Supporting autistic learners: 11 things to think about

Written by: Garry Freeman | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Most teachers will have autistic students in their classrooms and will need to consider this when planning their lessons. SENCO Garry Freeman outlines 11 key strategies and approaches that have proven effective

Autistic spectrum condition (ASC) is a developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people.

ASC is the most common primary need among pupils with SEN Statements or Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), accounting for 29 per cent of EHCPs – 33 per cent of boys with an EHCP have autism as their primary need, and 18 per cent of girls (DfE, 2019). More than one in 100 people have autism according to data from the National Autistic Society


Students with ASC can often present with a trio of impairments around communication, interaction and imagination. This means that they can find it difficult to interpret facial expressions, hand gestures, body language and maintain eye contact.

However, by making necessary adjustments and provisions within classrooms, we can help young people to make sense of interaction and communications.

For us as professionals, it is about recognising and understanding neuro-diversity without others – usually parents – having to press for anticipatory reasonable adjustments as the Equality Act requires.

So, as SENCOs and leaders in schools and colleges, how can we develop our practice to support our autistic students? Here are 10 approaches.

1, Language: Use non-idiomatic, simple, direct language. What might seem blunt, impolite or even rude to most people will be just the kind of direction an ASC student needs.

2, Humour: Take the time to get to know your students’ sense of humour. It is a myth that autistic people have no sense of humour and are unable to “get” sarcasm. We simply need to remember that they are like everyone else – their sense of humour is unique to them.

3, Transitions: Flag up in-lesson transitions. Think about how many times in an average lesson you change activity – move from verbal to written, set homework, peer mark and so many other things. Let your students know that these changes are coming by offering timed countdowns. Even better, outline the plan for the lesson at the outset because this can benefit every student in the group.

4, Self-organisation: Actively support learners with their self-organisation because they may well have more needs than simply those focused around the three impairments I listed earlier. Ask them to repeat what they need to do and how they are going to set about a task; check that homework or longer-term projects are simply and accurately recorded. Visual clues and prompts such as ink stamps or prompt cards are invaluable although, again, temper and adjust these according to the needs of individuals.

5, Groupings: Select groupings to allow for individual need. Using mixed-ability groups and enabling students with different needs to work together as peer mentors can be a highly effective model of learning for all students – and particularly those with ASC. Autistic students can have a focus and a sense of purpose that can benefit others in the group.

6, Feedback: Assess and feedback on one issue at a time: simpler, single issue-focused feedback is more likely to be effective in supporting learning and progress. Keep it simple. Again, this can benefit every person in the class.

7, Change your focus: Catch them doing something positive – and let them know. Try different structured approaches such as “SPELL” (structure, positive approaches and expectations, empathy, low arousal, links) to help us understand and respond to the needs of autistic learners or “TEACCH” (treatment and education of autistic and related communication handicapped children) to help autistic learners understand and make sense of people and things around them. Everything we do should be focused on this kind of support for autistic young people. The more we equip them to make sense of everything and everyone around them, the more we enable them to develop as effective members of society. And remember: our practice concerns more than simply their academic success and attainment.

8, Specifics: Use concrete, specific questions about everything instead of vague questions. For example, instead of just “why did you do that?”, be specific: “I didn’t like it when you slammed that door. Why did you do that?” Similarly, try to avoid “essay-type” questions based on a single question or assertion as people on the autistic spectrum may not be able to deal very well with the abstract nature of these. Break down all larger topics and assignments into smaller steps of learning and understanding.

9, Misbehaviour: It is rare that any misbehaviour is intended personally. People on the autism spectrum are not scheming, manipulative people who are trying to insult, defy or make life difficult for others. They are rarely, if ever, capable of being manipulative. People with autism are, by virtue of their disability, egocentric, focused on their own likes, wants and needs. We often misinterpret this as defiance, ignoring staff or rudeness/impoliteness.

Focus on repeating and reinforcing the behaviour you want to see, as well as explaining the advantages of behaving and speaking in a more appropriate way. Such modelling needs to be simple, direct and empathetic. As with sarcasm, it is a myth that in general autistic people cannot empathise with others, they can – when those who work with and support them take the time to model what we need to see and hear.

10, Overload: Avoid verbal or cognitive overload. If you are not clear and concise, ASC students will not understand your main argument or will be unable to identify the main point you are making. So, use shorter sentences and, equally, keep any visual representations or explanations as simple, clear and concise as possible. A whiteboard with lots of white space and a larger clear font can also help.

11, Clarity: Provide structure and clarity by de-constructing or chunking classroom tasks and activities. This will give the ASC pupil structure alongside the freedom to indulge a potential interest as children on the autism spectrum like to do. “Who, What, Why, Where, When, How” provides a logical, simple, direct structure to any activity, particularly when we ask our students to research a topic. For example:

  • Who was Martin Luther-King? What did he believe? Why did he believe this or why did he become famous? Where did he live and work? When did he become well-known? How did he try to persuade other people to change things?
  • Who first realised how we could use alkali metals? What are alkali metals used for? Why are they so useful? Where do we find them? When did someone discover them? How do we use them in our everyday lives?

As mentioned above, our aim is to support autistic young people to understand the world and people around them. Expose them in a monitored, supportive way to social situations which will allow you opportunities to help them work through the experiences.

  • Garry Freeman has taught for 41 years. He is a SENCO and assistant principal in West Yorkshire. He is a National SEND System Leader, an Associate Consultant and Chair of Nasen’s 0-11 Advisory Group. Garry tweets as @gfreeman2012. You can read Garry’s previous best practice articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2qdL56J

Further information & resources

Special educational needs in England: January 2019, DfE, July 2019: http://bit.ly/2UOxrJM


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