Autistic spectrum

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how someone communicates with and relates to other people and how they experience the world around them.

Children on the autistic spectrum will have a higher chance of developing co-existing mental health problems. However, their spectrum condition may also provide specific strengths which need to be taken into account during teaching. Because autism is a spectrum condition, it affects children in very different ways.

A diagnosis will depend on a number of factors, but especially:

  • Persistent difficulties with social communication, interaction and making friends.
  • Struggling to process information, instructions and learning.
  • Difficulties with imagination which can affect completion of some school tasks.
  • Restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour, activities/interests since early childhood, which are serious enough that they limit and impair everyday functioning.

Spotting the signs

This chart has been adapted from an Australian site called KidsMatter. It’s designed to support the primary school workforce with identifying and supporting children’s mental health.

A child with an autism spectrum disorder may... Parents and carers might notice their child...
  • have trouble understanding nonverbal communication cues
  • doesn't look at them when speaking
  • doesn't notice if they are bored or in a hurry
  • have poor conversation skills
  • talks on and on
  • talks over others and doesn't listen
  • have strong memory for facts and details
  • remembers obscure information, and may insist on all fine details being right
  • have interests that totally take over
  • obsessed with one thing (eg knows everything about a particular make of car and never stops talking about it)
  • take things literally
  • if they are told to 'hold on', may take it literally and take hold of something
  • doesn't understand jokes
  • be good with computers
  • may prefer to work with computers rather than with people
  • have difficulty making friends
  • prefers to be with adults or younger children

Find out more about autism

MindEd is a free educational e-learning resource for professionals on children and young people’s mental health. These sessions aim to help staff better understand autism and how it affects children:

Top Tips

Get to know the child.

And talk to the people who know them best to understand their unique strengths and challenges.

See their behaviour as a form of communication.

Think about what they might be trying to convey. Could it be linked to a communication need; a 'sensory need’, such as being over or under-sensitive to something; or a physical discomfort?

Consider their mental health and wellbeing.

Behaviour change, such as an increased reliance on routines or repetitive actions, can indicate underlying distress.

What schools can do

All staff in schools hold important parts of the jigsaw when trying to make sense of children’s learning patterns and social and emotional functioning.

  • Children on the autistic spectrum may need to be proactively assisted by school staff to learn effectively.
  • Children and parents’ views should shape how they are better enabled to learn.
  • Children on the spectrum may need learning plans that build on their specific strengths and take into account their difficulties.
  • To thrive and avoid social isolation, they may also need support from staff with developing friendships, and social and emotional skills.

If you suspect a child may be on the spectrum, it is important to discuss your observations with your additional learning needs lead, and pastoral lead, so that further assessment can be completed and appropriate action can be planned.

Related resources

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Understanding Autism

Understanding Autism

Free public information resources to help children and communities understand adversity, difficult...

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The National Autistic Society Helpline

The National Autistic Society Helpline

Free and confidential helpline for children and families.

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Growing with autism

Growing with autism

Resources to help primary schools and parents understand and support children on the spectrum.

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  • Welsh Local Government Association

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Recognising Autism

Recognising Autism

Detailed guidance for education professionals about autism from The National Autistic Society.

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