Other considerations for autism
A note on language
How you speak about autism is an important issue to many. Some people on the autism spectrum prefer ‘autism’ over ‘autism spectrum disorder’. Some students and their families prefer a person-first approach, where you refer to the person before their diagnosis — so ‘student on the autism spectrum’ or ‘student with autism’.
This puts the focus on the student, rather than his or her diagnosis. However, others may prefer identity-first language, so ‘autistic student' rather than a ‘student with autism’. This is becoming increasingly common and can help individuals to claim their disabilities with pride, whilst challenging negative stereotypes about autism. For more on language visit our language guide.
Students on the autism spectrum typically experience differences in their:
Initiations and responses during communication
Some students might have lots of language and others might only use a few words or no words, or find it hard to start conversations with their peers. Students on the autism spectrum tend to speak very honestly, and may misunderstand others when language isn’t direct (for example, sarcasm or jokes). They may take longer to understand communication, and some students may make statements that don’t fit the flow of conversation or context. Students on the autism spectrum might require support to understand some instructions. They tend to learn well with concrete, rather than abstract, examples. and benefit from support in using a skill they learned in one task or context in another context (generalisation).
Interpretations and use of nonverbal communication
Students on the autism spectrum may avoid or dislike eye contact as this can be uncomfortable or stressful for them. Their facial expressions may be less expressive than other students, and they may not use gestures (such as. pointing) when communicating. Students may become frustrated and distressed when their attempts to communicate verbally or nonverbally are not understood, which may result in challenging behaviours.
Interactions and understanding in social contexts
Students on the autism spectrum may misunderstand social interactions, including unspoken social rules or conventions. They also may not perceive and follow the ‘rules’ of conversation, such as taking turns. Although they may have social difficulties and play alone or alongside others, they are often keen to join in, but might not know how to.
Behaviours or interests
Students on the autism spectrum may follow routines and class expectations well as they tend to like things to be done in a particular way or order. They may have a favourite activity that they are happy to do over and over again, and may need warning before switching between tasks.
Reactions to sensory input
Some students may find loud noises or particular sounds or textures uncomfortable. As every student on the autism spectrum is different, it is important to understand the student’s sensory profile, to provide appropriate support and ensure the classroom environment is inclusive.
A student on the autism spectrum may find having a different teacher and changed routine upsetting.
Telling casual teachers about the specific routines and teaching tips that will help that student may prevent distress.
Planning and organisation
Consider providing support with planning and organisation.
The School Sport Unit provides inclusive sport and physical activity opportunities and pathways for students with disability across NSW. These focus on ability, participation, enjoyment and skill development. Opportunities include gala days, Multi-Sport days, knockouts and Come-and-Try Athletics days, and are available for students with disability who learn in mainstream classrooms, support classes in mainstream schools and Schools for Specific Purposes.
Inclusive school sport programs have the potential to support a student with disability’s social, emotional, mental and physical health. Watch Lexie and Anna’s stories of what sport and physical activity, both at school and in their journey through the representative school sport pathway, has meant to them.
Consider sensitivity to smells and textures when giving first aid to a student on the autism spectrum. Some students may be distressed by blood or bandages or refuse to have an ice pack or medication.
Talk to a student’s parents or carers to identify the best way to manage an injury or illness.
Students with minimal language may have difficulty communicating that they are in pain or unwell. Ask the student and their parents or carers whether there are particular signs to look for, such as grimacing. For some students, gestures, or other methods of communication to work out what might be happening, may be relevant.
A student on the autism spectrum may find moving from primary school to high school challenging. Some students may feel anxious about the transition, or experience challenges adjusting to the new environments and routines. These challenges can impact learning and engagement, and so transition support is important.
Multiple visits to the new school before starting and an opportunity to meet their new ‘homeroom’ teacher may be helpful. Clear schedules and timetables provided ahead of time can make routines predictable for a student.
Visual supports such as photos of school buildings, maps, photos of teachers and staff, checklists and visual timetables may be helpful for some students.
Peer buddies can provide social support, in addition to a safe person or place that a student can access when they need support. Observe students in a new classroom environment and consider if any adjustments may support their participation, particularly in terms of sensory profiles.
Teaching positive coping strategies for managing emotions may also be helpful.
Post-school transition to adult life should begin as early as possible in school.
Identifying the cause of a student’s behaviour can help both the teacher and the student feel less frustrated.
Some common causes of behaviours of concern include difficulty in communicating their wants and needs, feeling anxious, sensory overload, trouble understanding or working on a task, or not understanding expectations.
Consider sharing age-appropriate stories which outline positive behaviour. Other options include showing videos of positive behaviour or asking other students to model positive behaviour.
Refer to the behaviour page for more information on how to reduce behaviours of concern by supporting the student and promoting more helpful behaviour, and our emotions page for more information about supporting a student with managing their emotions.
Students on the autism spectrum may find understanding friendships and being different challenging. See our school stories that have been designed to help students learn about school and learn positive ways to respond to new situations.
Other co-occuring conditions
Some students on the autism spectrum may also experience anxiety, ADHD, intellectual disability or ODD.
Refer to the understanding disability page to help support the student.