to relationship-building, it’s not enough to care about a child. They must know that you do. (Especially if their autism means that they’re unlikely to notice the subtle, unspoken signs of a teacher showing care.)
The biggest clue to the fact that I believed in my students was the fact that I told them. I didn’t give subtle smiles or drop nice hints or mark work in a friendly-coloured pen. I literally just spoke up and told them they were brilliant.
I did this for three reasons:
Because they’re autistic. They manage better when people say what they mean, and mean what they say.
Because I’m autistic. I manage better that way too.
Because sadly, very few of our students had a positive backstory. Many came to our school after not having their needs met, being kept in seclusion from other mainstream students, and going through school being relentlessly judged. And the people judging them were very, very direct in communicating that judgement.
The last one hurts, but it’s true. If you want to help an autistic student develop a positive self-perception, you need to talk about their positives just as directly as those who wronged them.
7. And finally… be bothered enough to accommodate.
I find the word “accommodations” similar to the phrase “the wellbeing of our students is paramount”: the words look great on paper, but the true value is in what they look like in real life.
Don’t tell me your autistic students’ welfare is ‘paramount’ – show me autistic children who are visibly safe and valued.
And similarly, don’t tell me you ‘provide accommodations’ – show me students who are genuinely having their needs met.
The accommodations that need putting in place will vary widely depending on the needs of the student – e.g. extra staffing, alternative settings to a noisy classroom, flexible attendance options, personal budgets, staggered arrival/departure times for those who are overwhelmed by crowds, and many more (for example, here’s a link to a useful document from Autism&Uni about providing for students in higher education. There are plenty of advice articles out there, but I chose the one which obviously had input from autistic people).
So do not assume that what works for one will work for all. Another one of my godsons is 18 now, and I’m still angry at his secondary school for giving him a chew toy at the age of 12, because they heard somewhere that anxious autistic people like chew toys. I mean yes, some autistic 12-year-olds do, but they could have asked him first.
But beyond that, your willingness to accommodate sends a message. And the messages you send are enormously important. When you talk to a students’ parents and ask for their insights, you’re sending a message that you’re on their side. When you ask a student what helps them recover from overwhelm, you’re sending a message that you care. When you put practical accommodations in place, it sends the message that you really intend to meet their needs.
Besides, your autistic students are already accommodating the rest of the world in almost everything they do. It’s only fair to give them something back.
So, those are my insights with regards to building positive relationships with your autistic students. If you want more, I do have another teaching-related article which is about working with (and building up) autistic students in the general sense. I hope this article, or both of them, do some good for you and those you work with.
Of course, when I’m not writing for the internet and publicly giving away my insights for free, I do frequent work in schools nationally and internationally: sometimes staff training, sometimes autism-specific lessons for students (in mainstream or special education), and sometimes author visits since I’m also a serial novelist of neurodivergent YA dystopia.
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window). Autistic Not Weird on Facebook