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Knowledge Base » Safeguarding » Strategies for Supporting Individuals with Autism in Educational Settings (Autism in Schools)

Strategies for Supporting Individuals with Autism in Educational Settings (Autism in Schools)

Last updated on 16th April 2024

It is estimated that there are around 700,000 adults and children with autism in the UK. According to Beyond Autism, autism is three times more prevalent in boys than girls and 31.3% of pupils with an Education and Health Care Plan have autism listed as their primary type of need. That works out to 103,400 pupils and is the most common type of need listed among EHCPs in the UK. An EHCP is a document which sets out the education, healthcare and social care needs of a child or young person for whom extra support is needed in school.

What is Autism

What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition caused by differences in the brain. It is a neurodiverse condition that impacts the way you think and respond to the world around you. Autism is a spectrum condition that affects people in different ways. Being autistic does not mean you have an illness or disease. It means your brain works in a different way from other people and it is something you are born with. Autism is a type of neurodivergence, which means that the brain of someone with autism works differently from that of someone without the condition. Neurodivergence is the term for when someone’s brain processes, learns or behaves differently from what is considered to be typical. Being neurodivergent was formerly considered to be a problem or abnormal; however, scientists now understand that neurodivergence isn’t necessarily an issue for the individual and that it can have a societal benefit. For further reading about neurodiversity in the workplace please see our knowledge base. 

Scientists believe there are multiple causes of autism that act together to change the most common ways people develop. There is still a lot to learn about these causes and how they impact people with autism. People with autism may behave, communicate, interact and learn in ways that are different from most other people.

Some autistic people need little or no support at all. Other people may need help from a parent or carer every day. 

If you have autism you may:

  • Find it difficult to communicate or interact with other people.
  • Find eye contact difficult.
  • Come across as being blunt, rude or not interested in other people without meaning to.
  • Find it hard to understand or empathise with how other people think or feel.
  • Find things like bright lights, unusual textures or loud noises overwhelming, stressful or uncomfortable.
  • Notice small details, patterns, smells or noises that others do not notice.
  • Become anxious or upset in unfamiliar situations.
  • Enjoy the same routine every day and become anxious if it changes.
  • Have highly focused interests or hobbies.
  • Like to plan things carefully before doing them.
  • Take longer to understand or process information.
  • Have repetitive behaviours or thoughts.
  • Find it hard to say how you feel.

Signs of autism in young children can include:

  • Not responding when you call their name.
  • Avoiding eye contact.
  • Not smiling back when you smile at them.
  • Getting very upset if they do not like a certain taste, smell or sound.
  • Repetitive movements, such as flapping their hands, or rocking their body.
  • Repetitive sounds.
  • Not talking as much as other children.
  • Not enjoying pretend play as much as other children their age do.

Autism can be harder to spot in girls as girls may hide some signs of autism by copying how other children behave and play, show fewer signs of repetitive behaviours and they may appear to cope better in social situations. Studies have estimated that up to 94% of people with autism have or will attempt to mask their symptoms at some point during their lives. This can lead to long-term impacts. Autism masking may be used by people with autism to hide their symptoms. This may be done as a way to make more friends, or to be accepted socially and prevent unconscious bias. People may also mask their symptoms of autism because they don’t want to be treated any differently within society. They also may not be aware that they have autism, and are attempting to mask behaviours that are not the social norm.

Autistic people often have other conditions, such as:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Dyslexia.
  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Epilepsy.
Early Intervention and Diagnosis

Early Intervention and Diagnosis

Early intervention and diagnosis are crucial in autism for several reasons, including:

  • Maximising developmental potentialearly intervention allows for the identification of developmental delays and challenges associated with autism at a young age. By intervening early, appropriate therapies and interventions can begin in order to help children reach their full potential in terms of language, social skills and overall development.
  • Optimising outcomes – research suggests that early intervention can lead to better long-term outcomes for people with autism. It can help improve communication skills, social interactions, behaviour management and cognitive abilities, which can positively impact a child’s life.
  • Facilitating learning – young children have a greater capacity for learning and neuroplasticity, meaning their brains are more adaptable to change. Early intervention takes advantage of this critical period of brain development, making it easier to teach new skills and behaviours.
  • Reducing the impact of symptoms – early intervention can help reduce the severity of symptoms associated with autism. By addressing challenges early on, people with autism may experience fewer difficulties in social situations, communication and daily activities.
  • Supporting families – early diagnosis provides families with the opportunity to access resources, support services and education. It can empower parents and caregivers to better understand their child’s needs and how to support their development effectively.
  • Avoiding or minimising secondary issues – without early intervention, people with autism may face secondary issues such as academic struggles, behavioural challenges and mental health issues. Addressing these challenges early can prevent them from escalating and improve overall well-being and quality of life.

Creating Autism-Friendly Classrooms

Creating autism-friendly classrooms involves designing environments that are supportive and accommodating for students with autism. Some things to consider include:

  • Sensory considerations – minimise sensory overload by controlling noise levels, reducing fluorescent lighting, and providing sensory-friendly spaces which students have access to if they become overwhelmed. Allow for sensory tools such as fidget toys or stress balls that can help students regulate their sensory input.
  • Visual supports – consider using visual schedules, timetables and visual instructions in order to help students understand routines and expectations. Label classroom areas and materials with clear, visual cues to support understanding and organisation.
  • Clear communication – use clear and concise language and avoid ambiguous instructions. Provide opportunities for alternative forms of communication such as picture exchange systems or augmentative and alternative communication devices.
  • Structured environment – establish predictable routines and transitions, providing plenty of advance notice where possible of any changes. Use consistent classroom rules and expectations, and reinforce positive behaviour with clear feedback.
  • Social skills support – incorporate social skills instruction into the curriculum, including explicit teaching of social cues, perspective-taking and problem-solving strategies. Provide opportunities for structured peer interactions and cooperative learning activities.
  • Flexible seating arrangements – allow for flexible seating options in order to accommodate different sensory needs and preferences. Provide quiet areas or designated spaces where students can work independently if needed.
  • Individualised support – this will involve collaborating with parents, special education professionals, and other support staff in order to develop individualised support packages which are tailored to each student’s unique strengths and needs.
  • Implement adjustments and modifications as outlined in students’ EHCP plans, such as extended time for assignments or preferential seating.
  • Positive reinforcement – use a variety of reinforcement strategies, such as praise, tokens or preferred activities, to motivate and encourage positive behaviour. Be mindful of each student’s interests and preferences when selecting reinforcement strategies.
  • Professional development for school staff – provide training and support for teachers and staff on understanding autism and implementing effective strategies for supporting students with autism. Foster a culture of acceptance and inclusion within the school community.
  • Collaboration and support – foster partnerships with community organisations, autism advocacy groups and support networks in order to access resources and additional support for students and families. Encourage open communication and collaboration among teachers, support staff and families to ensure a coordinated approach to meeting students’ needs.
Individualised Education Plans (IEPs)

Individualised Education Plans (IEPs)

If your child has additional needs or special educational needs, a support plan could help. This might be an Education, Health and Care Plan or an Individual Education Plan.

IEPs and EHCPs focus on your child’s individual needs, to help them reach their full potential. IEPs are usually developed collaboratively by teachers, special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs), parents or caregivers, and sometimes the students themselves. They may include information about the student’s strengths, areas for development, and any additional support or adjustments they may need to access the curriculum effectively. 

It is a personalised plan designed to support children and young people with special educational needs (SEN) or disabilities. The purpose of an IEP is to outline the specific educational goals, strategies and support mechanisms required to help a student make progress in their learning.

The plan should be regularly reviewed and updated to ensure it remains relevant and effective in supporting the student’s progress.

Effective Communication Strategies

Communication strategies should be individualised based on the unique strengths, needs and preferences of each child with autism. Regularly assess and adjust your approach based on the child’s progress and feedback from caregivers and professionals.

Some strategies to help facilitate communication with children on the autism spectrum include:

  • Use visual supports – visual aids such as pictures, symbols and schedules can help children with autism understand and anticipate what will happen next. Visual supports can include visual schedules, choice boards and social stories.
  • Use clear and concise language – keep your language simple, concrete and direct.
  • Provide structure and routine – establishing predictable routines can help children with autism feel more secure and understand what to expect. Consistent routines can also support their ability to communicate about their wants and needs.
  • Be patient – allow children with autism extra time to process information and give their responses. Avoid rushing or interrupting them during communication exchanges.
  • Use positive reinforcement – provide praise and encouragement when children with autism communicate effectively, even if their communication is non-verbal. Positive reinforcement can help motivate them to continue practising their communication skills.
  • Follow their lead – pay attention to the child’s interests and preferences, and incorporate them into communication activities. Following the child’s lead can help foster engagement and motivation to communicate.
  • Use visual and gestural cues – use gestures, facial expressions and body language to support verbal communication. Visual cues can help to clarify and reinforce spoken language for children with autism.
  • Create a calm and supportive environment – minimise sensory distractions and create a quiet, structured environment to facilitate communication. Reduce background noise, clutter and other potential sources of sensory overload.
  • Model social communication skills – demonstrate appropriate social communication skills, such as taking turns, listening actively and maintaining eye contact. Modelling these behaviours can help children with autism learn and practise social communication skills.
  • Collaborate with parents and other professionals – work closely with parents, caregivers and other professionals involved in the child’s care to develop and implement effective communication strategies. Collaboration ensures consistency and provides additional support for the child’s communication development.

Managing Sensory Sensitivities

Managing sensory sensitivities for children with autism depends upon individual differences and needs. Sensory sensitivities can vary greatly among children with autism, so it is essential to tailor strategies according to each child’s specific sensory challenges. 

Some things to consider include:

  • Understand triggers – identify the specific sensory triggers that affect the child. These can include loud noises, bright lights, certain textures, strong smells or crowded spaces.
  • Create a sensory-friendly environment – modify the child’s environment in order to minimise sensory overload. This might involve creating a quiet, calm space where the child can go when overwhelmed, using soft lighting, and reducing clutter.
  • Provide sensory breaks – allow the child to take breaks as needed to regulate their sensory input. This could involve providing a sensory toolkit with items like noise-cancelling headphones, or fidget toys.
  • Visual supports – use visual schedules, timers and social stories to help the child understand what to expect and prepare for sensory experiences. Visual supports can provide predictability and reduce anxiety.
  • Offer choice and control – give the child opportunities to make choices about their environment and sensory experiences whenever possible. This can help them feel more empowered and reduce feelings of overwhelm.
  • Gradual exposure – introduce sensory experiences gradually which can help desensitise the child to certain sensory inputs.
  • Provide sensory diet activities – work with an occupational therapist to develop a sensory diet tailored to the child’s needs. A sensory diet includes activities designed to regulate sensory input throughout the day, such as swinging, brushing and deep-pressure activities.
  • Collaborate with professionals – work closely with the child’s healthcare team, which may include occupational therapists, speech therapists and behavioural therapists, to develop individualised strategies and interventions for managing sensory sensitivities.
  • Educate others – educate caregivers, teachers and peers about the child’s sensory sensitivities and how they can support them. Encourage understanding, patience and acceptance of the child’s unique needs.
  • Monitor and adjust – continuously monitor the child’s responses to sensory experiences and adjust strategies as needed. What works for one child may not work for another, so flexibility and ongoing evaluation are important.

Structured Routines and Visual Schedules

Creating structured routines and visual schedules can greatly benefit children with autism by providing predictability, clarity and organisation to their daily lives. Establish consistent daily routines for activities like waking up, meals, school, playtime and bedtime. Consistency can help to reduce anxiety and confusion. Having clear transitions and using visual or auditory cues to signal transitions between activities can also be helpful. This could be a timer, a specific sound or a visual prompt. Breaking tasks into smaller, manageable steps and teaching the child to complete each step before moving on to the next can help make the activity feel less overwhelming.

Creating a visual schedule using pictures, icons or written words to represent each activity in the child’s daily routine can be a great help to some children with autism. Arrange them in sequential order on a board or a chart. Use simple, clear images that accurately represent each activity. You can use pictures from magazines, drawings or images from the internet. You should review the schedule regularly with the child, starting at the beginning of the day and referring back to it throughout the day in order to reinforce understanding and promote independence. You may be able to gradually increase the complexity. This may involve starting with a simple schedule and gradually increasing the complexity as the child becomes more familiar with using visual schedules. Offer the child choices within the schedule when appropriate, allowing them to have some control over their activities. You could even consider creating portable versions of the visual schedule that the child can carry with them throughout the day, such as a small booklet or a keychain. 

Celebrate the child’s achievements and successes in following the schedule, reinforcing positive behaviour, and remember that every child is unique. It is essential to tailor routines and schedules to meet their individual needs and preferences. It is helpful to be flexible and open to making adjustments as needed based on the child’s feedback and any progress they make.

Promoting Social Inclusion

Promoting Social Inclusion

Promoting social inclusion for children with autism requires an approach that addresses their unique needs and challenges while promoting understanding and acceptance within the wider school community. This may include:

  • Education and awareness in the school community.
  • Advocating for inclusive education practices in schools.
  • Social skills training.
  • Implementing peer support programmes where appropriate.
  • Encouraging and supporting participation in community activities and events.
  • Establishing support groups for parents of children with autism.
  • Implementing anti-bullying initiatives in schools to create a safe and supportive environment for all students.
  • Providing accessible communication tools and resources for children with autism to express themselves effectively.
  • Creating sensory-friendly environments within the school.
  • Collaborating with professionals such as speech therapists, occupational therapists and behaviour specialists to provide comprehensive support for children with autism.

Positive Behaviour Support

Positive behaviour support is a proactive approach used in schools to support children with autism and other developmental disabilities. It focuses on understanding the reasons behind their challenging behaviours and implementing strategies to promote positive behaviour while addressing the underlying causes. 

This involves gathering information about when and where the behaviour occurs, and what triggers it. Understanding the function of a behaviour helps educators develop appropriate interventions. An individual support plan can then be created which can outline strategies for preventing challenging behaviours, teaching alternative skills, and responding effectively to the student’s needs.

Family-School Collaboration

Establishing open lines of communication between parents and school staff is crucial. Regular meetings, emails, phone calls or communication apps can be used to share information about the child’s progress, challenges and any changes in behaviour or needs.

The child’s individualised education plan should also be created together and reviewed regularly. 

Consistency in strategies and approaches between home and school environments may be important for some children with autism. Consistent routines, behaviour management techniques and teaching methods to provide stability and predictability for the child may be useful. It is also important to remember that all children will behave differently at school than at home and this is to be expected; having the same approach as is used at school may not be the right fit for all children. As long as you are communicating with school and regularly updating them, that is the most important thing.

Conclusion

Implementing effective strategies for supporting people with autism in educational settings is essential for promoting their academic, social and emotional growth. By adopting a multifaceted approach that combines personalised interventions, inclusive practices and ongoing collaboration among educators, families and specialists, schools can create environments where students with autism thrive. Emphasising flexibility, patience and understanding enables educators to tailor their support to meet the diverse needs of each student, promoting their success and overall well-being.

70% of children and young people with autism are educated in mainstream schools, yet the majority of teachers do not undergo autism-specific training. Supporting children with autism in the classroom requires a combination of understanding, patience and tailored strategies to meet their unique needs. It requires individualised approaches based on the child’s strengths, and challenges. 

If you think you or your child have signs of autism, you should speak to:

  • Your GP.
  • Your health visitor for children under 5 years old.
  • Any other health professional you or your child see, such as another doctor or therapist.
  • A special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) at your child’s school.

The National Autistic Society and Ambitious about Autism provide support for anyone affected.

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About the author

Claire Vain

Claire Vain

Claire graduated with a degree in Social Work in 2010. She is currently enjoying her career moving in a different direction, working as a professional writer and editor. Outside of work Claire loves to travel, spend time with her family and two dogs and she practices yoga at every opportunity!



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