Best Practice

Autism and ADHD: Addressing three barriers to learning

The vast majority of teachers in mainstream primary schools will be supporting autistic and ADHD pupils. Dr Pooky Knightsmith offers advice and tips to help you overcome three common barriers to learning


In order for ADHD and autistic students to truly enjoy and engage with school, there are a series of common barriers that need to be recognised and responded to.

In this article, I will address each in turn, considering both the student’s experience within the classroom without adjustments and adaptations and then exploring how small changes might make a big difference to their ability to thrive in your class.

I consider the following three barriers: sensory overwhelm, executive function, and working with others.


1, Sensory overwhelm

Many ADHD/autistic students will have heightened sensory processing which can make the classroom feel like a pretty overwhelming place. I always liken it to trying to do your homework in a nightclub.

If every scrape of a chair, flicker of a light or fluctuation in temperature is intensely felt, it can make it hard to follow along with the learning or focus on independent work.

It can help to walk into your classroom or space and reconsider it from the point of view of a student with heightened sensory processing. Step into the room, imagining that you are in your student’s shoes, and consider:

  • What can you see?
  • What can you hear?
  • What can you smell?
  • What can you feel?

This works even better if you actually do this exercise alongside the student. Repeat the exercise in different parts of the room and also consider how things might change at different times of day (might the smell of lunch or the sound of different aged students on staggered breaks be overwhelming at certain points?)

It is often possible to quickly identify small changes that might make a big difference to the experience of students who often feel overwhelmed. You might apply these changes to the whole room or zone the room with some zones which are muted both visually and auditorily and others which you do not adapt.

If you are not able to adapt the environment, you can think about adjustments for the child in order to make the environment feel less overwhelming to them, such as ear defenders or perhaps more discrete ear loops (search online), tinted glasses, or a seat near a neutral wall or away from noise.


2, Executive function

Executive function describes the skills needed for planning, organising and prioritising tasks and this is often an area of significant challenge for ADHD and autistic learners.

This can lead to frustration for both students and staff as learners for whom the topic and level of learning are well within scope may find themselves unable to demonstrate their learning because of the demands that classroom or homework tasks place on executive function. There are several steps we can take to support students who struggle with planning, organising and prioritising:

Timetables: Ensure that there is always a copy of the student’s timetable to hand and that they know where/how to replace a lost copy without being punished. Consider presenting their timetable in a different format to normal if this makes it easier for the student to understand or follow.

Written instructions: Providing concise, clear written instructions for tasks as well as verbal instructions maximises the chances of the student understanding and appropriately engaging with what is expected of them.

Supported planning: Show as well as tell and support students to create simple plans to keep them on track when carrying out class work or homework tasks. You could create and prepopulate a plan pertinent to your subject and topic which might include:

  • The aim of the task and key vocabulary.
  • Where to find help (especially for homework – e.g. websites or textbook page numbers).
  • Space for planning what to do first, what to do next and what to do last.
  • A suggested timeframe or time limit.
  • A very clear description or example of “what finished looks like”.
  • A prompt to check work and a reminder of where, how and by when to submit.

Checking time: Encourage students to get into the habit of checking their work upon completion. “Silly mistakes” are the bane of many ADHD and autistic children’s lives – and will be the bane of their adult lives too if good habits are not formed at school.


3, Working with others

Working as part of a group can be especially challenging for ADHD and autistic students. For some, it may be better to work alone or as part of a pair, but for many, with good clear expectations and good groundwork, it is quite possible to make a success of group work.

In her fantastic book The Neurodiverse Classroom (2018), Victoria Honeybourne suggests you can make group work work by:

  • Allocating groups.
  • Utilising supportive peers.
  • Explicitly teaching group work instructions.
  • Creating a group agreement.
  • Cultivating a calm, positive atmosphere.
  • Giving out specific roles, e.g. time-keeper, note-taker and discussion leader.
  • Making sure everyone understands what to do.
  • Starting small and building up.


Final thought

The key thing to remember is that seemingly small changes can be game-changing for some of your students. I’ve seen many examples where tweaks to the classroom or the teacher’s approach have seen a student go from appearing unable or disinterested to suddenly being able to fully engage with the learning and demonstrate their skills and knowledge – a joyous transition for students and staff alike.

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. Follow her on Twitter
    and visit Find her previous articles via


Headteacher Update Summer Term Edition 2023

  • This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Summer Term Edition 2023. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via