Autism is a spectrum condition which means that although there are some difficulties which all autistic people share, the condition manifests itself in many different ways. Individuals will have highly personal needs and preferences so there is no overall solution to their support.
Users on the autistic spectrum may have difficulties with:
- Making sense of the world
- Understanding and relating to other people
- Understanding non-literal language
- Over or under developed sensory awareness.
Aspergers syndrome is one form of autism. Learners with this condition tend to be of average or above average intelligence but may struggle with processing language and communicating.
Adjustments that may help autistic learners in an educational setting include:
- Clear unambiguous instructions
- Limited amounts of text
- Graphics including photos and diagrams
- Use of videos
- Graphical planning tools such as mind maps
- Consistency of approach, message and organisation
- Content available in a range of media.
Learners on the autistic spectrum vary widely in their abilities - many have complex needs including behavioural and emotional difficulties.
What organisations can do
There is a legal obligation to ensure that no-one is disadvantaged because of a disability. Organisations must make reasonable anticipatory adjustments to ensure as many people as possible can access their materials and services.
Reasonable, anticipatory adjustments
Organisations should have support strategies in place before any disabled learner enrols. For learners on the autistic spectrum they will need to cover curriculum organisation, the timetable and teaching and assessment policies.
Autistic learners may be sensitive to sensory stimulation and struggle to cope with noisy environments. Teaching needs to be in parts of the building with little passing ‘traffic’ such as away from the canteen or common room.
Some autistic learners may not cope with changes in timetables or rooms. If possible, advance notification of any changes should be sent direct to the learner if appropriate. Many learners may prefer to use their own devices so infrastructure, technical and acceptable user policies need to be in place. If this is not possible, a device borrowed from within the organisation may be helpful.
Signage within the college needs to be clear with symbols in relevant areas if necessary. It is recommended that signage systems are tested with a range of disabled students to check their usability and appropriateness.
Provide appropriate training
Staff must have an understanding of autistic learners' needs. Support staff need to be aware of the services available to learners and how to access them.
Teachers must provide a creative and productive learning environment and should be aware of the issues that learners may experience. Our recommendations below should provide a useful starting point.
What tutors and teachers can do
Autism is a complex and multi layered condition and there is no definitive formula for how it may present in any individual.
Good teaching will provide the basic needs for learners with autistic spectrum disorders. These include:
- Clear outline of each lesson
- Clear unambiguous language
- Information in a variety of forms
- Signpost changes to routines, class/group work, new/additional content and new language/concepts.
Things to consider
Many learners on the autistic spectrum can only interpret language literally, so avoid using slang, sarcasm or even humour to explain concepts. Information needs to be given in a clear, unambiguous way that does not use idiomatic language. Often images or symbols may help in explaining more abstract ideas.
They may have significant difficulty understanding what others may know or be thinking and do not pick up social skills automatically. Learners need to be told about specific classroom rituals or ways of working such as taking the register, getting apparatus together or sharing equipment with others.
Learning involves participating in activities such as listening to the teacher, dialogue and discussion with other students. Autistic learners may find face-to-face communication difficult and would prefer to collaborate with others using technology. Enabling learners to use their own devices ensures that they can communicate, work and learn in their preferred way.
Autistic learners may find the busy classroom environment too distracting and it is helpful for them to access and revisit content at a later stage.
Interactive whiteboards allow learners to contribute in lessons providing relevance and authenticity. The lesson or lecture can be captured enabling them to focus solely on the whiteboard content which may help them to understand the lesson objectives.
Learners can access the VLE at any time and from outside their learning organisation. It is good practice to make any presentations, teaching notes or recordings from an interactive white board available on the VLE after a session for ease of access. Many VLE’s have interactivity built into them including forums, wikis or other interactive modules.
Interactive and collaborative working for learners is fulfilling, productive and allows each learner to respond and work with their own skills and expertise.
Rich media such as video, audio or still images enhances learning and can be used for assessment. However many autistic learners find additional sensory input very difficult to ignore. If you or your students plan to create videos or audio, you need to:
- Avoid background music in audio or video - autistic learners may find it difficult to focus on the main message
- Focus on the main action when recording video to avoid difficulty in understanding.
Read Luke's story and how he uses technology in his daily life.
"My name is Luke and when I was born I was diagnosed with autism and ADD and I couldn’t speak until I was five years old because I was learning really slowly. Now that I’m older I learn things quicker.
"At home I use a computer, an Xbox a TV and most of all phones and iPads. I use them to watch an amazing show or film; maybe to play against other players on any type of games; to find out some information on a building or a famous person that has been on the news; or to call or text someone to know that everything is fine for a date at the weekend or a show; and to listen to music and hang out with friends.
"At college I use iPads, Windows surface tablets and boring slow computers. I’ve been learning how to work the tablets. We can use the computers to mostly look up history and other important stuff from the past.
"It has proven to me that I can help other people to know how to work and use a Windows surface tablet. It’s been a good thing to actually help other people and not to just help myself because I love helping people and I love to see smiley faces on people when I help them out."