Developmental Disabilities

How to Create an Autism Friendly Nursery

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Autism friendly nurseries are vital

Parents of special needs children need regular respite, to work, go to the supermarket or for extra sleep and alone time. They need lots of rest to offer the best guidance and support for their child.

Just a trip to the shop is full of potential stressors; strangers, noises, lights, cars in the carpark, a long wait, snacks, etc., are all dangerous or could trigger a meltdown if the parent is struggling to focus or pre-empt stressors.

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This is why nursery care facilities are so important. They need to give the right support to show parents their child is safe away from home and provide parents a real chance to relax without stress.

There are many strategies and resources available to help nurseries provide this support. Offering the family an independent tour of the centre and a meeting with the carers prior to attending, is a wonderful way to help build their confidence before they begin. The child recognises the centre as a safe place and feels less anxious about the parents leaving.

Below are some support strategies used widely for children with autism, keeping in mind that every child is different. Varying sensory thresholds and communication skills mean these strategies need to be tailored to each individual, but provide amazing support with the right dedication.

boy playing with toys in autism friendly nursery

Visual Supports

Every child with autism struggles with social interaction, finding it hard to process verbal information, especially in active, strange environments and with heightened emotions.

Visual tools are a wonderful way to offer support, providing the chance to understand what’s happening without having to process social communication at the same time.

There are a number of free resources available online, some links are provided in the resources below. Simple pictures or clear photos of items, work best. Accompanying the images with words also assists future literacy and verbal skills for all children.

Key visuals to use are anything the child can request:

  • Specific Activities
  • Toys
  • Books
  • Snacks or Foods
  • Water Bottle or Cup
  • Toilet or Bathroom
  • Rest Area for a nap or quiet time
  • Outside Play
  • Personal Items

Place the visual near/on the object, as well as keeping the object packed away in the same place.


Visuals help when communicating with any child with autism, even those with strong verbal skills. Not having to process verbal requests during stressful situations, gives the child the confidence and independence they need to thrive.

Visuals can be placed around the room or attached to lanyards for easy access by both the child and carer.

Visuals often used to assist communication, include:

  • Emotions: Happy, Excited, Sad, Confused, Scared, Angry, Tired
  • Requests: Sit, Quiet, Listen, Stop, Help, Toilet, Drink, Rest, Breathe
  • Responses: Yes Please, No Thank You

Being able to hold up a visual, reminding the child to breathe or move away during a stressful situation, helps prevent an escalation or meltdown. Or for the child to hold one up saying they feel scared or need help, when they’re struggling to communicate verbally, is a vital tool for keeping the nursery environment secure and comfortable for everyone.

Routines and schedules

Processing changes takes a lot of energy for autistic children, who, like any child, are often focused on fun things instead. When they’re surprised by a broken routine or have to survive days of unpredictable activities, it’s exhausting.

Sometimes the effect is instant. The child withdraws, becoming scared and defensive while struggling to process the change and how to cope, unable to enjoy the activity. Some children become overly excited and loud when they’re feeling anxious, so stay aware of extreme emotional changes and use those visual supports when communicating.

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Other times the effects don’t appear until home, or even a few weeks later. All of the effort to process the unpredictable days means they’re left with no energy to cope in environments they normally find safe.

Maintaining daily routines and providing visual schedules for the nursery or personal schedules for each child, helps immensely. It gives the child another tool they can use independently to prepare for changes.

Example of a typical schedule using visuals and words for each step, and listed from top to bottom:

  • Say Hello
  • Outdoor Play
  • Toilet
  • Snack and Drink
  • Toy Trains
  • Drawing
  • Toilet
  • Lunch and Drink
  • Nap or Rest
  • Puzzles
  • Pack Bag
  • Toilet
  • Say Goodbye
  • Going Home

Get the child’s opinion about activities at the start of the day, or let them set their own personal schedule around essential breaks, so they feel in control.

Ensure visual schedules are always up to date and available, even when they are coping well. Remind them regularly about the next activity so they are always prepared.

Other Tips

Many children with autism have heightened senses; normal lighting, colourful wall displays, a blowing fan or laughter and play of others could be too much for their mind to handle.

Communicate regularly with parents about the child’s unique requirements, and always consider the environment when the child’s emotions start to build.

Read more about How to Teach Children with Autism here.


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