What is Autism?

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The term ‘Autism’ is shorthand for the complex developmental disability of someone living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This disorder is described as a ‘spectrum’ due to the numerous symptoms in varying degrees of severity people with ASD can exhibit. In general, people with ASD have difficulty communicating and interacting with others, and experience the world in a different way to neurotypical people. Autism is a lifelong condition, and while there is no “cure”, many autistic children go on to live fulfilled and active lives with the right support.

What are the characteristics of autism?

Every autistic person is different, and the signs and characteristics are too! However, the two common characteristics are:

  • Difficulties with social communication and interaction, making it difficult to join in conversations or make friends.
  • Repetitive behaviour, routines and activities; this can be in the form of fixed daily routines or repetitive body movements. It can cause some autistic people distress or anxiety if their routine is suddenly changed.

Autistic people may also be under- or over-sensitive to sounds, lights, and colours, which is a symptom known as sensory sensitivity.

Some health problems and conditions are more common in autistic people, including:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Learning disabilities
  • Epilepsy
  • Dyspraxia
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Is autism a learning disability?

Autism is not a learning disability, but between 44%-52% of people with autism may also have a learning disability, which will affect the level of care and support they need in life, especially during their school years.

People with Asperger’s Syndrome – which is a kind of autism – will not have a learning disability. They may still experience particular challenges with social interaction and communication, but they have average or above average intelligence.

Who is affected by ASD?

There are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK, which is more than 1 in 100 people. If you include the families of people on the spectrum, autism is a part of life for 2.8 million people across the country.

Five times as many males are diagnosed with autism than females, although this may be due to underdiagnosis of the disorder in women and girls, as females show different symptoms or may be better at camouflaging their difficulties.

Families with an autistic child have to make changes to their daily lives to help them with obstacles such as sensory overload, social problems, communication difficulties and challenging behaviour.

Teachers are also often part of an autistic child’s care team along with doctors and families, and are sometimes the first person in an autistic child’s life to recognise their symptoms. All teachers are required to follow the SEND Code of Practice for children with special needs, including autism, but it is also important for education professionals to know how to spot autistic traits in children and make changes to help them to cope better outside of this framework.

Autistic children in mainstream schools may need help with difficulties during unstructured break or lunchtimes, homework, exams, making friends, and bullying. Problems in these areas can arise for all children on the autistic spectrum, whether they have learning disabilities or not.

How can I help autistic children in my classroom?

At Engage, we hold free CPD sessions for all teachers to attend, including sessions on autism-specific best practices in the classroom. You can also find materials to help you with any autistic pupils you encounter on the Autism Education Trust website, or the National Autistic Society’s website for teachers.

It is important to be on the lookout for signs and characteristics of autism in your pupils, whether or not they have a diagnosis. These include:

  • Having obsessions or intense interests
  • Displaying ritualistic or repetitive behaviour
  • Avoidance of eye contact
  • Difficulty with communication – including not talking at all (nonverbal), or talking “at” people rather than having reciprocal conversations
  • Taking more time to process information
  • Having difficulties making or keeping friendships
  • Having difficulty engaging in imaginative play
  • Resisting change or needing a lot of preparation for changes
  • Lacking an awareness of danger
  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Appearing to be of average or above-average intelligence but unable to use this intelligence academically

You can find a more comprehensive list of behaviours here.

Supporting a young person with autism gives you the ability to make a real difference to their future prospects, and the challenge of working to find new and creative ways of ensuring they get the most out of their time at school. In return, autistic children can show you a new way of interpreting and experiencing the world, and the people within it.

If you’d like to get involved in shaping the lives of young people with autism in the UK by teaching, take a look at our current SEND vacancies for qualified teachers and support staff, find out about training to become a teacher, or register to become an Engage teacher.

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