What is Autism?
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. People with autism experience developmental difficulties with regard to: social development, communication and flexibility in thinking in behaviour. These areas of difficulty are experienced by all people with autism, but their individual needs and the level of support required, may vary considerably. Some people with autism may have significant learning difficulties and struggle to communicate whilst others may be very able and have no obvious difficulty with language. Many will fall somewhere between these two, opposite ends of the spectrum.

How Autism Affects Learning
Pupils with ASD have very specific needs and so may require very individual learning approaches that need to be addressed when teaching them. As a result, no single approach or teaching style will be appropriate or successful for every child. It is essential, therefore, that the curriculum is modified and made accessible to children with ASD. By addressing their individual needs and determining appropriate teaching and learning methods which focus and build on the individual’s strengths, the child will have a greater chance to fulfil their potential and the best outcome will be achieved.


Socially, pupils may be isolated or awkward in their relationships with others. The social intricacies that those without ASD may take for granted, such as eye contact and personal space may be misunderstood or not recognised by those with ASD. They may find it difficult to forge relationships with others and may struggle to find common interests with their peer group. In the classroom environment they may find group tasks difficult and standing up in front of the class could be daunting for them. The interactions of others can be baffling for those with autism and so they could choose to isolate themselves or may try to interact but ‘get it wrong’ and so school staff need to be mindful of this.


Communication may appear stilted for those with ASD and they may have difficulty with reciprocity and topic maintenance in conversation. They may struggle to interpret or demonstrate non-verbal communication such as gesture, eye contact and facial expressions. Many pupils, have an excellent use of language and a wide vocabulary yet struggle in some ways, with expressive and/or receptive language which can mean responses or expressions of opinion may appear unusual or even rude. They may struggle to interpret non literal language and so use of sarcasm, jokes or idioms, for example, may confuse them. Tasks involving communication with others may need careful management and support in class. Role Play, group activities, questionnaires and similar activities may be problematic for pupils with ASD.


Flexibility of thinking and behaviour can be impaired and this can mean that individuals with ASD may be rigid in their behaviour and struggle to cope with change. They may be preoccupied with special interests or have inflexible routines/rituals that are very important to them. They may struggle to generalise information and learning, so teachers need to remember that just because a pupil has grasped a concept in one setting/circumstance they may not be able to generalise or transfer this learning to another situation. They may have difficulties with theory of mind, finding it difficult to imagine what others are thinking and not realising how their words or actions affect others and so what may be perceived as rudeness or insensitivity may, in fact, come from an inability to empathise or ‘read’ the minds and feelings of others. Predicting and understanding the behaviour of other people can be very difficult for those with autism.

There are some other difficulties that need to be considered in relation to the learner with autism.

Sensory Processing Differences

Sensory Processing Differences can cause difficulties for those with ASD. The systems through which we process and learn about the world around us: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch, may be perceived differently for some learners with autism. This can mean that everyday classroom sounds, for example, that go unnoticed by the majority of the class may be physically painful or extremely distracting for the person with autism.

Weak Central Coherence

Weak Central Coherence (Frith, 1989), can mean that the learner with autism processes fragments of information rather than the whole. This can mean that they struggle to put information in context or see the ‘bigger picture’. The ability to grasp meaning and make sense of something with multiple details can be difficult for the learner with autism who may, instead, focus on one detail and appear not to notice anything else. This can allow the learner to excel in certain aspects of learning of the curriculum, however, as the attention to detail and focus on one point can be advantageous in some aspects of learning.


Practitioners should be aware that pupils with autism often experience high levels of anxiety associated with the difficulties mentioned above. This, coupled with the difficulties of adolescence and academic pressures for older pupils can be extremely difficult for these young people to manage. It is vital that teaching and support staff are aware that these anxieties can be hugely debilitating for the pupil with ASD and they may require considerable support in managing this.

The pupils with autism in a mainstream classroom may not present with any obvious behaviours related to their autism. Alternatively, they may present as quiet and anxious, pedantic and rude or show behaviour that is not typical. Each will differ in terms of how they are affected by the triad of impairments. The most useful thing we can do, is to take time to get to know the individual, their learning and support needs and the conditions in which they best learn. We can then determine the best way to facilitate learning, prevent increased anxiety and ensure they reach their full potential.

Autism - Some Key Points

  • Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.
  • Autism can be seen within a continuum from mild to severe.
  • Early identification is extremely important for effective intervention.
  • Children with autism can show different characteristics and therefore their needs should be addressed on an individual basis.
  • It is important also to consider the curriculum, differentiation and learning styles as these can help children with autism understand the task more clearly and undertake learning more effectively.
  • The young person with autism may have many strengths and special interests. These strengths may be used to compensate for his/her difficulties and special interests can be used to help engage them in work and increase work output.
  • Autistic people have difficulties with interpreting both verbal and non-verbal language like gestures or tone of voice. It is important to use clear, unambiguous language and clear instructions to ensure understanding.
  • Speaking in a clear, consistent way, using literal language, will help people with autism process what is being said. They may need a little longer to process language.
  • Pupils with autism may struggle to make friends. They will often need a lot of help learning how to manage social interaction. Some young people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) will not desire friendships however, preferring to spend time alone.
  • The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place to autistic people. Daily routines, advanced notice of change and ensuring they have  a clear understanding of rules can help people with ASD find day to day life more predictable and they will feel safer.
  • Most people with ASD will experience heightened anxiety, even if they don’t show it. Anything that you can do to help them feel calm and in control will help.

Autism Facts

  • Autism is much more common than many people think. There are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK – that’s more than 1 in 100. If you include their families, autism is a part of daily life for 2.8 million people.
  • 34% of children on the autism spectrum say that the worst thing about being at school is being picked on.
  • 17% of autistic children have been suspended from school; 48% of these had been suspended three or more times; 4% had been expelled from one or more schools. 

There are many interventions and simple strategies that can help support these children so that they have an enjoyable and fulfilling time in their school.

For further information see: http://www.autism.org.uk


Frith, U. (1989) Autism: Explaining the Enigma Blackwell. London

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