Learn about autism, how it presents in children and young people, and how to support your pupils in the classroom.


Autism is a form of neurodivergence - a difference in the way the brain develops before birth and during childhood.

Autistic people process sensory information differently. This affects how they communicate, behave, and experience the world around them.

Autism is a spectrum. It presents differently in each person. It is classed as a disability in the UK.

Every person with autism is different and unique. Some autistic people can live completely independently. Others may have learning differences or co-occurring health conditions that need specialist support.

All autistic people can live happy and healthy lives if their needs are met.

Understanding differences

While each individual is different, there are some differences in communication, behaviour and sensory processing that are relatively common among children and young people with autism.

An understanding of these differences can help you to support your pupils in the classroom.

Communication differences

Some autistic people are non-speaking. Some speak minimally, and others can be hyperverbal. They might also repeat specific words, phrases or noises.

Some autistic people may have typical or very good speech and language skills, but struggle to use their voice in groups. This often derives from anxiety, or previous experience of their communication skills being judged or invalidated.

Social differences

Autistic people are often expected to conform to social norms and expectations. This can lead to them engaging in masking.

This involves suppressing certain behaviours, or mimicking others in order to fit in. This can be exhausting, and cause increased anxiety and burnout.

This may mean that autistic people prefer to spend time their time alone, which can lead to isolation and loneliness.

Behavioural differences

Some autistic children and young people may engage in repetitive play and activities. They might have intense and specific interests and focus deeply on one thing.

They may find it difficult to transition away from these activities. Transitions that aren’t properly managed can lead to distress and meltdowns.

Some autistic people may also make repetitive movements, such as flapping or finger-twirling. This is known as stimming. This can help autistic children and young people to process information, and to calm themselves down when they are excited or overwhelmed.

You shouldn’t prevent a child or young person from stimming. This can make them more anxious and stop them processing information.

Sensory processing differences

Some autistic people may find some stimuli, such as certain lights or sounds, to be uncomfortable. They may hear or perceive sensory information that non-autistic people don’t, such as noise from lights or electricity buzzing.

This can be overwhelming, and cause differences in the way autistic people behave or respond. This can lead non-autistic people to presume that an autistic person is ’behaving badly’ or trying to be disruptive in the classroom.

How to support autistic children and young people in the classroom

School can be a difficult environment for children and young people with autism. A lack of understanding from staff and peers can be distressing and anxiety-provoking.

All school staff can help to support children and young people with autism.

Working with parents and carers, and other specialists where appropriate, you should follow the autistic person’s lead to help them to feel safe, validated, and able to act authentically.

  • Empower the child or young person

Let them lead: work with the pupil to meet their specific needs, as well as to build on their strengths. This might include working with them to create an individual learning plan.

  • Create a structured and predictable environment

Establish a consistent daily routine. Use a visual schedule that displays the day’s activities. Provide warning if there is an upcoming change and help the pupil to manage transitions.

  • Support learning and communication differences

You could use sign language, visual aids and other alternative communication devices to help validate autistic pupils’ communication and to ensure that they are heard.

  • Create a sensory-friendly classroom

Carry out a sensory audit of your classroom and consider adapting your classroom. You might reduce sources of excess noise or light, provide sensory-rich materials, or other sensory aids.

  • Improve awareness of autism among all your pupils

Use tutor time and PSHE as opportunities to teach pupils about autism and to foster an inclusive learning environment.

Advocate for increased awareness of autism throughout your school or college, and adopt a whole-school approach to support all learners with their mental health and wellbeing.

Top tips

Understand differences

Familiarise yourself with the communication, behaviour and sensory processing differences in pupils with autism, and how they may present in the classroom.

Make adjustments

Consider ways that you can adapt the school or college environment to make it more inclusive and supportive for those with autism.

Create an inclusive environment

Improve understanding of autism across the whole school or college community, and work to build an environment where those with autism feel able to be their authentic selves.

Further information and support

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