Differentiating the Curriculum

Differentiation: Classroom Practice


Each autistic student has his/her own unique strengths and needs therefore it is essential that teachers adapt lessons and activities within the curriculum to capitalise on and meet these diverse strengths and needs. This involves the teacher assessing each student’s learning style and needs and developing supports aimed at progressing each student’s learning and development. The development of supports within a classroom is generally known as differentiation.


What is differentiation?

Differentiation is the term used to describe the professional techniques that a teacher uses when delivering all lessons or activities across all areas of the curriculum with the aim of progressing and developing student skill and knowledge. Differentiation is multi-faceted and involves the teacher drawing upon professional skills including planning, assessment and reflection when preparing for and delivering lessons and activities within a curriculum that are assessable and inclusive to all students.

If implemented effectively differentiation should not mean additional work for a teacher but will allow a teacher to spend more time progressing the learning of each student in the class.

  • Differentiation requires a teacher’s time: time to plan, time to prepare, time to deliver, time to assess, time to reflect and time to modify before the differentiation process starts again.


Therefore it is best to start with one aspect of differentiation, start slowly and build on it.


Why does a teacher need to differentiate?

How to differentiate lessons and activities within the curriculum

  • There is not one definitive approach to differentiation.
  • It encompasses a range of approaches that a teacher can draw upon to meet the needs of individual students.
  • Differentiation will seem different depending on what each student strength and needs are, what each student already knows, and what their cognitive level is.
  • Differentiation starts with a comprehensive assessment of each pupil’s strengths and needs in context to the curriculum area being taught. This will identify how the student learns and what they already know.

Learning Objective:

  • The teacher should identify what they want the autistic student  to know or do by the end of the lesson or activity.
  • The overall end goal may have been identified within the IEP. The teacher must be clear about the identified learning objective and should share the objective with the autistic student.
  • The objective for each lesson should be presented visually and placed on the desk in front of the student.
  • The teacher should also include the learning context on this visual support.


Presenting the learning objective and context visually ensures that the student knows what they are learning and why, and placing it on the desk in front of the student with autism means it acts as a visual reminder throughout the lesson.

Context and Learning Objective

Lesson management:

  • Plan how to engage and challenge the autistic student.
  • Plan how to manage the overall delivery of the lesson.
  • There are several components to differentiation at lesson management stage:
    • Resources
    • Time
    • Group Work
    • Instructions: Support or Scaffolding
    • Task
    • Outcome


Resources encompasses the materials used for teaching and learning.

  • Depending on the curriculum area, it may be possible to use a variety of resources to teach and develop understanding of the learning objective.
  • Resources include concrete materials, multi media, the use of ICT as well as worksheets and diagrams all used to present and explore a new concept.
  • Knowing the students learning style and using materials that will maximise student motivation and engagement means they are more likely to develop new understanding.

When presenting printed resources ensure that the presentation is clear and easy to follow.

  • If necessary highlight key words or phrases or break larger amounts of written texts into smaller paragraphs.


Autistic students  often have difficulty demonstrating their learning through writing, therefore the use of ICT or Assistive Technology should always be considered as a resource.

  • Students may be able to use video modelling along with their own voice to demonstrate and explain their learning. This can also be an effective way to elicit peer evaluation without interrupting the students learning or placing social demands on the autistic student.
  • Be creative, look for alternative ways for the student with autism to engage, explore and demonstrate learning.


The concept of time is abstract and can generally be difficult for an autistic student  to understand.

  • The student may grasp the new concept quickly or may benefit for additional time therefore knowledge of the student is vitally important.
  • The student who finishes early could be directed to an activity that extends their thinking on the learning such as independent research or they could be directed to an unrelated preferred activity.
  • The student should be provided with a visual support signposting them to the extension task and they should be able to complete the extension work independently.
    • Visual support in the form of a task analysis should be available to support the student’s independent learning. Providing for the early finisher will ensure that the student is purposefully occupied leaving the teacher available to support other student learning.


Incorporating processing time to meet individual needs is important when a student is engaging in new learning.

Strategies to Support the autistic student:

  • Differentiate time by reducing the number of activities theautistic  student is expected to do, therefore facilitating success alongside peers.
  • The autistic student  may be working toward the same learning objective as his/her peers however, due to differences in processing and/or working speed they may need additional time to achieve the objective. Arrange for the student to work for an extended period of time or to complete the task within an agreed timescale.

Group Work

Autistic students may find working in a group difficult; they may want to be involved in group work but find the social demands or transition to the group setup difficult.

  • Other difficulties associated with autism that impact on group work include double empathy, unpredictable nature of group work, sensory difficulties.

Some strategies to support your student work as part of a group include:

  • Communicate in advance with the student to let them know the lesson will involve group work and what will be expected of them.
  • Introduce the concept of group work slowly. Initially involve one other supportive person or peer and slowly increase the group size.
  • Organise the groups for the autistic student.
  • Provide the student with autism with a visual support of what their role and task within the group entails.
  • Provide cards detailing all the roles within the group and help the autistic student select a role they can successfully fulfil.
  • Ensure adequate number of physical equipment, such as chairs are in place when group work involves moving from students own desk for group work.
  • Identify an area where the group will work. Consider if it would be possible for the group to work together, then disband for independent work and regroup for collating the group task or project.
  • Establish shared rules for group work and ensure they are visually represented, visible to all members of the group and adhered to.
  • Emphasis the collective effort of the group where everyone attributes and the groups is working towards the agreed learning objective.


  • Knowing how the student communicates and using their preferred communication mode will ensure that the student is included, understands what is being taught and can participate and contribute to the lesson.

Communication differences and the challenges of double empathy and monotropism are impediments to group work for the autistic student, therefore it is crucial that verbal instruction is supported visually in the classroom. Using visual supports ensure that the instruction is not transient, it keeps the student focused on the task. If using verbal instruction:

  • use language that the autistic student understands
  • use clear and precise communication that is free from sarcasm and jargon
  • check that the autistic student  has understood what they have just explained and facilitate the student to respond using a visual cue card.

Instruction identify work

Copyright Pearson Education, 2009. Photo MCA

Instruction highlight character

Copyright Harper Collins, 1999. Photo MCA

Support or Scaffolding:

Supporting or scaffolding a student’s learning involves knowing where a student’s knowledge or skill level is and progressing this to the learning objective.

  • To achieve this use a range of supports and slowly modify or removes these as the student demonstrates independence that they have grasped or developed the new skill concept. This may include the support of another adult or a peer.

Strategies for supporting learning:

  • Provide a visual instruction detailing all the steps involved in completing the task.
  • Break a task into chunks and teach the different parts in mini-lessons format. Link the mini-lessons together using backward or forward chaining.
    • Backward Chaining-The last step is taught first to give pupil a sense of completing the task independently. Each step is then taught and mastered in a reverse sequence
    • Forward Chaining- Each step in the process is taught in the chronological sequence
  • Use a variety of interactive strategies and images to demonstrate how to complete the skill or concept; video modelling, step by step instruction on PowerPoint, a variety of concrete or functional resources, photographs or line drawings. This is closely linked to the student’s preferred learning style and increases the likelihood that a student will understand the concept being taught because it is delivered in a way they find motivating and easy to understand.
  • Identify and explain key words and concepts at the start of the lesson or at the start of a topic.
  • Provide students with a brief overview of the key words or concepts in advance of the lesson. The student may want to independently research the topic before teaching begins.
  • Provide an example of the completed learning objective. This can act as a guide for the autistic student.
  • Collate and provide in a tray or container, all the equipment your student needs to demonstrate learning.


Copyright Pearson Education, 2009

Task: Differentiation by task involves presenting different tasks for students due to learning style, learning objective or cognitive level.

  • Strategy: An example of differentiation by task may be preparing and presenting differentiated tasks on a worksheets to facilitate different cognitive levels. Present a worksheet that gets progressively more difficult as the number of tasks increase.
  • The autistic student  could be asked to complete an identified number or activities on the worksheet. The numbers should be visually identified on the worksheet.
  • Differentiating by task permits the student to succeed as they demonstrate they understand the complexity of the task through completing a lesser amount.
  • Autistic pupils may find it difficult to complete activities involving multiple or complex sequences.
  • Consequently not completing an activity or task could be interpreted by the teacher as the student not have the knowledge or skills needed to complete a task.
  • Strategy: To differentiate for this the teacher should carry out a task analysis on activities and present the individual steps visually or use video modelling and provide the model to the student as a visual aid.

Outcome: Differentiation by outcome can mean all students working towards a shared outcome or an individual student working towards a personalized outcome.

  • Strategy: The learning outcome must be shared with the student as this explains what they are learning.
  • For this to be effective establish the outcome and clear criteria as to how the student achieves the outcome.
  • This should be visually communicated to the student at the start of the lesson and referred to at the end of the lesson for the students to self-evaluate their learning.
  • Consider the level of complexity involved in achieving the learning outcome for the autistic student  and the amount and form of structure the student will need to succeed and differentiate through task and support accordingly.