Teaching pupils who have autistic traits and behaviours

Reading time: 3 minutes. Relevant member benefit: Special Schools & SEND Radar

There are many nuances in the understanding and management of pupils with autism, explains Yvette Jackson, head of English, Bay House School and Sixth Form

Most teachers will have experienced the challenges of teaching pupils with autistic-type behaviours in the mainstream classroom – and the need to help these pupils to achieve progress in their learning, just as we do for their peers.

In my role as head of English, I am always looking for ways to close the progress gap for our disadvantaged pupils. As part of my MA Education (SEND), I researched autism and challenging behaviours and how this can impact upon progress.

How can we reduce disadvantage to make mainstream classrooms more inclusive for pupils with autistic traits and behaviours?

Why the need for differentiation?

Pupils with autistic traits often have heightened levels of anxiety, which can affect their perception of the world. They may also have impairments in communication, interaction and imagination, which can make the classroom feel like an inhospitable environment.

Differentiation is therefore very important for children with these traits and conditions; they will often have different thought processes, leading to difficulties in accessing the curriculum.

Planning, organising and sequencing thought processes are often less well developed, so applying and generalising previously learned skills can take longer. This is due to difficulties in recognising the need for the same skills when they are presented in a different context.

Linked to this is a struggle to retain verbal information, so pupils with autistic traits and behaviours often take longer to process information and can experience difficulties switching from one topic, or task, to another. This can lead to a desire to finish pieces of work, or questions, before being able to move on to something new, which can make evaluating their own progress more challenging for them. They can also experience difficulties in transferring their thoughts and ideas into written form for extended writing tasks. Additionally, they may demonstrate a lack of motivation for subjects in which they perceive no relevance to themselves.

Challenges for teachers: these pupils can have difficulty in switching tasks, transferring their ideas into written form, or finding motivation for subjects in which they perceive no relevance to themselves

Pupils with autistic traits and behaviours may also have difficulties empathising with others. They will often struggle to understand and recognise their own emotions, so trying to understand and recognise the emotions of others can present significant challenges for them. This can affect group work, as the pupil may find it difficult to negotiate with others and accept other points of view or ideas.

Some useful differentiation strategies for pupils with autistic traits and behaviours:

  • Say the pupil’s name first to make sure you have their attention.
  • Provide instructions that are positive, concise and in the correct order of action.
  • Avoid using colloquialisms or idioms in your speech.
  • Provide the pupil with structure and routine through the use of a visual lesson map/ visual instructions/ visual cues and a timed structure to the lesson.
  • Allow the pupil to have extra time to complete tasks.
  • Build positive relationships with the child and use their interests to personalise tasks for them.
  • Be flexible and positive in your approach.
  • Provide the pupil with a small number of choices in how they can complete a task.
  • Avoid singling the pupil out in front of a class – it is generally better to check his/her understanding on a 1:1 basis.

Next steps

I am now trialing dynamic assessment strategies and interventions throughout KS3 and KS4. This is part of our ongoing focus to drive continuous improvement in the progress and outcomes for all of our disadvantaged pupils in English, including those with autistic traits and behaviours.

In our profession, we are very aware that every child is unique. Continually reflecting on our teaching practice and engaging in pedagogical research for teaching and learning strategies, interventions and differentiation will improve the educational experiences and outcomes for all disadvantaged pupils in our schools. Ultimately, of course, the use of research-led practice and reflection for teaching and learning is equally beneficial for every child we teach.


Autism Education Trust (2015) http://www.autismeducationtrust.org.uk/
Maltby, J. (2009) A Guide to Secondary Differentiation Leics: Autism Outreach Service
National Autistic Society (2016) http://autism.org.uk

Special Schools & SEND Radar

SEND coordinators and any colleagues with pastoral responsibilities may be interested in signing up to receive the Special Schools & SEND Radar – a termly update, which covers the latest SEND policy, news and free resources available for anyone at SSAT member schools. Get in touch to sign up by email RMTeam@ssatuk.co.uk.

SSAT Lead Practitioner Accreditation

Yvette Jackson is an SSAT LP, her work highlights the breadth of action research being undertaken by LPs at schools across England. If you’re interesting in becoming part of this dynamic and innovative community see more here.

Read on the SSAT blog: A programme to support students with autism

Yvette Jackson, Bay House School and Sixth Form

Tagged with:

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Talking to young people about the news: 6 tips

28 June 2018

School’s LGBTQ+ initiatives have wide-ranging influence

28 June 2018