How Autism Affects Learning
What is Autism?
Autism is a neurobiological difference. Autistic people experience differences with regard to: interaction, social communication and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. They can often hyper focus on subjects that are interesting to them, this would appear to be restricted behaviour to non-autistic people. These areas of difference are experienced by all autistic people to some extent, but their individual needs and the level of support required, may vary considerably. Some may have significant learning difficulties and find it difficult to communicate in the expected way, i.e. verbal communication. Whilst others have no obvious difficulty with language. It is however, important to note that whilst we attribute speaking as the gold standard of communication, many non-speaking autistic people are very able to communicate very well using alternative methods of communication.The autism spectrum is not linear and each individual autistic person will be unique as to where they may be within this spectrum and this can also change from day to day.
Socially, children with autism may be isolated or struggle to forge relationships with others. The social intricacies that those without autism may take for granted, such as eye contact and personal space may be not recognised or used by those with autism owing to sensory difficulties. Due to the difference in communication styles, autistic people may find it difficult to forge make and maintain relationships with each other and with non-autistic people and may struggle to find common interests with their peer group. Some children may not seek or be interested in making friends, preferring their own company.
Autistic people may have difficulty maintaining a two way conversation. They may see little point in small talk, preferring a literal, straight forward, honest style of communication. Likewise, autistic people may not like the use of sarcasm, jokes or idioms, for example, as they may see this as pointless and confusing. Many children with autism have an excellent use of language and a wide vocabulary yet may struggle in some ways, with expressive language (making themselves understood)and/or receptive language (understanding what others are saying or meaning) because non-autistic people may communicate differently or sensory differences may make processing language difficult.
Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests
Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests can mean young people with autism are rigid in their behaviour and may struggle to cope with change. They may be preoccupied with special interests or have routines/rituals that are very important to them. They may struggle to generalise information and learning, so it may be helpful to remember that although they have grasped or learned a new skill in one setting, they may not be able to transfer this understanding to a different place or time. For example, they may cope well shopping in their local supermarket but find the same skill in a different shop overwhelming and be unable to carry out the same task there perhaps owing to sensory differences for example. Predicting and understanding the behaviour of other people can be very difficult for autistic people who can find the ever changing world we live in and perhaps also, the unpredictable behaviour of non-autistic people frustrating or distressing.
Sensory Processing Differences
Sensory Processing Differences causes significant difficulties for many autistic people.The systems through which we process and learn about the world around us: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch, may be perceived differently for some young people with autism. This can mean that everyday sounds, for example, that go unnoticed by the majority of the class may be physically painful or extremely distracting for the autistic person.
It is important to be aware that pupils with autism often experience high levels of anxiety associated with the differences mentioned above. This, coupled with the difficulties of adolescence and academic pressures for older children can be extremely difficult for these young people to manage. It is important to note that children with autism can present very differently at school to at home. At times children will go to school, complete work, appear content and show no behaviour that indicates anxiety or distress. They may mask things at school but get home and become very distressed as they process and calm after a day of trying to behave as others expect them to and ‘hold things together’. It can also work the other way around where all is fine at home but school see different behaviour or attention. Some autistic people explain that trying to conform with expectations from non-autistic people and ways of being is exhausting.
Autism - some key points
- Using clear, unambiguous language and clear instructions to ensure understanding can be helpful.
- Speaking in a clear, consistent way, using literal language, will help people with autism process what is being said.
- Autistic people may need a little longer to process language perhaps because of sensory processing difficulties.
- The way that non autistic people interact and behave can seem a very unpredictable and can be confusing to autistic people. Daily routines, advanced notice of change and ensuring they have a clear understanding of expectations can help autistic people find day to day life more predictable and possibly less anxiety provoking.
- Most autistic people will experience heightened anxiety, even if they don’t show it. Anything that you can do to help them feel calm and in control will help.
- Adaptations such as rest breaks, movement breaks, sensory toys etc. can help regulate sensory processing and help with anxiety.
In the Home - what you can do to support a child with autism at home
What is Autism - A guide for parents in understanding and identifying autism
Parental Transition Support - A guide for parents to help your child at home during what can often be an anxious time for them: changing schools
Transition information for parents
Transition Information for Parents - Helpful information for parents on transition between Primary and Secondary Schools
Transition Workbook - A transition pack for parents, professionals and pupils who are moving to a new school
Preparation for transition to Primary School for Children with Additional Learning Needs (ALN)
The transition to school from a preschool setting is a significant challenge for the young child with autism. Below are a series of practical tips to help with a smooth and successful transition into your chosen school.
- Visit the school beforehand - more than once, if possible. This will help to familiarise your child with the layout and the routes. Ask the Additional Needs Co-ordinator (ALNCo) or class teacher if they have photographs of the different areas in school. This can help with getting to know different areas of the school. They can also be made into a book or used with a Now/Next card. Remember to ask for the school’s induction pack.
- Tell the ALNCo about strategies that have worked for your child in preschool settings.
- Familiarise your child with the route to school. Beforehand, take photographs of the journey and make a “My journey to school” book that the child can follow. Talk to your child about the pictures in book.
- If your child likes to know his/her daily routine, practise at home by using a timetable or a Now/Next card.
- Think about the clothes your child is going to be wearing to school; elasticated waist skirts/trousers and Velcro shoes are easier to manage independently. Practise taking these on and off at home ready for independent dressing and undressing for PE and for going to the toilet.
- Practise nursery rhymes, action songs, recognising their own photo and name, sitting and sharing a book, role-play with their favourite toys, and personal hygiene routines e.g. washing hands, sitting on the toilet.
- If your child is not fully toilet trained, consider toilet training during the holiday before they start school. A useful website for leaflets and resources on toilet training is Promocon.
- School bag clearly marked with child’s photo and name.
- Simple visual timetable of daily routine.
- Use “My journey to school” book each time you go to the school. If you are not picking your child up, ask class teacher to fill in a daily diary highlighting what has happened during the day and notifying you of any changes you need to be aware of.
- Lay uniform out the night before with your child and put a photograph of school on top to visually remind child of school the next day.
- Practise activities at home that maybe causing your child problems e.g. sitting on the floor for circletime, sitting at a table for snacktime, choosing a toy or food from a choice of 3 using real objects or pictures, waiting, lining up, turn taking, walking not running, personal hygiene routines. This will help to build independent skills and encourage your child to ask for help.
- Once settled, try to organise playdays with peers to encourage play/social skills.
Autism Video - Story 1
Autism Video - Story 2
Autism Support Resources
Support for children and young people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in educational settings – Welsh Government
Sensory Based Strategies - Sensory based strategies to support participation in activities
‘Deep Pressure’ Methods - Methods to help children and young people regulate their responses to sensory stimulus
Understanding Sensory Processing Difficulties - Information for Schools and Teacher’s Sensory Processing Difficulties
Classroom and Playground - Support for children with Autism spectrum disorders
Making Friendships Work - Supporting for children with Autism in the classroom
Toilet Training for children with Autism
Six Tips to Cope With Anxiety
Autistic Spectrum Disorder - A brief fact sheet on Autism
Swimming Leaflet - Helping Pupils with Autism enjoy Swimming
Signs of Autism in Children - A film about the SIGNS of autism in children
Cumine, V., Dunlop, J. and Stevenson G. (2010). Autism in the Early Years. 2nd ed. London: Routledge. Provides accessible material, support and advice for parents, teachers and professionals who are working together in an unfamiliar area following early diagnoses of autism in young children.
Hannah, L. Teaching Young Children with autism spectrum disorders to learn. A practical guide for parents and staff in mainstream schools and nurseries London: National Autistic Society
The National Autistic Society
TEACCH Autism Program
Carol Gray Social Stories
Film: Can you make it to the end?
A short film that shows what some autistic people face every day - Produced by the National Autistic Society
You can contact an Advisory Teacher for Autism on 07867 461745.