What is autism?

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. (National Autistic Society)

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition that affects social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour. (NHS)

The National Autistic Society estimates that 11 in 1000 people are on the autistic spectrum.


April 2nd was World Autism Awareness Day and April is Autism Awareness Month – learn how to say it in 9 languages below!multilingual flashcards autism

An interesting introduction to autism by a 13-year old girl with Asperger’s Syndrome

This TED talk looks at what we know about the causes of autism and what we need to do to understand more

An award-winning documentary (~20 minutes) from America about autism

How can we recognize it?

People with ASD tend to have problems with social interaction and communication.

social communication

In early infancy, some children with ASD don’t babble or use other vocal sounds. Older children have problems using non-verbal behaviours to interact with others – for example, they have difficulty with eye contact, facial expressions, body language and gestures. They may give no or brief eye contact and ignore familiar or unfamiliar people.

Children with ASD may also lack awareness of and interest in other children. They’ll often either gravitate to older or younger children, rather than interacting with children of the same age. They tend to play alone.

They can find it hard to understand other people’s emotions and feelings, and have difficulty starting conversations or taking part in them properly. Language development may be delayed, and a child with ASD won’t compensate their lack of language or delayed language skills by using gestures (body language) or facial expressions.


Children with ASD will tend to repeat words or phrases spoken by others (either immediately or later) without formulating their own language, or in parallel to developing their language skills. Some children don’t demonstrate imaginative or pretend play, while others will continually repeat the same pretend play.

Some children with ASD like to stick to the same routine and little changes may trigger tantrums. Some children may flap their hand or twist or flick their fingers when they’re excited or upset. Others may engage in repetitive activity, such as turning light switches on and off, opening and closing doors, or lining things up.

Children and young people with ASD frequently experience a range of cognitive (thinking), learning, emotional and behavioural problems. For example, they may also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, or depression.


About 70% of children with ASD have a non-verbal IQ below 70. Of these, 50% have a non-verbal IQ below 50. Overall, up to 50% of people with “severe learning difficulties” have an ASD.

(This section from NHS)


How can we support learners in the classroom?


Some strategies you can use in your classroom include:

  • Use simple, concrete language e.g. ‘Pens down, books closed and line up please’ instead of ‘The weather looks nice today so we’re going to line up to go outside. Please make sure your pens are down and your books are closed before you line up’
  • Use a visual timetable and /or set routines for transitions throughout the day. This is also useful for children with other SENDs and, in general, for making sure everyone in the classroom is on the same page.
  • Teach specific social rules or etiquette – remind children of behaviour expectations and model how to handle various situations. I did this a lot when I taught in Early Years but I still find it useful even in Year 3! With older children it can also work to show a bad example and ask them to improve it – beware as this may prove confusing for children with autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Like all other teaching strategies, your professional judgement as a teacher is the most important factor – you know your pupils so you know what works for them.
  • Give very clear choices e.g. ‘Would you like red or blue?’ instead of ‘Which colour would you like?’
  • Think carefully about avoiding sarcasm and rewording idiomatic phrases to be sure all children have understood. This is also useful for children who are learning in their second language.
  • When giving verbal instructions ensure written support (e.g. display on whiteboard or individual checklist) to help children stay on track. I find this useful for general classroom management, not only to support children with SENDs. When I am working with an individual or group (and therefore the pupils are supposed to be working independently) I always have a display saying ‘What should I be doing right now? with a checklist and a reminder of strategies if stuck (e.g. check working wall, ask person beside me, etc)
  • Clearly signpost or explain any changes in routine e.g. visitor from outside, special event to minimize distress
  • Play to pupils’ strengths (autistic or not!) – each pupil is unique and has individual strengths and weaknesses. Find out some of the strengths of each child and build your teaching around those strengths and interests to promote the development of self-esteem, just the same way as you design your teaching to help pupils overcome weaknesses.
  • See some more strategies here and here


A case study looking at one school that provides specialist support for children with autism, as much as possible in the mainstream classroom

Other case studies and tried and tested strategies can be found here.

High functioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome – what do educators need to know?


Be aware of how ambient noise can affect learners with autism – experience what it might feel like to have sensory sensitivity by watching the  two short videos below (1  min each)

Download a free kit to help teachers support learners with autism

References / Further Reading

National Autistic Society website

NHS guidance

The Autism Helper – website with resources for teachers and TAs

Information on Asperger’s Syndrome

Other conditions that may exist alongside autism

How does autism overlap with other developmental disabilities?

Information and support for teachers

22 tips for teaching children with autism

Practical teaching strategies for children with autism


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