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Supporting autistic students

A recent survey from the National Autistic Society revealed some of the problems pupils with autism encounter in education. Here we look at the best ways of helping autistic pupils get the most from their school life


t is estimated that around one in 100 school children in the UK has autism. Education is a fundamental part of every child’s life, but far too many children with autism are not getting the education they

need and deserve. A recent survey from the National Autistic Society (NAS) found that

just half of parents (52 per cent) who have a child with autism feel they are making good educational progress. The research also revealed that seven out of 10 parents found it difficult to get the educational support their child needs, and while they waited and fought for the right support, their child’s educational progress (70 per cent), mental health (60 per cent), behaviour (68 per cent) and self esteem (68 per cent) all suffered enormously. Parents and young people both agree that a good knowledge of

autism helps meet children’s needs. However, 43 per cent of young people with autism felt their teachers do not know enough about the condition.

What is autism? Autism is a lifelong developmental disability affecting the way a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and how they make sense of the world around them. It is a spectrum condition meaning that while all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will

“It is important to understand that punishing a pupil with autism is often counter-productive since their behaviour

difficulties usually stem from their lack of real understanding.”

affect them in different ways. Asperger syndrome is a form of autism. People with Asperger syndrome are often of average or above average intelligence, having fewer problems with speech, but often still facing difficulties with understanding and processing language.

How do these difficulties affect children at school? Every pupil with a diagnosis of autism will be different. Some will be very quiet, others will be noisy and boisterous. But because all children with autism experience some difficulty with social interaction and communication they can find it hard to learn how to play and get on with others. They may not fully understand gestures, facial expressions or tone

of voice, and can find it hard to “fit in”, often having problems in the classroom and playground. Because of this lack of understanding, children with autism can be very vulnerable to bullying at school. Children with autism can find the world around them very overwhelming

and unpredictable and therefore can be adverse to any changes in their routine. This can make it hard for them to cope with transitions at school such as new teaching staff or different class timetables.

22 People with autism think and learn differently meaning that they

require a different approach and potentially a different application of discipline. Pupils with autism or Asperger syndrome can find it difficult to express

their emotions when anxious and this can lead to other emotions such as anger and frustration in an outburst of unwanted behaviour. It is often helpful to look very carefully at what has triggered the reaction of the pupil in the first place, to work at ways of avoiding such situations and of increasing their understanding of similar circumstances. Challenging acts are more often related to anxiety because of an

inability to understand the behaviour and motives of other people around them. Attention seeking behaviour is often about feeling left out as they have not been able to follow the subtleties of everyday social interaction and jokes going on around them. While not excusing poor behaviour, it is important to understand that

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Photo: Stuart Thomas, courtesy of The National Autistic Society

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