Coping Effectively with Autism in Schools

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 11 March 2019
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

BBC News NI recently reported a large increase in children receiving a diagnosis of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). In total 2,345 children under 18 were diagnosed as ASD last year, compared with 1,047 five years previously.

Dr Alan Stout, the chair of the Northern Ireland GP Committee of the British Medical Association, confirmed that figures have "skyrocketed" due to "increased awareness" and changes to the criteria under the 2011 legislation. Kerry Boyd, the head of Autism NI, added that her organisation is "inundated" with requests for support due mainly to the introduction of the Autism Act (NI) 2011 and the subsequent increase in awareness both among the general public and health and education professionals.

The BBC also quoted a current example of this all too common situation now, where a pupil is struggling to cope in a mainstream school setting with suspected ASD. After advice from a school nurse that the mother should take her son to his GP, the family was referred to the autism team - a multi-disciplinary team of healthcare professionals including a psychiatrist and speech and language therapists, who decide whether to recommend a diagnosis.

It took just over a year for the diagnosis, a delay which the family found extremely stressful. They were then supported in organising an appropriate home routine. Their experience, however, underlines the fact that both the NHS and schools are under tremendous pressure to cope with the large increase in children being newly diagnosed and that there needs to be more training and resources for teachers working with pupils with ASD in mainstream schools. The implications for schools include getting more teaching assistants and altering the environmental and social factors to better support ASD pupils. In practical terms for example, this can mean the school acknowledging a sensory overload occurrence on the bus journey to school, which has a huge impact on the pupil’s ability to self-regulate and cope with the rest of the school day. It is difficult to accommodate these needs in a structured classroom setting with large numbers of pupils but it is these small adjustments that can make a huge difference to a child with ASD in a mainstream setting.

Back in 2008 a report from the University of Birmingham's Autism Centre for Education and Research on educating autistic children found that schools then were unable to cope and parents were frustrated by the inability of the system to help.

The Guardian piece highlights that one of the biggest challenges in 2008 in England was a lack of knowledge and understanding among schoolteachers so logically accelerated training and increased awareness raising needs to happen urgently here now. One parent of an autistic child quoted in the article made a very important comment when she suggested that... “often it is the simple things that need to be put in place to make a difference.”

But how is this to be achieved in the current financial landscape in schools and without local ministerial oversight and decision making.

The National Autistic Society suggest a range of simple informal ways that schools could easily adopt that would not only benefit pupils on the autism spectrum, but perhaps head off potential problems in the classrooms, corridors and playgrounds before they occur.

They suggest closer liaison with parents and agreeing a set routine which is essential for autistic pupils. Inevitably school life will present occasions when this routine could have to be varied. ASD pupils present with restrictive and repetitive behaviour and as such need advanced notice to prepare for any changes without becoming distressed. Allowing, for example, autistic pupils to have a time out card or exit pass to show to teaching staff that they are feeling anxious and need to leave the classroom is a simple practical step.

Using visual supports such as a timer can give pupils better understanding of their routine and the school day and when trying to explain something teachers need to simplify their communication and allow time for the pupil to process the information.  ASD children struggle with communication and socialisation and as such the use of social stories for example would help to develop greater social understanding of their surroundings.

In terms of the general school environment we need to think about it from the standpoint of such children and try to make it more comfortable. For example, a lot of ASD pupils struggle with anxiety. Simple tasks can cause an ASD child severe anxiety and as a school staff can help reduce this by advanced warning on deadlines, clear guidelines and expectations on homework, assignments and exams.

An obvious measure of course is to ensure that ASD pupils are not bullied or excluded from classroom life by other pupils. Indeed making other pupils aware of and sensitive to the needs and sensibilities of autistic people is valuable education in itself. This is a sensitive balance as you want other pupils to display an understanding of the needs of the ASD child while creating inclusion within the class or year group.  Having an agreed safe and quiet place for ASD pupils to go to when they feel anxious or when they are overloaded by sensory stimuli should be a relatively easy thing to provide but care should be taken to ensure that it is not perceived as a punishment for a pupil to be sent there after exhibiting distress behaviours. Particular help is recommended by The National Autistic Society for use by schools, like using social skills programmes such as “time to talk” which focuses on the problem that school can be a frustrating and confusing experience for children who have not developed their communication skills, who find  access to the curriculum difficult and need help developing co-operative skills and friendships and “socially speaking” which offers a pragmatic social skills programme for pupils with mild learning difficulties.

An often neglected dimension of schools coping with Autism is of course the fact that a parent may also be Autistic. The National Autistic Society again offers simple sound advice in the form of a checklist for professionals. Reflecting on my own past experiences when interviewing parents I can see obvious common sense measures among the many suggestions which include;

  • Giving people multiple options for how to contact you as some people will struggle with the phone or not use it at all.
  • Offering a choice for appointment times because some people may prefer the first appointment of the day to reduce the risk of long waiting times.
  • Being flexible about alternative waiting areas as some people may be okay to wait but not in the designated waiting area and offering a quiet space or let them wait outside and texting them when it’s their turn.
  • Like the dentist or optician sending reminders of their appointment like a text alert.
  • After a discussion provide a summary of the agreed outcomes of the discussion which will both back up any verbal agreements and ensure shared understanding. This final point is actually a good idea for all such meetings.  

The dilemma which we are trying to address through these recommended informal techniques is of course the fact that pupils on the autistic spectrum can exhibit behaviour which normally would automatically trigger a disciplinary response from schools. This approach could lead to a reduction in school refusal, exclusion and a more supportive, inclusive school experience for this growing number of children.


Note: Legal Island is running a Northern Ireland Education Law Update 2019 conference on Thursday 21st March (9:20am -2:00pm). Sessions cover for difficult topics that many school leaders face - Grievances and actions to frustrate the process; Stress, Grievances and Alternatives; Alcohol problems; and Parental complaints.


If you found this article useful and you would like to recieve more education articles via email (two per month), please subscribe below:

Subscribe to our NI Schools mailing list


*indicates required
Marketing by
This article is correct at 11/03/2019

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email

View all articles by Frank Cassidy