Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition which affects how people communicate and interact with the world. Some autistic people need little or no support, whereas others may need help from a carer or a parent every day. It is not clear what causes autism, although it can often affect people in the same family so there may be a link with genetics.
The diagnostic criteria of autism has changed over the decades and the autism spectrum covers a wide range of needs. The latest diagnostic manual (DSM-5) defines autism spectrum disorder as “persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction” and “restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests” (this includes sensory behaviour), present since early childhood, to the extent that these “limit and impair everyday functioning”.
It is estimated that 1 in 100 children and young people have autism, with around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK. However, autism can be hard to detect in some young people, particularly girls, so there may be some children or young people in your setting who are not yet diagnosed. the information that follows relates to autism without co-occuring Intellectual Disability (ID) (which is heightened in autism).
Many autistic adults do not like the term “disorder” or being referred to as having “deficits” in certain areas. Instead, we can consider these as areas of difference. There are four key areas of difference for autistic people:
Differences in expressive abilities and understanding verbal and non-verbal language, like tone of voice or gestures. Skills can range from being highly articulate to using few or no words at all and they may find it difficult to understand sarcasm or not take things literally. Autistic people who use few or no words may have a co-occurring Intellectual Disability (ID). The prevalence of ID is higher in autistic people than non-autistic people.
Interests & information processing
Differences in passions for their interests, planning and understanding of concepts. It may take extra time to process information or answer questions as it is more difficult to absorb spoken information. Autistic people often prefer to have routines so they know what is going to happen and changes to these routines can be distressing. They may engage in repetitive movements or behaviours to calm themselves or which can be calming or enjoyable.
Differences in understanding social behaviour and understanding the feelings and intentions of others. This can make it difficult to develop and maintain relationships and friendships. Autistic people might prefer to spend time on their own.
Differences in perceiving sensory information. This can be over or under sensitivity to touch, taste, smell, sound, light, colour, temperature or pain. It can also affect the vestibular system, so balance and special orientation, and the proprioceptive system, which relates to body awareness and co-ordination.
The four areas of difference shown here are particularly important to understand and pay attention to because most children and young people will have individual educational needs to be met in these areas.
Whilst it is recognised that autistic people may experience challenges in these areas of difference, it is important to remember they also have many strengths. For example, autistic children and young people may have good attention to detail, a strong sense of morality and a good memory or level of expertise about topics they are interested in. If their needs are identified and they receive appropriate support, many autistic young people can experience relatively few difficulties in their school lives and as they progress into adulthood. Note that the presence of ID would mean that these strengths are not present.
Spotting the signs
The medical name for autism is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and to receive a diagnosis a child will be assessed by a multi-disciplinary team of clinicians. How differences present themselves will vary in each child with autism, some signs to look out for suggested by the NHS are listed below.
Signs to look out for in young children
Not responding to their name
Not smiling 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, flicking their fingers or rocking their body
Not talking as much as other children
Repeating the same phrases
Signs to look out for in older children
Not seeming to understand what others are thinking or feeling
Finding it hard to say how they feel
Liking a strict daily routine and getting very upset if it changes
Having a very keen interest in certain subjects or activities
Getting very upset if you ask them to do something
Finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on their own
Taking things very literally – for example, they may not understand phrases like “break a leg”
Every child with autism is different and it may be harder to spot in some. For example, autistic girls may be quieter, may hide their feelings and may appear to cope better with social situations.
Teachers play an invaluable role in assisting with their pupils. Whilst we are preparing ourselves to help others we must also look after ourselves; we’ve got some advice and guidance on this in the section. As with all matters of mental health taking time to gain awareness of conditions like low mood and depression helps to build confidence in what to do and how to support early intervention and prevention. Whilst we are preparing ourselves to help others we must also look after ourselves, we’ve got some advice and guidance on this in the teacher wellbeing section
Overcoming the barriers to inclusion in education
The National Autistic Society has provided some tips for overcoming barriers that autistic students may face in classroom settings. They suggest:
Getting to know the individual
Work in partnership with the autistic student, their parents and other professionals
Address issues around stress and anxiety
Make reasonable adjustments to school policies and practices