Skip to main content

Following the signs

Offensive remarks, obsessive behaviour and irrational dislikes are just three of the symptoms of autistic disorders. Gill Moore looks at how to cope in the classroom

It is estimated that more than 580,000 people in the UK have autistic spectrum disorders, with boys four times more likely to be affected than girls. So what may be different about an autistic pupil? In all cases, the child will find social interaction and communication difficult and this will usually be combined with some degree of repetitive, stereotyped behaviour. Autism is identified when many of the following symptoms are present: Emotional indifference, lack of empathy.

Difficulty in making social contact.

Repetitive, obsessive behaviour.

Distress, rocking and crying.

Extreme upset by changes to environment.

Sensitivity to light or sound.

Incessant talking about one topic.

Echolalia (repeating the speaker's words).

Developmental delay in language in childhood.

Some people with autism are so badly affected they cannot cope in society.

Others perform particular tasks well, although these are usually highly structured and solitary in nature, such as drawing or playing the piano.

They may have a remarkable recall of facts or numbers.

Asperger's syndrome is a particular type of autism but without the language delay. It is usually less severe. People with Asperger's may have a wide vocabulary and speak fluently, but they understand words literally and find it difficult to respond appropriately in social situations.

What impact is autism likely to have on a child's education? Autistic children are often anxious and they may not concentrate on what they are being told, or remember instructions. They find it hard to take part in group activities because they cannot interpret body language and facial expressions. They may make personal remarks that offend because they say what they think, without judging the impact of their words. You need to help other children understand the autistic child's behaviour.

People with autism hate disturbance to their routine and environment. They need to be prepared for changes through reassurance. Severely affected children exhibit obsessive and repetitive behaviour, eg, constantly turning a door handle. Some may be interested in one subject and pursue it relentlessly, to the exclusion of other subjects. Autistic children may also need help to plan assignments, structure writing and see it through to completion Gill Moore is a lecturer in basic skills and a special needs governor


Use direct questions. Avoid stories that have elements of mystery or ambiguity. Keep directions simple. Give one instruction at a time. Develop routines and warn children when changes are to be made, such as a different teacher or classroom, or a timetable change. Give opportunities for plenty of practice and "over-learning". Use support structures for writing, such as writing frames, gapped handouts and mind mapping. Try to stay calm and patient. Minimise background noise and distractions. Find a seating position where the learner is not affected by bright light. Find ways of assessing learning that allow the child to show what they can do. Avoid involving the child in inappropriate group work. In secondary school, assign a teacher as personal tutor or mentor to whom the child can turn in times of distress. Give them time out in a quiet place, such as the library, if they need it. Think about play times. Work with the supervisors. Can the child be supported by a play leader or playground buddy? Communicate regularly with the parent or carer. Remember that things that calm down other children may only upset an autistic child more.

Further help The National Autistic Society has about 200 leaflets and booklets, and a section for educational professionals. Download fact sheets for parents in various languages. Gateways is a charity in Australia that aims to raise awareness. It has practical advice on teaching children with autism and a behavioural checklist. Short stories specifically written to help autistic children to develop social understanding, such as those by Carol Gray, an American author and educator, may help them learn how to interact. LDA is a company supplying teaching resources for children with special needs.

Teachernet has further information at

Free resources to help pupils with autism at

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you