How to Shine a Light on Autism in Your School  

March 28, 2016
Open book in a classroom setting

On April 2, millions of people around the world will celebrate the 9th annual World Autism Awareness Day in recognition of the 1 in 68 people born and living with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Autism is a complex disorder of brain development that is characterized by difficulties in social interaction and communication, and has created enough impact in the global health community to encourage a day and a month of its own, celebrated worldwide by families, schools, and corporations.

World Autism Day is a great way to encourage inclusion in your school and to foster and teach the importance of community and embracing differences among your students.

Check out these ideas and please share your own!

Gather your tools

The Autism Speaks Family Services School Community Toolkit is a must-have resource when you’re implementing strategies to teach your greater school community about autism. It includes person-specific information for families, general education teachers, support staff, coaches, office and custodial staff, and most importantly, peers. Use the About Me profile form to provide a snapshot of an ASD student in your school, and find student-friendly language for teaching about sensory needs, behaviour, and communication. Check out some other toolkits too.

Light it up BLUE!

Make a pledge with your students to wear blue on April 2. Autism Speaks, North America’s largest autism advocacy association, celebrates a yearly campaign to “shine a light on autism,” encouraging homes, businesses, and landmarks around the globe to shine their lights blue. Check out partner company Home Depot for your blue bulb, or simply don some blue clothing and have your students guess which buildings in your city might be lighting it up blue this year.

Explore your senses

Students with autism may have sensory sensitivities that result in over- or under-reactions to stimulations such as touch and sound, resulting in regulation strategies such as rocking or hand flapping. Exploring sensory integration can encourage focus and attention, and is a great way to encourage social interaction with peers in a comfortable environment. Invite your students to explore sensory stations during Autism Awareness Month and discuss how these activities make them feel. Have your mainstream students follow a visual recipe for Play-Doh or make individual sensory bags with items found in your classroom.

Read a book

The rise of autism diagnoses has created a niche of children’s literature focused on teaching kids about Autism. “Autism Is…?” by Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan explains ASD in child-friendly language that is easily understood and received by young learners. With bright and colourful illustrations, the simple text and information can provide opportunities for questioning and discussion after reading.

Walk it out

With spring officially here, what better way to celebrate Autism Awareness Month than beginning to plan for an autism walk in your community. Look for a registered walk near you, or create one in your community if your location didn’t make the list. Register your school as a team and make donations to Autism Speaks, which supports scientific research leading to early diagnosis, funding for therapy, and advocacy initiatives.

Put yourself in their shoes

Play “Talk to Me.” Divide your class into groups of five students, and give them a set of objects (e.g., a hula hoop, a scarf, a block, and a ball). Have one “communicator” from each group come to you, and show them exactly how to place the objects, without their group seeing. Let them memorize the sequence, and tell them they are to go back to their group and communicate to their group members how to place the object. Repeat the rounds, each time assigning the communicator an exceptionality: being blind, being nonverbal, without hands, etc. Ask your students how it felt to not be able to communicate in a way that they’re used to. Were they frustrated? Was it difficult? This activity can create a teaching opportunity to discuss autism and how it affects a person’s communication skills.

Make something meaningful

The message behind Autism Awareness Month is community. Take April as an opportunity to promote inclusivity and equity in your school, and create opportunities for students with exceptionalities to take part in their greater community, while teaching some very valuable lessons to their mainstream peers. Have students show what they know about autism by creating an information poster for your school, designing their own ribbons or puzzle pieces for awareness, or creating a video of your inclusive school.

How you celebrate might be different than how others do, but the message of inclusion will be the same. I hope these ideas help you and your students have a happy Autism Awareness Month!


Merkle is an advocate for kids with autism and a regional special education teacher based in York Region, ON. She currently supports teachers and support staff working with students with exceptionalities in their classrooms by exploring Applied Behavior Analysis, speech-language pathology, and augmentative communication strategies. Laura enjoys sharing strategies from her  experiences as an ASD teacher in a Community Classroom.

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