A teenage boy sits on a sofa and smiles at the camera

As a professional working in an early years setting, you will come across very young children who you believe may be autistic but don’t have a diagnosis.  

Here we describe behaviours to be aware of, the challenges an autistic child may face and offer tips on introducing them to pre-school or nursery.

We also talk about adapting the curriculum and training for nursery and pre-school staff.

Each child is different, spending time getting to know them and their individual profile will be crucial as the behaviours and support strategies will vary from child to child.

Autism and behaviours to be aware of

Children in early years settings may display behaviours that could indicate autism.  Some may have been diagnosed already, others will start the diagnosis process whilst at nursery or school.

Children on the autism spectrum exhibit a wide range of behaviours, including:

  • difficulty relating to others and understanding unwritten rules
  • difficulty in communicating (some may communicate in a non verbal way)
  • difficulty with thinking flexibly eg how to cope when plans change.

Read more about recognising autism and planning the right support.

Challenges that autistic young children may face

Communication difficulties

Children on the autism spectrum can have a range of communication difficulties.  Here are some ways you can help:

  • make sure that your language is simple, eg, rather than saying 'Tommy, put your coat on’, say 'Tommy, coat', pointing to the coat at the same time
  • use pictures, symbols and other visual supports
  • allow longer for them to process information
  • repeat instructions and check they have understood.

Read some quick tips and ways you can support their communication development

Differing sensory needs

Many young children on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing sensory information and this may impact on their behaviour.

You may notice that a child dislikes loud noises, such as a hand dryer, or is particularly sensitive to light touch. They may wriggle a lot in their seat as they are seeking sensory feedback, they may flap their hands or stim.

You can help by learning more about their sensory needs and thinking about how you can adapt their environment to help. 

Read more about sensory strategies.

Need for routine

Children on the autism spectrum often need routine in order to help them understand the world around them. Use visual supports to communicate their routine and have it displayed in the nursery or pre-school. This helps the child and means that all staff are aware of their routine. 

Autistic children can find change very difficult.  Some may struggle with very small changes, eg a different coloured cup, but be better able to cope with a larger changes such as transition to a different group. Others will struggle with all change. It’s important that you know each child, the level of support they need and how to prepare them for change.

Toileting problems

Some autistic children find toileting very difficult, especially if they have a learning difficulty. You may find that a child who is dry at home will need nappies at nursery. Other children may use other places than the toilet, not realising that this is inappropriate. They’re not being naughty; autistic children find it very difficult to understand social rules.

Parents should be able to advise on ways you can address this, but you could try establishing a routine, keeping records of when a child uses the toilet and giving rewards when they get it right.

Read more about toilet training.

Problems with eating

Lunch time can be particularly difficult for children at nursery. Some are very sensitive to certain textures or flavours, or are frightened of trying new foods. They may be overactive and find it hard to sit down and eat at a table.

Here are some things that may help:

  • take small steps and praise them for their progress
  • if they find sitting with others overwhelming, sit them at their own table and gradually introduce others sitting with them
  • provide a consistent routine
  • start with giving them what you know they like to eat and gradually introduce new foods
  • don’t make a fuss if they leave food, just remove their plate without comment
  • accept that it may be better for them to use their fingers initially, using cutlery is a skill you can teach at another time.

Read more about the problems that autistic children may have with eating.

Intense interests

Many autistic children will have one or more intense interest eg trains or dinosaurs. They may talk repeatedly about a topic or a favourite object.

Try to be flexible about them sharing their interest with others, only intervening if their behaviour is restricting another child’s opportunities or causing distress.

A child's interest can help them to learn. For example, Thomas the tank engine and friends can be used to teach numbers and colours.

Read more about obsessions, repetitive behaviour and routines.

Meltdowns

Some children have meltdowns because they are unable to communicate what they want or express their feelings. They may also be overwhelmed by sensory stimuli or too much information.

It’s important to have good communication with parents, as they may be able to tell you what the triggers are and ways to avoid meltdowns. If not, try keeping a behaviour diary to see if you can identify triggers.

Read more about autism meltdowns.

Play

Play can be difficult for children on the autism spectrum. They may:

  • find it difficult to choose what to do
  • prefer repetitive play focused on their intense interest
  • use objects in an inflexible way, for example spinning the wheels of a toy car rather than playing a racing game
  • prefer to play by themselves, rather than with other children
  • want to play with other children, but not know how.

You can help by gradually increasing the choice of activity, offering a favourite with something they enjoy less, and by matching them with a buddy – another child who likes the same things.

Read more about autism toys and games.

Young children with a demand avoidant profile

Best practice differs for children with a demand avoidant profile. Read more about helping pupils with a demand avoidant profile at school.

Introducing a young child on the autism spectrum to the nursery

Make the introduction to nursery or pre-school gradual for children on the autism spectrum.

Before their first visit you could:

  • take photographs of the nursery and make a picture book
  • arrange for staff to visit the child at home and look at the book with them
  • ensure that staff have a name badge with a photo so that the children begin to recognise them and their name.

Arrange for their first visit to be when no other children and there, introducing them to staff and activities. Follow this up with other visits where they gradually get to meet the other children.

It’s also a good idea to teach autism awareness at nursery and pre-school.

Adapting the curriculum

Autistic children will be required to follow the early years foundation stage of education in the same way as their peers. However, they may have difficulties learning at the same pace and/or in the same ways.

Read more about the Autism Education Trusts early years autism standards and competency framework. (England only)

Training for nursery and pre-school staff

It’s important for staff to have understanding autism training. In addition to this, encourage staff to:

  • be aware of the needs of the child and use strategies and approaches consistently
  • use clear and simple language
  • offer rewards, not punishment
  • have good communication with parents
  • be aware of what may trigger a meltdown.

If you live in England, you can find your closest early years training hub from the Autism Education Trust.

Further help from our charity

NAS membership with quarterly editions of Your Autism Magazine and annual education supplement.
NAS EarlyBird
Safeguarding
Helping young children with autism to learn
My friend Sam
Understanding anxiety at school
Network AutismTop 5 autism tips for professionals: supporting pre-school children and good practice case study
Autism resource pack for school staff
Our autism library
Our online training

Other resources

Autism Toolbox -  a resource for Scottish schools early years
The PDA Society - Awareness Matters
Choosing Autism Interventions- A research based guide
National Portage Association

Last reviewed: 9 May 2017.