About autism

Autism is a condition which impacts the way a student may experience and interact with their environment and others in their environment. Every student with autism is different, there is no ‘one size fits all’. This means that the characteristics of autism may differ significantly from one student to another.

Students with autism typically experience differences in their:

  • Initiations and responses during communication. Some students might have lots of language and others might only use a few words or no words. Autistic students tend to speak very honestly, and may misunderstand others when language isn’t direct (e.g. sarcasm or jokes). They may take longer to understand communication, and some students may make statements that don’t fit the flow of conversation or context.
  • Interpretations and use of nonverbal communication. Autistic students may avoid or dislike eye context, their facial expressions may be less expressive than other students, and they may not use gestures (e.g. pointing) when communicating. Students may become frustrated and distressed when their attempts to communicate verbally or nonverbally are not understood, which may result in challenging behaviours.
  • Interactions and understanding in social contexts. Students with autism may misunderstand social interactions, including unspoken social rules or conventions. They also may not perceive and follow the ‘rules’ of conversation, such as taking turns. Although they may have social difficulties they are often keen to join in, they just might not know how.
  • Behaviours or interests. Students with autism may follow routines and class rules well as they tend to like things to be done in a particular way or order. They may have a favourite activity that they are happy to do over and over again, and they may need warning before switching between tasks.
  • Reactions to sensory input Some students may find loud noises or particular sounds or textures uncomfortable. As every student with autism is different, it is important that the teacher understands the student’s sensory needs, to provide appropriate supports and ensure the classroom environment is inclusive.
A note on language; How you speak about autism is an important issue to many. Some autistic people and families prefer ‘autism’ over ‘autism spectrum disorder’. Some students and their families prefer a person-first approach, where you refer to the person before their diagnosis — so ‘student with autism’. This puts the focus on the young person, rather than his or her diagnosis. However, others may prefer identity-first language, so ‘autistic student' rather than a ‘student with autism’. This is becoming increasingly common and can help individuals to claim their disabilities with pride, whilst challenging negative stereotypes about autism. For more on language visit AllPlay Learn's Secondary teacher language guide

Some autistic students may have learned to 'mask' (hide or camouflage) their autistic characteristics, which can have a negative impact on their wellbeing. Learn more about what masking may look like, and tips on how to support a student who is masking, in this brief overview.


What might be some strengths?
  • Some students may have good visual perceptual skills. They might be good at visual searches and recognition.
  • Recognising different sounds and music can be a strength.
  • Some students may be good at recognising patterns and solving problems.
  • Students with a strong interest in a particular topic may have learned lots of information about that topic.
  • Some students may provide new or interesting responses to creative tasks (e.g., creating new metaphors).
  • Understanding and reasoning about physical objects or properties may be a strength.
    Where might you provide support?
    • Some students might find it hard to fit in socially. They might find it hard to join in with a group. They may find making eye contact unnatural or difficult.
    • They may find recognising or understanding the emotions of others challenging without help.
    • They might have difficulties expressing themselves or understanding the meaning of things said to them. They tend to learn well with concrete, rather than abstract, examples.
    • They might find it harder to understand instructions. They benefit from support in using a skill they learned in one task or context in another context (generalisation).
    • They tend to be less unsettled when they are warned about upcoming changes to plans or transitions between tasks.
    • They may be sensitive to certain sounds or other sensations.
    • Some students may find some motor tasks such as writing or drawing difficult.
    • They may become easily overwhelmed and have emotional ‘meltdowns’.

    Evidence-based strategies

  • Some tasks may need to be changed for a student. Where you can, use concrete materials, and provide pictures showing how to complete a task, rather than using abstract concepts.
  • Present information and tasks in different forms. When engaging students in abstract or complex tasks (for example, interpreting metaphors), provide these in written or visual form, rather than only providing these verbally.
  • Students may need to practise a task or behaviour many times. Lots of time to practise in different settings and with different materials can help students learn to use that skill in other situations.
  • Offer fewer tasks with more opportunities to practise. This helps students to learn tasks and may be more helpful than offering many tasks with little opportunity to practise.
  • When a task is new, students will learn best with help. Provide them with help (i.e. prompts, demonstrations, encouragement). This can be gradually reduced as they become more capable. Help can be provided by teachers or other students.
  • Provide lots of opportunities for students to work together. Students with and without autism can get to know each other and build friendships through working together. Students can also learn through watching others. Consider ways in which you can facilitate a student’s interactions with others in a group. See peer mediation for tips on this.
  • When appropriate, give individualised tasks. Consider giving specific roles or tasks to students in a group if a student with autism is working with tailored materials or instructions. You could also select a student in a group to be a tutor or mentor.
    • Teach self-instruction skills. Consider guiding students to problem solve so they can persist with schoolwork instead of getting frustrated. For example, they can follow these steps mentally or think out loud: “What is the problem?”, “What are my options?”, “I think this is the best option”, “Am I following my plan?” and “How did I do it?”
    • Teach students how to self-monitor. Consider giving students a checklist of behaviours that they would like to work on. Prompt them to check off the list throughout the day. View AllPlay Learn's self-monitoring form below.
    • Provide instructions to students about strategies they can use when taking tests.
    • Give encouragement and correction. Immediate positive feedback and correction when students are learning a task or behaviour can be helpful. This can be reduced gradually as they build their capability.
    • Where possible, provide choices to students in their learning. For example, literacy and art tasks could provide opportunities to incorporate interests in anime, or a mathematics task could involve calculating the probability of a student's favourite sports team making the finals.
    View an example demonstrating how a teacher can use a strengths-based approach to apply evidence-based strategies to support a student with autism.

    Best practice tips

  • Visual cues or schedules can help students understand what is coming up and when they should complete a transition from one activity to another.
  • Explicitly teach organisational skills. See the AllPlay Learn story how to be organised to help students learn new routines and habits for secondary school.
  • Teacher emotional support and encouragement helps a student with autism achieve better results. Help a student know that they are valued and supported.
  • Consider providing a quiet area that a student with autism can go to if they are feeling overwhelmed. Having access to a trusted adult can also support students when they are feeling overwhelmed. Use our anxiety resource toolkit to recognise and support student anxiety.
  • Talk to parents and the young person’s support team to find out the best way to work with and support the student. Parents can help you understand a young person’s unique strengths and areas they need more help. You could ask parents to complete AllPlay Learn’s strengths and abilities communication checklist to find out more information about the student.
    • Use learning and memory strategies that allow students to complete tasks independently. For example, task analysis can be used to break down a skill the student is learning, and mnemonic devices can be used to help the student remember theories.
    • Consider trialling (and monitoring) changes to the classroom environment. This may include creating designated spaces for specific classroom activities, providing enclosed areas that reduce distractions, providing spaces with dimmable or reduced lighting, and reducing detail in visual displays.
    • Some students may choose to disclose their diagnosis to peers. This can be a positive or a challenging experience for students. Understanding the student's experience of disclosure, to provide support if needed, may be helpful. Read this journal article to develop your knowledge about some of the positive or negative experiences that other autistic students and adults have experienced when disclosing their diagnosis to others. Listen to Ellen's story about sharing her autism diagnosis with others.
    • Consider how technology may support a student’s organisation and planning. For example, consider the use of software or apps that can help a student to keep track of their homework tasks, or the use of a silent vibration alert on a watch to support them with self-monitoring.
    • Talk to students about the purpose for individual education and transition plans, and the benefits of students being actively involved. Provide them with opportunities to be actively involved, including when planning for transitions, and teach them about the roles of people involved, key terminology used, and skills that will support their active participation.
    • Promote self-determination. Empower and teach students to make simple choices, set goals, be independent, and develop problem-solving abilities. Use technology as needed. For example, technology can be used by students who communicate non-verbally to indicate preference.

    Curriculum considerations

  • Students with autism may find loud noises or specific textures in music, woodworking, drama, or art overwhelming. Consider providing choices in activities or materials. Allowing students to go to a quiet space or use noise-reducing headphones or different materials may help.
  • Some students may need support with reading comprehension. In particular, because students with autism can find understanding social situations or other people’s emotions and thoughts challenging, they may find interpreting the actions and intentions of characters difficult. One strategy that may assist is teaching students how to use reciprocal questioning in peer groups. Consider asking students to work in small groups to (i) guess what may happen next, (ii) identify words that they don’t understand, (iii) ask questions about the plot and characters and (iv) summarise parts of the story.
  • Some students with autism find pronouns (a word that replaces a person or object, such as I, me, or you) challenging. This is possibly because students with autism often echo other people’s speech and have trouble understanding the social rules of language. They may need help to identify the pronouns when reading.
  • Some students may need support with loud or messy changing rooms. Displaying clear change room rules in the change rooms may help. Consider letting a student with autism come to school in their sports uniform or change clothing when the change rooms will not be as busy. See AllPlay Learn’s story school uniforms under relevant resources below.
  • Adapt activities to be as inclusive as possible.
  • For health, the normal sexuality education curriculum can be taught to students with autism. Extra content may also need to be covered. In particular, appropriate social behaviour could be discussed, including appropriate vs inappropriate settings, and who it is appropriate to show affection to.
  • Some students with autism may have much knowledge in an area of the humanities curriculum if it is one of their special interests. This can give them an opportunity to share their knowledge with others.
  • Students with autism who have communication challenges may need support with learning a new language.
  • Assess whether learning a language will be of advantage to them on a case-by-case basis.
  • If they are learning a language, focus on areas of strength and build from there.
  • Some students with autism may have trouble understanding maths questions using complex language (i.e. ‘Jonny had 368 apples and ate 25’ is more difficult than 368 – 25 = ?). Consider keeping language simple.
  • Some students with autism may use the same strategy each time instead of trying new ways of solving a problem. Consider teaching them a range of different strategies for solving mathematics problems. Written or picture prompts can remind them to use that strategy.
  • Some students prefer things to be exact, and so they may not like to use estimation.
  • Concrete materials and strategies may be needed for some students.
  • Visuals can support students by acting as a concrete example of the mathematics problem in action.
  • Lots of time to practise can help.
  • Provide positive feedback and provide lots of opportunities to practise.
  • Students with autism may need help to use theory or skills they learn in one task in a new task.
  • Some students with autism may have much knowledge in an area of the science curriculum if it is one of their special interests. This can give them an opportunity to share their knowledge with others.
  • Many students enjoy digital technology and will be motivated by this subject.
  • Some students with autism may have much knowledge in an area of the technologies curriculum if it is one of their special interests. This can give them an opportunity to share their knowledge with others.
  • Other considerations

  • Consider providing support with planning and organisation.
  • Consider sensitivity to smells and textures when giving first aid to a student with autism. Some students may be distressed by blood or bandages or refuse to have an ice pack or medication.
  • When possible talk to a student or their caregivers to identify the best way to manage an injury/illness.
  • Students with minimal language may have difficulty communicating that they are in pain or unwell. Watch for signs of pain such as grimacing and encourage gestures or other methods of communication to work out what may be happening.
  • Identifying the cause of a student’s behaviour can help both the teacher and the student feel less frustrated.
  • Some common causes of challenging behaviour include difficulty in communicating their wants and needs, feeling anxious, sensory overload, trouble understanding or working on a task, or not understanding rules or expectations.
  • Consider sharing age-appropriate stories which outline positive behaviour. Other options include showing videos of positive behaviour or asking others student to model positive behaviour.
  • Refer to the ABC approach for more information on how to reduce challenging behaviour by supporting the young person and promoting more helpful behaviour, and our emotions page for more information about supporting a young person with managing their emotions.
  • A teenager with autism may find understanding friendships and being different challenging. See AllPlay Learn’s stories What is bullying and what to do about it, Cyberbullying and Monday freak out under relevant resources below.
  • Provide universal and targeted bullying prevention. Increasing the understanding of students, families and staff about disability, and providing peer-mediated interventions against bullying, helps create a positive school culture that supports positive peer inclusion.
  • Explicitly teach students about friendship, emotions, and social interpersonal problem solving.
  • Read more about how peer mediation and group work can support peers with learning social and communication skills that facilitate the inclusion of students with disabilities.
  • Read more about the steps teachers can take to support a student who is being bullied or excluded at school.
  • A student with autism may find moving from primary school to secondary school challenging. Some students may feel anxious about the transition, or experience challenges adjusting to the new routines. These challenges can impact learning and engagement, and so transition support is important.
  • Hold a transition planning meeting prior to the transition to engage in student-centred planning with the student and their family, former education setting, and when relevant, their health professionals.
  • Identify a point of contact for parents throughout the transition process, and provide more frequent communication (e.g., daily) with parents early in the transition.
  • Ask parents to share key information about the student’s strengths, interests, and specific strategies that have been helpful and preferred by the student (e.g., sensory adjustments). Ask parents to complete AllPlay Learn's Strengths and Abilities Communication Checklist.
  • Multiple visits to the new school before starting and an opportunity to meet their new ‘homeroom’ teacher may be helpful. This can help students become familiar with the new setting, and to establish communication and partnership with the family.
  • Clear schedules and timetables provided ahead of time can make routines predictable for a student.
  • Visual supports such as photos of school buildings, maps, photos of teachers and staff, checklists and visual timetables may be helpful for some students.
  • Peer buddies can provide social support, in addition to a safe person or place that a student can access when they need support.
  • Monitor the student’s transition into your classroom. Signs that the student has made a successful transition include positive and respectful relationships between the teacher, peers, and the student, continued academic achievement within the same level (or only slightly lower), and the student knowing key school buildings and staff or students well.
  • Teaching positive coping strategies for managing emotions may also be helpful.
  • For more information about supporting students with disabilities when transitioning to a secondary school setting access AllPlay Learn's transition page.
  • Relevant resources

    Visit our resources page for a range of resources that can help to create inclusive education environments for students with disabilities and developmental challenges. Some particularly relevant resources for students with autism are:

    Strengths and abilities communication checklist
    Student self-monitoring form
    Locker checklist
    Peer mediation
    Peer information sheet - autism
    Story - How to be organised
    Story - School uniforms
    Story - What is bullying and what to do about it
    Story - Cyberbullying
    Story - Monday freak out

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