Autism in Schools: A teacher's guide

Nicola Musgrove

How can schools provide an outstanding educational experience for their autistic learners?

What is autism?

In the DMS 5, autism is defined as

“persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction” and “restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests” (this includes sensory behaviour), present since early childhood, to the extent that these “limit and impair everyday functioning”. 

When diagnosing a person with autism spectrum disorder, it has historically been based on the so-called “triad of impairment”, meaning a person has to exhibit challenges with social communication, social interaction and display patterns of repetitive behaviours. Along with difficulties associated with socialisation and interaction, autism can also come with additional learning and cognitive difficulties as well as a wide range of learning needs and is often viewed as a developmental disorder. 

Common educational issues for children with Autism

There has been a shift in the knowledge and understanding of autism and it is now widely accepted that there are many more layers to this complex spectrum. Students with autism will often have a "spikey profile" and will have strengths in certain areas as well as delays in other areas, for example performing at a high level in reading but struggling with social skills at a basic level. The National Autistic Society now suggests, that along with the established triad, there are other aspects to consider; 

  • Social communication and social interaction challenges – this includes taking things literally and needing extra time to process information or answer questions.
  • Repetitive and restrictive behaviour –this can include movements such as hand flapping, rocking or the repetitive use of an object such as twirling a pen or opening and closing a door. Autistic people often engage in these behaviours to help calm themselves when they are stressed or anxious or because they find it enjoyable. This can also link to difficulties with motor skills. 
  • Sensory Issues - Over- or under-sensitivity to light, sound, taste or touch - Autistic people may experience over-or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, bright lights , colours, temperatures or pain. They may find certain background sounds unbearably loud or distracting. This can cause anxiety or even physical pain, under sensitivity could result in people seeking out sensory experiences.
  • Highly focused interests or hobbies - Being highly focused helps many autistic students do well academically and in the workplace but they can also become so engrossed in particular topics or activities that they neglect other aspects of their lives, it is useful to understand hobbies or interests in order to engage the student.
  • Extreme anxiety - many autistic people have difficulty recognising and regulating their emotions. It is useful to try and understand triggers or patterns by keeping a diary. This can also lead to behavioural issues and the student's social, emotional and mental health and well being. 
  • Meltdowns and shutdowns - A meltdown happens when someone becomes completely overwhelmed by their current situation and temporarily loses behavioural control.
    A shutdowns are also a response to being overwhelmed, but may appear more passive - eg an autistic person going quiet or 'switching off'.

There has also been a recent shift in the terminology used when discussing autism spectrum condition.  Although universally acknowledged as a spectrum condition, it used to be accepted that the spectrum was linear, with high functioning aspects of autism being termed as “Asperger’s syndrome” at one end while the other end was lower ability and termed simply “autism”, stereotypically linked to moderate or severe learning difficulties. This recent shift has seen these terms be used less and less and the term “Autism/Autistic Spectrum Condition” is now more widely recognised. 

Autism Spectrum Condition is now also considered to be one of the main ideas of the neurodiversity movement (along with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) which sees a variety of previously coined “conditions”, viewed as neurological differences. This movement suggests that a person’s brain is diverse and should be appreciated as such .However with this acceptance that a person learns differently, it is therefore expected that the class teacher will need to develop different pedagogical approaches in order to meet the diverse needs of the students in their classrooms. With more students with autism being included in mainstream education, it is essential that these education services have a deeper understanding of autism and how to provide alternative provision within a mainstream classroom. 

Daily school life and autism
Daily school life and autism

Autism in the classroom

According to a study by the National Autistic Society in 2021, there are currently over 160,000 autistic students in schools across England, with over 70% of them accessing mainstream provision, as opposed to a specialist school. These figures suggest that a large proportion of autistic pupils will require some differentiation and adaptation in their classroom to ensure their needs are being met. This can often come from detailed information and targets set within individual learning plans (ILP’s) and Education and Health Care Plans (EHCP’s), however to ensure we are being fully inclusive, and in order for the need for students to not only be “managed” but also challenged in their education, teachers and school staff need to embrace the concept of neurodiversity and adapt a new, different and changing approach to education. 

Autism in the classroom can present itself in many ways include teaching and learning at a different pace, sensory reactions affecting behavioural issues, difficulties with processing information, following verbal instructions, challenges associated with socialisation and emotional and mental health challenges. However there are strategies and approaches that can easily be used within the classroom setting, the classroom routine and the school environment and to ensure students with autism have a positive and successful educational regardless of the type of school they attend. 

Autism SPELL Framework

The National Autistic Society offers training on the SPELL framework. This framework is based around 5 key principles which have been identified as essential for supporting students on the autistic spectrum. SPELL stands for

  • Structure
  • Positive approaches and expectations
  • Empathy
  • Low arousal
  • Links

SPELL acknowledges the need for structure and values the students need for routine and repetitive behaviours. This is something which is usually widely promoted within classroom and educational settings already, however to a student on the autism spectrum, the structure of the day provides some stability and can reduce stress and anxiety.

Positive approaches and expectations are vital for a student to be successful within their education. The importance of a good, secure relationship with an educator who accepts and understands autism as neurodiversity can ensure the student feels valued and they in turn perform better in the classroom. It is also equally important to view the student’s individual strengths and plan for these within their education, when clear positive expectations are set out, the outcomes for the individual are usually better.

Empathy is a difficult concept for autistic students due to the challenges they face when with social communication and interaction. It is equally difficult to understand a lack of empathy and incorporate this in a classroom situation, research has led this to be termed the “double empathy problem”.  The SPELL framework focuses on becoming familiar with this terminology and the need to build a relationship with the student and understand them as a person as well as their autistic traits. The SPELL framework suggests this needs to be done in order to “reduce the gap” between students on the spectrum and other students, teachers and staff.

Low Arousal Approach seeks to address the sensory issues a student may face. An essential part of planning for an autistic student is to complete a sensory profile in order to determine what kind of environment is most appropriate. Many autistic students will be “over sensitive” and can often require a low arousal approach, meaning they may need a quieter space with less distraction around them. However on the other side of the coin, some students will be “under sensitive” and will enjoy learning through visual and auditory stimulation, this may mean using songs and video clips in order to meet their sensory needs. Some students may require fidget toys or adapted seats which rock in order to meet their vestibular needs.

Links focuses on the need to share information, knowledge and best practice in order to meet the diverse and complex needs of autistic students. The need for liaison within professional partnership working is often paramount to the student. It is also vitally important to have a positive working relationship with their parents and carers, to ensure consistency within approaches.

Improving education for children with autism
SPELL framework for autistic students

The TEACCH approach for Autism

The National Autistic Society also offers training on the widely known “TEACCH” method, first trademarked in the USA. The TEACCH approach also focuses on 5 key principles of meeting the needs of students on the autism spectrum ;

  • Physical Structure
  • Consistent Schedules
  • Establishment of Expectations
  • Maintenance of Routine
  • Implementation of Visually-based Cues

Physical Structure

The physical structure is the first part of the TEACCH method, it identifies the need for clear boundaries to be set in the surroundings or environment. Clear physical boundaries are in place for example, PE is done in the hall with PE equipment, whereas lunch is eaten in the hall when the lunch tables are set. It offers some routine, predictability and clearly sets out expectations, which can reduce anxiety and the possibility of meltdowns.

Consistent Schedules

Consistency in timing of events is the second principle of the TEACCH method. Being consistent with a schedule or timetable not only teaches the students about managing their time but it also can reassure students who need to know what is coming next and reduce stress.  This can be done simply within a classroom setting, with the use of a visual timetable.

Establishment of Expectations

Similarly with the SPELL framework, Establishment of Expectations is also important within the TEACCH method. These expectations tend to be mainly behavioural, however they could be academic, or communication based. Expectations need to be clearly set and can often be done simply within a classroom using social stories, visuals or a traffic light system which clearly demonstrates what is acceptable within the classroom and what is not.

Maintenance of a Routine

Similar to consistency of schedules and expectations, the maintenance of setting up and following a routine is important for students on the spectrum. However this can also be adapted for smaller tasks such as class activities. For example, some students may focus on creating a title for a poster as opposed to the written work they have been set, this in turn may mean they run out of time for the activity. Setting a routine such as “complete the written information first and title second” ensures there is a set pattern to follow and will ensure the task is completed.

Implementation of Visually-based Cues

Implementation of visually based cues is designed to make communication easier for students who may struggle to process written or verbal instructions. The visual information can be graphics, photographs, objects of reference or visual timetables. Along with sensory profiling, it is a good idea to identify which visuals are the most helpful for students as some can become confused with graphics or images they are unfamiliar with. Objects of reference may also be useful when supporting younger children, for example holding up a ball to demonstrate that PE is next.

Addressing cognitive and processing difficulties
Using visual cues to help autistic children access the curriculum

Creating an outstanding educational experience for autistic learners

We have examined the two main approaches when supporting students with autism in mainstream schools, however just as no two people are the same, students with autism will all be different and will require varying methods and it is never a “one size fits all” approach. It is essential for the class teacher to understand the individualised learning plan as well as the education and health care plan. However, there are some key principles and strategies which can be utilised when supporting students on the autism spectrum within the classroom setting.

  • Break down instructions and set tasks in small chunks so as not to overwhelm students who may require extra time when processing information, using or highlighting key words can also make processing language easier for individuals.
  • Visuals within the classroom are always helpful (timetables, schedules, objects of reference). This may also work from the students point of view, they may choose to present their work within the form of a table or mindmap which may suit their understanding.
  • Seating plans in secondary schools and special schools with a clearly set out environment will ensure students on the spectrum are aware of what is expected of them. A seating plan may also make the student feel more comfortable, for example sitting with their back to a wall if they feel anxious about other students behind them, or away from a window which may cause distractions.
  • Using timeout cards to go and visit a breakout spaces can offer students somewhere quiet to work with less distraction or to have some time out to avoid overload and a meltdown
  • Adapting or creating a personalised timetable in academy schools can also be a good idea, for example allowing a student to enter the lunch room either first or last depending on their needs. Going first can mean there is less distractions from other students, however going in last could mean the other students have already left.
  • Alongside reading and creating individualised learning plans and regardless of the type of school, complete a sensory profile in order to determine if the student is over or under sensitive and use this information to differentiate the curriculum.

Providing a complete education for autistic pupils

  • Autism Spectrum Condition is a form of neurodiversity and should be seen as a learning difference
  • The autism spectrum is not linear and students will have a “spikey profile
  • Key areas of neurological differences are social communication and social interaction challenges, repetitive and restrictive behaviour, over- or under-sensitivity to light, sound, taste or touch, highly focused interests or hobbies, extreme anxiety and meltdowns and shutdowns
  • Teaching and learning should be individualised as much as possible, according to the needs of the student
  • Always have somewhere available and a time out system to manage with meltdowns and shutdowns to support with emotional and mental health 
  • Think about the classroom environment and make adaptations where necessary and appropriate, according to the needs of the student

Further reading about autism for teachers

National Autistic Society

TEACCH Approach