How To Create A Safe Space For Kids With Autism In Your Program

Does your program serve kids with autism? As leaders in disability inclusion and behavior support training, we’ve developed strategies to create safe spaces for children and youth with ASD. Our approach fosters environments where they can flourish, be themselves, and avoid “masking,” – the act of hiding their true selves in order to fit in, which may result in autistic burnout later in life. Read the blog to learn more.

You’ve seen the statistics: autism rates have risen and continue to do so.

The latest CDC report notes a surge in the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with over 2.7% of 8-year-old children, or 1 in 36, being diagnosed in 2020. This is a notable jump from the 1 in 44 children reported in 2018.

While it is true that the rise in diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder may be attributed to increased awareness and the availability of resources, it’s apparent that now, more than ever, there is a critical need for support and resources for the autism community with a primary focus on inclusion.

Program staff and leaders can actively encourage uniqueness and individuality. When each youth is appreciated for who they are, it creates a place for everyone to be welcomed, included, and represented.

Read below to find 7 practical tips and inclusion support strategies, plus KIT resources you can use in your program right away.

Four young children play independently in a school setting.

1. Respect sensory needs and be mindful of potential triggers.

All children are entitled to a safe space, but this goes beyond physical safety.

When a child’s sensory system is overwhelmed, they can feel unsafe. For some children with autism, this experience is due to their heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli. In crowded or noisy environments, they may struggle to filter out background noise, making it difficult to focus on important cues or stay alert to potential dangers. They may also have difficulty understanding the social cues of others and interpreting nonverbal language, which can lead to misunderstandings and feelings of vulnerability.

First and foremost, program staff should always treat individual sensory needs with respect. At the same time, schools, afterschool programs, and recreation activities are naturally sensory-rich environments. So how do you maintain the right balance? 

Here are some tips:

  • Start with getting to know the children in your care. Talk to parents and caregivers about their child’s individual sensory needs and requirements, as well as potential triggers.
  • Involve parents and caregivers when planning activities. Every child with autism is unique and may have different sensory needs and preferences. Programs should be flexible and accommodating to ensure activities are inclusive and sensory-friendly.
  • Use visual schedules. These can be helpful for kids with autism because they provide an easy way to organize tasks visually rather than having to remember everything verbally.
  • Avoid touching children unexpectedly or getting too close, even if it’s just a pat on the shoulder or a friendly hug. Always ask permission and give kids an opportunity to object before you proceed.
  • Be generous with sensory breaks in quiet areas. Incorporating sensory breaks into the daily routine and offering quiet areas provides children with autism opportunities to retreat, self-regulate and reset their sensory systems.
  • Provide noise-canceling aids. Whether it’s noise-canceling headphones, earmuffs, or earplugs, make sure you have these handy for kids who need to block out unwanted noises to focus on the task at hand.
  • Ensure your space is sensory-friendly. Use sound-absorbing materials like carpets, curtains, acoustic tile, and dimmed lights to promote a calming, sensory-friendly environment.
  • Set up your activity areas (whether indoors or outdoors) in a way that supports learning for all kids. For example, if there are several groups working on different tasks, keep them separated into groups or by using partitions so that one group doesn’t distract the other.

Using inclusive sensory strategies can help all children succeed and thrive, not just kids with autism.


2. Plan for strengths.

One way to create a welcoming and inclusive environment is to plan for strengths. This means learning about everyone’s  interests and planning activities based on those interests. Sometimes the interests of youth with autism are thought of as obsessions that need to be redirected. 

But what if instead of discouraging these interests, we used them as a vehicle for participation and connection?

Here are some simple ways to do this:

  • Ask your participants what they’re interested in and what they enjoy. Keep a list of these interests and review it periodically to make sure you plan activities centered around these interests.
  • Create opportunities for students to share their interests with each other. Through story-time or simple show-and-tell activities, encourage participants to talk about their interests during group activities.
  • Plan theme-based activities that focus on a youth’s interests such as dinosaurs, space, or animals. Create activities that incorporate the theme, such as arts and crafts, puzzles, and sensory play.
  • Create clubs or specific activities. Technology can be a great tool for children with autism to engage in their interests. Consider creating a program that uses technology, such as a coding class for children interested in video games or a photography club for children interested in taking pictures.
  • Provide opportunities for creative expression. This can include painting and drawing, making music, dancing, building models, or creating artwork from recycled or found objects.

When you provide a space where kids are free to talk about and explore their unique interests, you’re creating an environment where they feel understood and accepted. 

teacher and students

3. Create structured routines and activities, and then communicate and prepare for transitions between activities.

Some kids with autism find it challenging to transition from one activity to another or adapt to unexpected changes in routines or environments. This is why facilitators, staff, and volunteers in your program should always be clear about when a particular activity starts and ends, and what the expectations are for different activities.

Within programs, this simply means creating predictable, consistent routines and activities that help kids feel secure, confident, and comfortable. Additionally, teaching and using clear signals or cues, such as songs or specific phrase, can ease the transition between activities while keeping kids engaged and on task.

Some examples of this include:

  • Incorporate transition songs. Transition songs can help children move successfully from one activity to the next. In addition, they introduce children to rhythm, rhyming, and music, and can support language development and communication skills. Watch this KIT micro-learning video to learn how to plan transition songs throughout the day to minimize challenging behaviors while maximizing learning opportunities during transitions
  • Assign children helper responsibilities or roles. Good examples include Clipboard Holder or Lego Supervisor to provide added structure during transitions and support kids who need more direction during busy times.
  • For groups who struggle with transitions, remember add more cues and signals as needed. For example, transitioning between inside or outside or from free play to a structured activity, signal when there are 30 minutes, 10 minutes, 5 minutes, and 2 minutes left.
  • Be as consistent as possible in daily routines and activities. This helps your participants know when they will be doing certain activities and what they will be doing next. This reduces stress and anxiety and helps youth understand what comes next in their day.
  • Use visual supports such as photos, videos, and diagrams when possible. For example, if you’re giving instructions about how to complete an activity, show participants a visual sequence of the steps. This will give them something concrete to focus on rather than trying to figure out what’s expected based on words alone.
  • Communicate clearly with parents and caregivers for any upcoming activities or events. This helps them prepare their child accordingly before coming to your program each day.
  • Ensure that any new staff or new activities are introduced in a very consistent way. Remember that change is hard for some kids with ASD who need more time to process new information and feel prepared to try something new or meet someone new.

Predictability makes it easier for all kids to understand what’s going on around them. It also helps them better learn how to manage their emotions and behavior in different situations, an essential skill as they navigate forming friendships and relationships throughout their lives.


4. Keep language concrete and provide step-by-step expectations.

One of the most powerful strategies for creating safe spaces for kids with ASD is to explicitly set clear, step-by-step expectations and then follow up with concrete language. This strategy is ideal because it gives  the child a better sense of what you’re asking them to do while still allowing them to feel successful in their accomplishments.

This can take a little bit of extra time and effort, but it allows you to avoid the pitfalls of vague language and it makes it clear to everyone involved that you have the children’s sense of safety and belongingness as a priority.

Not sure where to start? Here are some ideas:

  • Provide concrete information about your program. For example, tell parents when exactly to pick up their child from your program, what sort of clothing their child should wear on the day, and what time the program will finish. By giving instructions ahead of time, you’re giving families of children and youth with autism time to prepare everything needed beforehand, which in turn helps them feel calm and confident as they start and end their day with you.
  • Try not to give verbal directions all at once. Depending on the child’s needs, you may need to give one step of the instructions at a time, using concise language. For example, if the task is to draw a picture, the first step might be “Pick up the blue crayon.” Some children respond well to a first/then pattern. For example, “First pick up the blue crayon, then draw a picture of the sky.” This will help build their confidence and encourage them to continue with the activity.
  • Don’t use sarcasm or teasing language. Some children with autism don’t pick up on these kinds of cues very well, so they may not realize when someone is joking around with them or being sarcastic.
  • Give choices whenever possible. For example, if there are various options for activities, you might ask them which activity they want to try first. This gives them a sense of control over their own lives and helps them feel comfortable in their environment.

When expectations and language are simple and direct, it’s easier for kids with autism to follow along and understand what’s expected of them, preventing a negative atmosphere where kids feel uncomfortable and anxious.

pre-schoolers and adult

5. Model social skills (Hidden Curriculum).

The Hidden Curriculum refers to the unspoken social rules and expectations that are often learned through observation and experience, rather than explicitly taught. These social rules can include things like knowing when to speak and when to listen, how to interpret facial expressions and body language, and understanding social norms and expectations.

For children with autism, understanding and navigating social situations and understanding unwritten social rules can be challenging. This is why modeling social skills is an effective way to help children with autism learn and understand social skills. This involves demonstrating appropriate social behaviors and responses in a structured and controlled environment.

Here are some simple ways for you to incorporate this strategy effectively:

  • Use social stories. Social stories, also known as scripted stories are short stories that describe a social situation or behavior in a simple, easy-to-understand way. Social stories can be tailored to specific situations or behaviors and can be read to children with autism to help them understand and prepare for social situations. To learn more about how you can use social stories in your program or classroom, watch this KIT micro-learning video.
  • Try video modeling. This involves showing children videos of friendly social behaviors and responses, allowing children to see friendly behaviors in action, which can be helpful in learning social skills. Programs can create their own videos or use existing resources, such as online videos or television programs, to model social skills. If at all possible, don’t use videos with actors or scenes from movies, these usually do not reflect real-life situations.
  • Encourage natural friendships between children with and without disabilities . By providing opportunities for social interaction, children will naturally learn social skills from one another. This approach benefits all children involved and fosters organic relationships.
  • Direct teaching methods. This means explicitly teaching social skills to children with autism. This can involve breaking down social skills into simple steps and teaching them one at a time. Direct teaching can be combined with other modeling strategies, such as role-playing or social stories, to reinforce learning.

While most children naturally acquire social skills through observing and imitating others, this intuitive learning process may not be as effective for children with autism, who often require explicit teaching to develop these essential abilities. Emphasizing the importance of tailored instruction, children with autism can greatly benefit from targeted strategies and guidance to help them build interpersonal communication and behaviors vital for making friends, engaging with the world’s diversity, and fostering healthy relationships throughout their lives.

Want to learn more about the Hidden Curriculum? Take this KIT course online: Autism Questions Answered, with Stephen Hinkle, advocate, and national speaker.


6. Be flexible with your expectations and learn from each child on an individual level.

All children have different needs, so it’s important to think of kids as individuals rather than making assumptions based on a diagnosis. 

For many children with autism, little things can make a big difference. It is important that these differences be considered when planning activities, when engaging with them, and when designing a safe, supportive program environment. You’ll want to look at each child individually and take note of what works for one kid that may not work for another.

Consider these tips below:

  • List out and focus on the child’s strengths. Every child with autism has unique strengths. By focusing on these strengths, programs can create a positive and empowering environment for children with autism. This can help build their confidence and self-esteem, and can also create opportunities for them to contribute in meaningful ways to the program.
  • Understand how each individual child learns. Children with autism have different learning preferences. Some may learn better through visual aids, while others may prefer hands-on activities. By understanding how each individual child learns, programs can tailor their approach and teaching methods to meet the child’s needs and maximize their learning potential.
  • Be patient and flexible. Children with autism may need extra time to process information or may require adjustments to activities or routines. Being patient and flexible can help create a supportive and inclusive environment for children with autism.
  • Seek input and feedback from families. Families are your number one source for valuable insights into their child’s strengths, needs, and preferences. Seeking input and feedback from families can help programs create a more inclusive and supportive environment for children with autism.
  • Create an environment where it’s okay for kids not to participate in activities if they don’t feel like it. For example, if a child isn’t interested in drawing at a table, but instead wants his feet up on the floor while he draws pictures, that’s fine. What matters most is that they are engaged and having fun.

A large part of creating a safe space for kids with autism is being flexible enough to adapt your program to fit each individual situation. You might have one kid who loves crafts on his own time but has difficulty participating in group activities, while another kid has the opposite reaction. By understanding what motivates your participants, you can gain their trust and take advantage of those passions to create an experience that works for them.


7. Ask for additional help from KIT and plan for inclusion.

It takes a village to put the practice of inclusion into action. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, need more help, or if you want an expert to formulate an individualized behavioral plan suited to your staff and participants’ needs, Kids Included Together exists to help child and youth development organizations and schools create and sustain inclusive practices. We’ve trained over 130,000 individuals in more than 600 organizations in all 50 states and 13 countries.

Explore the many ways that we can assist you:

You can also browse this quick list of autism supports and resources:

Contact KIT and our experienced staff will work with you to create a program that meets your specific needs!