Some Ideas about Teaching



Teaching Autistic Pupils

I do not pretend even to begin to be an expert, but you may find the following – based on my own experience and a surf of the net – provides starter information.


The first thing to understand is that not all Autistic pupils are like Rainman, though most autistic children are boys.
The second thing to understand is that Autism is not one problem – it has many variations and related syndromes, the most common of which is Asperger Syndrome. Each autistic child may differ profoundly from other children labelled ‘autistic’.
The third thing to realise is that many autistic children are referred by their parents through their GP, not through schools and the education services, and I am not convinced that the diagnosis is always reliable. So a child listed on your class EP as ‘autistic’ is not necessarily so.

Children on the autistic spectrum may exhibit some or all of the following characteristics:

Problems in understanding social relationships

This is the most obvious and the one most people expect. Children with autism often find it hard to form meaningful friendships. Connected to this, there may be a problem with lack of imaginative play and an inability to interact with other children. They may not use eye contact in social interactions and seem to ‘live in a world of their own’. They can lack empathy, and therefore continually be surprised by the reaction of other people to the things they do – autistic children have to work out cognitively what most of us feel intuitively. They are therefore frequently the object of bullying or hostility.

Obsessive or ritualistic behaviour

A person with autism may perform repetitive body movements, such as rocking. They also often display repetition-behaviours, insisting on the same schedules and routines everyday. Autistic children cannot endure inconsistency, and if changes occur in these routines, they may become upset. Lacking intuitive flexibility, many autistic children live by reducing life to a sequence of rules. They sometimes therefore find it very difficult to understand why other children break the ‘rules’ – for instance, why they walk on the wrong side of the corridor – and they can confront and antagonise other pupils as a result. Note that some autistic children find making choices very difficult

Problems with language and communication development

Language is slow to develop and usually includes peculiar speech patterns or the use of words without attaching them to their normal meaning. They may find it hard to understand metaphor, hyperbole etc. This is an essential element in their problems understanding social relationships, but also in their functioning in the classroom. Many autistic children cannot catch the cues we use by body language, tone of voice, sarcasm etc. They miss the warnings and glares that other children pick up. Therefore they are often genuinely surprised to find that they had annoyed the teacher!

Problems with sensory responses

Autistic children often respond atypically to sensory information. They may one time fail to respond to words and sounds as though deaf; yet at another time be distressed by everyday noises such as a vacuum cleaner or dog barking. The child may show insensitivity to pain or cold or heat, or they may be unable to bear a certain jumper or socks.

Uneven patterns of intellectual functioning

Although many people with autism have some degree of mental retardation, 25% of people with autism have average or above average intelligence. Many have a particular problem with abstract ideas. Many have an uneven distribution of ‘peak skills’ (certain things done quite well in relation to overall functioning) such as drawing, math, music, or memorization of facts.

Autism is often co-morbid with other problems – such as dyspraxia

Teaching Ideas

Autism encompasses such a wide range of symptoms that the key is to abandon any thought of labels and ‘off the shelf’ strategies, to see your autistic pupil as a very special individual, and to devise a differentiated strategy JUST FOR HIM.

‘Its the rule’
Use your empathetic skills to see the world the autistic child sees it – as a set of rules. And teach the lesson to him in that way – ‘these are the rules for answering questions’/ ‘these are the rules for writing an essay’ etc. This is especially so as regards social behaviour – you will need to explain that it is a rule in your classroom that when someone is talking, other people (including him) listen to them – and that this means that, when he is talking you will make the other pupils listen to him. Typical autistic behaviour is to sit apparently uninterested for long periods, then to want to talk for hours about an unrelated issue; if this happens, interrupt (you can, being the teacher) and explain that you are going to give him 2 minutes to speak on this. Then all the class listens. When the time is up, find a way to give what he has been saying relevance. And then the rule is that he must listen to others.
Remember that he may become distressed if you then don’t follow the ‘rules’ you have set – many autistic children cope better in ‘old-fashioned’ classrooms where the procedures are clearly defined and the opportunities for self-determination limited.
And – when I am giving advice to an autistic or Asperger pupil after an incident – I often reinforce my instructions with the words: ‘this is the rule in my classroom’.

Structure and choices

Connected to this, most lists of advice on how to teach autistic spectrum pupils agree that structure is critical. They NEED to know what’s coming next. They need to sit always in the same seat, surrounded by the same children. Make sure that they are familiar with existing procedures and timetables, and that they have completed their organiser. Explain exactly what is going to happen in the lesson, and write it on the board. Arrange timetables and activities so the child knows exactly what is going on and when, avoiding unnecessary change. If a change of routine is unavoidable, then warn the child before it happens. If something unexpected happens, take time to explain to the Autistic child individually what is going on and why.
Some autistic children may find it virtually impossible to make personal choices. Be aware of this when you set differentiated work which involves a number of different possibilities – you will need to give some time to help the autistic pupil make the choice. But you mustn’t, however, make the choice for him – he knows that pupils were allowed to make a choice; that was the rule and you broke it by depriving him of his choice. At the worst, where he is unable to make a choice, explain that you are going to set a rule; if he doesn’t make the choice in the next minute, you will do so for him. Far better, however, would be to guide him through the process of listing advantages, weighing and deciding.
Note how very different all this is to what inspires most pupils – choice, change and surprise! You will need to differentiate for this in your lesson planning.

Interest and Distractions

Figure out what motivates your autistic pupil. This will be different for every autistic child. Link subjects to the child's interests, otherwise he may find them irrelevant. Find the rewards which motivate him, which may be completely different to those of other children. Use consistent, repetitive rewards for desired behaviour.
Be sure that the material is at that pupil's instructional level so he is not getting frustrated if it is too hard, or bored if it is too easy. To begin with, choose tasks the child can do, then build upon that success.
Use visual or kinaesthetic aids when teaching a subject that requires abstract thinking.
Check if the pupil has any sensory issues. It may take some time observe the pupil and try to work out what factors in the environment are distracting/disturbing him.
Allow the child extra time to complete tasks if they need it, since they may find it hard working to a time limit. This is particularly true in the rigid timetables of secondary school.

Speak Straight

Avoid sarcastic language, metaphorical speech or exaggeration, both when you are speaking to the child and to the class as a whole. Always be aware of what you are saying and how it might be misunderstood by the child. Expect to be taken literally. Avoid rhetorical questions, and certainly don’t get annoyed if he then attempts to answer them. If you are angry, say: ‘I am angry with you’.
Continually check the child is listening and understanding and don't be afraid to repeat what you have said, if you don't think they have understood the first time. When giving instructions for work, when you have set the class working, go over to him and go through it all again – if necessary, giving him a written list of instructions or a visual flow-diagram.
When you are talking to a group, make sure you have the child's attention. He may not understand that he is included, so you may need to address him by name or talk first to him alone, then to the whole class.
INSIST ON EYE-CONTACT and focussed attention.
I found this on the web, and I think it is spot on:

‘Autistic people grow best if you are Responsive! Be alert for opportunities to reinforce communication. Much of it may be non-verbal or very subtle. Respond. Use simple language. Use proximity, body language, reflective listening to communicate and reinforce language and behavior. Reflective listening may take the form of watching communicative behavior, interpreting it and putting it into simple words. Ex: A child takes your hand and leads you to an object. You say: "You want________."’

Remember that communication is two-way. Just as the autistic child may not understand your body language, be aware that you may need to work hard to interpret the child’s approaches, body language and nuances. When you are speaking to the child, make social adjustments yourself to meet his social needs. Don’t ‘cut him off’ or finish his sentences for him. And when you have to go, explain clearly why you are terminating the discussion.

Help the child to mix with others

Lists of web-advice all agree that part of the teacher’s brief in a lesson including an autistic child MUST be to plan to develop the child’s social skills and relationships: ‘Nurture the child's motivation to play with peers’. ‘Give direct instruction on social skills through things like "social stories"’ (see 
Sit them next to a sympathetic, socially-able partner or a group. Make sure they are included in all class activities. Emphasise the social as well as the academic aspects of an activity (e.g., if you are splitting the class into groups to prepare something, spend time explaining how they must interact as well as what they must produce).
Keep an eye on the child at break times and lunchtimes, when they might spend a lot of time on their own. Watch out for bullying or loneliness – if necessary find a teacher or pupil mentor they can talk to. It will often be useful to structure breaktimes.
If things are going wrong, and particularly in cases of conflict which are not malicious, I sometimes explain to the other pupils about autism. You need to do this very sensitively, and preferably with parental consent – I had one child whose parents did not want the school to talk about his autism to others. However, other pupils frequently find an autistic pupil’s behaviour inexplicable and annoying, and their hostility is natural, not prejudiced: ‘He came over to me and told me he didn’t like my hair. I warned him to shut up, but he said it again – so I hit him’. Children with any sort of social conscience to appeal to are often helped if you explain that N. often doesn’t understand the effects the things he is saying and doing will have, and that he doesn’t respond to normal warnings and put-downs. Perhaps, if this would be inappropriate on an individual level, autism awareness could be addressed at a whole-school level.
There is a significant website on this issue at:

Praise and blame
Give continual encouragement and don't blame them if they fail
Be aware that sometimes autistic children are naughty, and they need to be told off as any other child! But be aware also that sometimes, although they are behaving in a way that appears naughty to others, they are not being naughty (just inappropriate). KNOW YOU CHILD! To get this wrong can be very damaging.

The Last word

I will give the last word to the learning support assistant of an autistic child who contributed to a web-forum on how to teach autistic children: ‘PICK YOUR BATTLES’.

Web Ideas

You might like to check out these sites:

Posted on: Apr 3 2004, 04:12 PM





To cite this page, use:   CLARE, JOHN D. (2004/2006), 'Teaching Autistic Pupils',  at Greenfield History Site (