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Understanding the condition


Autistic people see, hear and feel the world differently to other people.

If you are autistic, you are autistic for life. Autism is not an illness and cannot be cured. However, if we understand autism better, we can better support ourselves if we have autism or support those who have autism.

Students who experience autism often say they feel overwhelmed or anxious. For students with autism navigating the world around them can be difficult as they experience difficulties with social communication and interaction.

Autism affects verbal and non-verbal communication, the ability to effectively express ideas and feelings, imagination, leisure and play activities, and being able to initiate and maintain relationships with others. 

Students with autism tend to pay close attention to detail, may only interpret fragments of the information, misperceive the perspective of others and become stuck on one mode of thinking and behaving.  As a result, they misinterpret their experiences.

Associated conditions


Learning disability

 Learning disability  is a lifelong disability. Students who have a learning disability have a reduced intellectual ability and find challenges in:

  • Interpreting complex information

  • Learning new skills

  • Carrying out independent tasks


With the right support students with disabilities can lead fulfilled and independent lives.

Problems with sleep

For many different reasons, students with autism experience difficulties in sleeping. For a parent/ carer this will then mean they experience disturbed sleep and in some cases the whole family.

It maybe you have noticed the child in your class with autism is often late, falls asleep in class or find it hard to concentrate. The reason could be sleep difficulties, sensitively talk with their parents/ carers to discuss how school can support.

Communication difficulties

Students with autism find social communication difficult often struggling with facial expressions, tone of voice and sarcasm/ jokes. In addition, some students with autism may have difficulties in verbal communications, some students may appear to have no verbal form of communication. It is important to state that every individual can communicate, whether verbally or non-verbally with the right support. 

 Click here for tips on supporting a student with autism to communicate 

 A Communication Passport  can provide a child with autism with a tool to share their important information.

Behavioural difficulties

Children with autism can often be perceived as “naughty” when in fact they are just responding to stimulus. The behaviour is the individual’s way of showing that something is not working for them or that there are communication difficulties. If a person’s behaviour is limiting them from fully participating for example they cannot go to school because they tend to run, it is what is deemed as challenging behaviour. However, the challenge is the impact of the behaviour if it is putting the individual or others at risk.

Challenging behaviour can be:

  • Self-injurious: Scratching, pulling, head banging, picking, grinding teeth, eating things that aren't food, poking.

  • Non-person directed: Hyperactivity, destruction of clothing, withdrawal, damage to property, stealing, inappropriate sexualised behaviour, incontinence, lack of awareness of danger.

  • Aggressive: Hitting, pinching, grabbing, pushing, hair pulling, verbal abuse, screaming, spitting, throwing objects.

  • Stereotyped: Rocking, repetitive speech, repetitive playing with objects, repetitive movements.


For strategies and resources on supporting hyperactivity and difficulties paying attention, aggressive and self-destructive behaviour  click here .

Find out how to create an environment that positively supports a child with autism in your class,  please click here 

Challenges faced by students


Persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction


  • Social communication

For an individual with autism being able to interpret tone of voice, gestures, jokes and sarcasm is difficult. For many students, they interpret a literal meaning of what someone has said.


For students with limited verbal or no verbal communication, they may understand more of what someone has said to them than they can respond to.

Others have good language skills, but they may still find it hard to understand the expectations of others within conversations, perhaps repeating what the other person has just said (this is called echolalia) or talking at length about their own interests.

 Communication tips for good 2-way communication with students with autism  

  • Social interaction

It is often a challenge for students with autism to be able to “read” other people, recognise or understand other people feelings and express their own emotions. As a result, students with autism may appear:

  • “Unfeeling” or insensitive

  • Easily overwhelmed by other people and need some quiet space

  • To behave in socially inappropriate ways


This means it can often be difficult for students with autism to form and maintain friendships.

Restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests


  • Repetitive behaviour and routines

For a person with autism who feels comfortable with routine and repetition, change can be challenging from simple changes like having a different food at breakfast time, a change in routine such as having lunch at a different time, a change of teacher, items in a room being moved to life changes such as changing schools, puberty.

Times when there is change in routine will often heighten anxiety and related behaviours. However, many students with autism may be able to cope with change better if they are supported to prepare for it in advance. 


  • Specific interests

Many students with autism have a specific interest which can be intense and appear to take their entire focus, the interest may be anything from dinosaurs, trains to computers.


The interest will usually start at a young age and can be life-long.

This specific interest can be a great way of developing communication, establishing a relationship and enabling the individual to seek comfort and reassurance.

  • Sensory sensitivity

Students with autism may also be highly sensitive to light, colours, smells, tastes, touch or sounds as a result causing the individual to seem over excited or in great distress. For example, a background noise that a person without autism hardly notices or blocks out may seem unbearably loud to a person with autism and cause them much anxiety and physical pain. Spinning objects such as a fan or twinkling lights might seem really fascinating and captivating.