The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Gareth D Morewood

Autism and education: key points and resources

When providing the best provision for pupils with autism there are many aspects and people to consider. Gareth D Morewood collates why we know what we know.

I have written quite a lot about autism and education, indeed it is possibly the area I have most involvement with as a SENCo, researcher and supporter of families and young people. With the raft of changes and pressures in the educational system at the moment it is easy to forget some of the stark realities relating to outcomes for autistic young people in our schools.

In this half-term post I intend to summarise some of the key points and signpost previous resources to support SENCo colleagues in supporting better outcomes for this group of young people.

The statistics

Let us remind ourselves as to why this topic should still be high on our agendas.

  • Only 23% of pupils with ASC achieved 5 or more A*-C grades (including English and Maths) at GCSE, compared to 54% among all students in the same year (DfE, 2010, 2011).
  • Pupils with ASC are more likely to receive both fixed-term and permanent exclusions from school than their peers (DfE, 2013a, 2013b).
  • A range of studies in different countries have also demonstrated that they are amongst the most likely to be bullied in the school population (Schroeder et al, 2014).
  • 70% of parents report experiencing difficulties in getting the educational support their child needs, with 18% having to resort to the tribunal system to achieve this (National Autistic Society, 2011).
  • Prevalence rates of anxiety, depression and anger problems are significantly higher among young people with ASC than their peers (Hebron & Humphrey, 2014).

Why school can be such a challenging place for young people with autism

For the student:

  • learning in a social setting, reading social situations, deciphering the unwritten rules
  • learning in a complex language environment with limited visual support
  • understanding and communicating with other pupils and adults
  • coping with change, transitions and unexpected breaks in routine
  • day to day organisation
  • generalising learning beyond the setting in which it took place.

For staff and parents:

  • gaining, maintaining and refocusing attention
  • motivation
  • differentiation of language and/or curriculum
  • managing and understanding presenting behaviour
  • accommodating special interests.

For the peer group:

  • lack of understanding
  • resenting extra attention
  • social advances that are ignored or rejected
  • distraction or disruption
  • feeling that double standards are applied (‘getting away’ with things)
  • being nervous or fearful
  • ignoring, teasing, winding up, bullying (Morewood, Humphrey & Symes, 2011).

What do parents and carers and young people with autism want?

Autism to be viewed as difference, not disorder

  • 'My brain is different, but I’m not bad' [YP] (National Autistic Society, 2011, p.4).
  • 'I’m fine with it… sometimes it upsets what I do but it’s a small compromise with friends that I’ve got and like the problems they’ve got… it gives me all those bonuses' [YP] (Humphrey & Lewis, 2008, p.32).
  • '[Autism] is not a disease that must be corrected. It is a different way of thinking that must be taught differently' [parent] (Sciutto et al, 2012, p.181).

Support to negotiate their differences

  • 'I did have a teacher that had us do a journaling exercise. In one entry, I was whining about all the things I that I tried to be “normal” and he told me that I should think about just not trying for once and being myself. I would feel more successful. It took me a lot of years to figure out what that meant, but I finally figured it out and I live by that. Don’t try to do what you think everyone else wants or need you to do, just be yourself' [YP] (Sciutto et al, 2012, p.182).

Better understanding of the challenges of school for pupils with autism

  • 'It’s really hard to go to school. People don’t understand how hard it is. They judge me for doing things I can’t help' [YP] (National Autistic Society, 2011, p.7).
  • 'The noisier or more larger the group, the more difficult it is' (Connor, 2000, p.291).
  • 'Because I am well-behaved in school, I get overlooked when I am requiring help' [YP] (National Autistic Society, 2011, p.27).
  • Teachers and school staff to set a positive example.
  • 'You, the teacher, can make a huge difference – positive or negative – in the way other students view a child with autism. As the leader of the classroom, you set the tone. Be careful not to give the others license to bully that child' [parent] (Sciutto et al, 2012, p.182).
  • 'Her most recent teacher made a point of telling our child regularly, ‘I am not giving up''' (Sciutto et al, 2012, p.182).

Understanding of the individual student and their autism

  • 'He is a CHILD first… Do not focus on the disability, but rather his tremendous abilities' [parent] (Sciutto et al, 2012, p.180).
  • 'The more they learn about Asperger’s the more sympathetic they feel' (Humphrey & Lewis, 2008, p.40-41).
  • 'I am leaving my present school as they do not understand autism at all. I get treated pretty much the same as other children although I don’t think I act like them. I am different but they don’t take much notice of me at my school' [YP] (National Autistic Society, 2011, p.18).
  • 'You met another kid on the spectrum? That’s nice. Here’s another one. Not the same one. Another one' [parent] (Sciutto et al, 2012, p.180).
  • Make use of the differences associated with autism in a positive way.
  • 'His teacher realized that my son’s “obsessive interest" revolved around sprinklers, fire alarms and bells. He asked my son to bring in some of his collection and made it a point to design many of his Algebra classes around these items (e.g. ‘find the circumference of a fire bell’).  My son not only got an A in that class but for the first time, actually looked forward to going to school in the morning. It was huge for us!' [parent] (Sciutto et al, 2012, p.183).
  • 'People are often questioning me… "How do you know all this, how do you know all that?"… I often feel proud of myself' [YP] (Humphrey & Lewis, 2008, p.32).

Peer support and understanding

  • 'People don’t get on with me and I don’t really get on with them and I often try to make friends with them . . . [but] they often just go against me' [YP] (Humphrey & Lewis, 2008, p.35).
  • 'Yeah if people are nice to you, you feel better. When I was in school when people didn’t like me it was rubbish and now many more people like me its easier' [YP] (Humphrey & Lewis, 2008, p.35).
  • 'I do have friends who very often stick up for me' [YP] (Humphrey & Lewis, 2008, p.35).
  • 'Sometimes I just want to play by myself' [YP] (Calder et al, 2013, p.306).

School staff support matched to individual needs

  • 'I think the support has played a good role, especially in technology' [YP] (Humphrey & Lewis, 2008, p.39).
  • '[My support is] ‘behind the scenes’… I know I have someone there to help me' [YP] (Humphrey & Lewis, 2008, p.40).

Time to reflect and think about your own schools

To finish with I think it is interesting to apply aspects of the triad of impairments to the education system (Humphrey et al, 2015).

  • Inflexibility – how can we be more flexible in the way in which we organise our educational provision?
  • Social communication – how can we improve communication between the range of stakeholders in autism education in order to improve the educational experiences and outcomes of students?
  • Imagination – should we not be more imaginative ourselves in thinking about approaches to teaching and learning?

How can we change and adapt schools to support autistic young people better? How can we, as SENCos, organise our educational provision in a more autism-friendly way?

Below is a list of materials and links to help you develop your own thinking and provision and is offered merely as a starting point. As for all provision, personalisation, not normalisation, should be the dominant mantra. Hopefully you have been able to enjoy a result half-term!


Download the full references for this blog post

People, websites and books


Similar Posts

Sarah Hopp

Why we need neurodivergent staff

A neurodiverse workforce isn’t about being charitable, it’s about creating a workforce rich in a range of perspectives and creativity. Sarah Hopp explains more. In educational policy and practice, focus is often placed on encouraging pupils and students to celebrate who they are as diverse, unique...
Sarah Hopp

Why neurodiversity is not a diagnosis

Misuse of the term neurodiversity can promote a ‘them and us’ attitude, Sarah Hopp argues. Instead, she explains how to truly embrace our differences and uniqueness. In recent years, the term ‘neurodiversity’ coined by Judy Singer in 1998 has become prevalent in educational literature and policy...
Elizabeth Holmes

Therapeutic Storywriting Groups

Intervention strategies that improve academic achievement and wellbeing are few and far between. Elizabeth Holmes finds out more about Therapeutic Storywriting which does both. When the issues that some children face in their lives are such that they are at risk of missing out on school life and...