As an education professional working with children and young people, you will come across pupils who are autistic, with or without a diagnosis.  Here we look at what could indicate that a child may be autistic and how to plan appropriate support. It’s important to remember that support should be put in place on the basis of need, as opposed to just diagnosis.

What to look for

Here are some of the things you might notice about a pupil.  Pupils on the autism spectrum may:

  • have obsessions or intense interests
  • show ritualistic or repetitive play and behaviour that affects their ability to take part in the school day
  • have ‘inappropriate’ eye contact such as avoiding looking at you or staring
  • have difficulty with communicating (some children may not talk at all)
  • be unaware of social niceties and talk at people rather than having reciprocal conversations
  • take more time to process information
  • have a rigid expectation that other children should adhere to the rules of play
  • not draw others' attention to objects or events
  • have difficulty relating to others - making and keeping friendships
  • have difficulty with engaging in imaginative play (although this may not be the case for children with a demand avoidant profile)
  • dislike doing things differently, resist change, or need a lot of preparation for any changes
  • have very high sensitivity to some sensory stimuli, very low sensitivity to others, and a low threshold to sensory overload
  • enjoy spinning objects or flapping their hands (stimming)
  • behave in a self-injurious way, or display other forms of challenging behaviour such as biting, pinching, kicking or pica
  • behave aggressively towards other children due to underlying anxieties or sensory sensitivities
  • experience anxiety
  • have difficulty with organising, sequencing and prioritising
  • lack awareness of danger
  • appear to be of an average or above average intelligence, but unable to use it academically.

Read a more comprehensive list of behaviours in the NICE guidelines.

A child or young person doesn’t need to show all these signs to be diagnosed as autistic and those that aren’t on the autism spectrum may also have some of these behaviours.

Staff in nurseries and early year’s education settings may be the first to notice that a child has some of these behaviours and should adapt the way they teach and interact with these young children.

Planning support

If you have concerns about a pupil you are teaching (either with or without a diagnosis) then you should tell the school SENCO or equivalent staff member so that appropriate support can be discussed, if not already in place. Autistic pupils are likely to have special educational needs (SEN) or additional support needs (ASN) and are entitled to extra help and support. It’s important for a school to:

  • adopt a whole school approach with all staff aware of a child or young person’s needs and the strategies and interventions to be used
  • have open communication with the pupil and their parents
  • know that each child and young person on the autism spectrum will have individual needs and what works for one may not work for another
  • carefully plan any support or differential teaching in the classroom
  • be aware of a pupil’s need for support during unstructured times
  • give thought to how an autistic pupil copes with homework and exams

Some autistic pupils will be on a level of support within school, while others will have a statement of special educational needs (Wales and Northern Ireland) , education, health and care plan (England) or co-ordinated support plan (Scotland).

The person responsible for overseeing SEN or ASN in your school will be aware of each child who has been recognised as needing extra help and should be guided by the code of practice for their nation: England; Wales; Scotland and Northern Ireland (with supplement). 

If you are in England you can read more about supporting pupils on the autism spectrum and the National Autism Standards from the Autism Education Trust.

Working with parents and carers

Parents and carers of autistic children will have to make many decisions about their child whilst they are in education.

Work closely with them, as they know their child best. They may have ideas on how you can help their child to feel more comfortable at school, which will have a positive impact on their behaviour at home.

Underlying anxiety at school can often build throughout the school day and result in different behaviour between home and school. This is because the child or young person is in a familiar environment at home and know they are fully accepted.

Pupils with a demand avoidant profile 

Some autistic children and young people may have been diagnosed with a demand avoidant profile.  These pupils will present with a different set of characteristics.

Children and young people with this profile don’t usually respond to the range of educational strategies that can help others on the autism spectrum.

Read about simple educational strategies for helping children with PDA and how to help a child in your school.

Further help from our charity

MyWorld free resources for teachers.

Network Autism Autism and diagnosis: advice for teachers

Our autism library

Helping young children with autism to learn Liz Hannah

Autism in the primary classroom Joy Beaney and Penny Kershaw

Autism in the secondary classroom Joy Beaney and Penny Kershaw

Last reviewed: 8 February 2017.