Understanding Autism

With the number of young people being diagnosed with autism on the rise, it’s crucial that teachers get a solid understanding of what the condition entails and what they can do to support learners to achieve their full potential – but where do you start? We find out more about one online resource that’s pointing teachers in the right direction

Imagine a world where, some days, it feels like everyone’s against you. Tasks which are straightforward for everyone else take monumental effort for you – simple things like making friends or following instructions. You can’t stand change. Some days you struggle to concentrate. You know the answer to a question, but you can’t quite verbalise it. Other people think you’re odd. You hate meeting strangers. There’s certain routines, patterns, orders and rhythms which dictate your day. You don’t want to speak.

Some, or all, of these feelings can affect people with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), including classic autism, Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism. The lifelong developmental disorder affects the way in which a person communicates, understands and interacts with the

world around them. This difference in understanding can have an impact on a child’s learning – while autism isn’t a learning disability, children may require additional support to help them communicate and understand instructions in class, and alterations and adaptations may be needed such as visual prompts, certain routines or support to stay on task.


“Autism is vast, but there are also common themes that everyone presents in very different ways,” explains Jasmine Miller, head teacher at New Struan School, a specialist school for children with ASD run by charity Scottish Autism for young people aged five to 19. “Every young person will have an element of a communication challenge, or a social interaction challenge. Some of the young people in our community are very social – they love being with people, adults and children. Other young people, it takes longer to become part of that community. Every child is unique.”

With autism affecting an estimated one in every 100 people, it’s almost certain that every teacher in Scotland will work with a young person affected by ASD at some point in their career. In 2013, 9,946 school pupils in Scotland were registered as having additional support needs due to an autism spectrum disorder – a 15% increase on the previous year, when the figure sat at 8,650. This jump isn’t due to a surge in the number of children with autism, but rather improved recording, understanding and recognition. This growing number does, however, mean that there is more pressure on schools in terms of time, support and resources.


Ambitious about Autism, the charity for children and young people with autism, estimates that 71% of young people with autism are in mainstream education.

Due to the nature of autism, supporting specific needs of individual children can be challenging, meaning it’s vital that practitioners get as great an understanding of the condition, and individual pupils’ needs, as possible.

In 2009, the Scottish Government asked the National Centre for Autism Studies to develop a resource to promote inclusion of children and young people with autism spectrum disorders in mainstream education, and to improve practitioner knowledge and understanding. Named the Autism Toolbox, one hard copy of this resource was issued to schools across Scotland. In 2011, the Scottish government approached Scottish Autism to develop a digital version.

“If you Google autism, you get something like 72million results in 0.2 seconds – how do you whittle that down to what’s relevant and useful?” asks Moira Park, national education advisor at New Struan School in Alloa and one of the leads on the digital Toolbox’s development. “Sometimes teachers are looking for additional information, quality information. They’re interested in what other people have found useful.”

The site, www.autismtoolbox.co.uk, offers a wealth of information for teachers working with young people with autism, all geared towards Curriculum for Excellence. Its pages hold guidance to improve teachers’ understanding of what autism is along with information, advice and resources relating to pupil wellbeing, whole-school planning, supporting pupils in class, working with families and with any other associated agencies. The site also links to useful websites and resources, as recommended by teachers working with young people on the spectrum.


“The original Toolbox was a fabulous resource and a lot of staff find it very useful, but because only one copy was sent into every school it was difficult,” explains Moira. “We needed to make that more accessible to a wider audience. We worked on getting the views of practitioners – we sent out questionnaires to find out what they were looking for in a website – and we also looked at how to incorporate the original Toolbox into the new site. Autism is very individual, and we’ve tried to highlight that – you really have to know the young person you’re working with well.”

The end result has been incredibly well received by staff at all levels across Scotland. From advice on creating more visual lesson plans to how to improve autism awareness and understanding throughout schools, the Toolbox emphasises the importance of developing a whole-school strategy and getting to know the individual needs and requirements of young people affected by autism to create a more inclusive, less stressful learning environment for everyone, giving all pupils the best possible chance.

“Without a doubt, you will come across people with autism in your life,” Jasmine adds. “One of the things you look at in your training is thinking about the different ways that people think and learn. It’s really important that you’re building on that and that you’ve got that autism focus in there. There’s a lot of different approaches and techniques that can support a wider population, not just young people with autism.”

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Teachers’ Resource, Spring 2015