How to get the best out of pupils with ASD

A series of explanations and advice for teaching and including pupils with ASD

Author details

Ronnie Young is an education consultant and writer, and mother of a child with ASD

It may come as a surprise, but many learners on the autistic spectrum are some of the easiest children to teach. So what is the secret? It is simple – go into their world, don’t expect them to come into ours.

What is the world like for a pupil with ASD?

The ASD pupil’s world is a small planet inhabited by only one person and governed by rules and laws that they have decided exist and which are based on their experiences. All is well so long as life complies with these rules.

Examples of changes that can be upsetting are:

  • someone acts out of character
  • there is a room change
  • working from paper instead of an exercise book
  • the pupil is in a different seat
  • there is a supply teacher.

These changes can make the pupil’s planet start to wobble and they desperately look for something that isn’t moving. If they can’t find it, they panic and the result can be uncontrollable behaviour.

One thing you can do is ensure something or someone in the classroom is unchanging in order to give them an element of consistency.

Life without a manual

Social contact and unpredictability are major sources of stress. Children and young people with ASD don’t see people as people, but as machines – all of which work differently and none of which has a manual. Before they can interact with people, they first have to figure out how they operate.

The magic word here is ‘consistency’.

Coping with change

There are two key questions that need to be addressed when planning contingency strategies for aspects of change that might upset the pupil:

  • how can the pupil let the teacher know they are becoming distressed?
  • is there a safe place or person they can go to when panic sets in?

Something practical you can do if something is going to change, is to let the pupil know when this will happen in advance.

  • a sand timer or a countdown clock on the interactive whiteboard is ideal for this
  • give the whole class notice of when they will move from one activity to the next, it will help all pupils with their time management
  • key rings with daily visual timetables can also help steady a child when their planet wobbles.

Communication issues

Pupils with autism take things literally, so when teachers say ‘take your books out,’ they shouldn’t be surprised if the pupil picks up their books and heads for the door. It can be distressing for them if they make this kind of mistake, so be careful when using phrases like ‘keep your eye on the ball’ or ‘go and wash your hands in the toilet’.

Ideally, children need to be taught the difference between literal and metaphorical language as early and as often as possible, and if they are looking puzzled they may need encouragement to indicate they don’t understand.

These pupils also have huge problems with non-verbal communication such as body language and facial expressions. It is helpful if children can be taught these separately, but otherwise make sure you are not using them as a means of communication. Your pupil will either ignore such signs, misinterpret them or become distressed because they can’t make any sense of them.

Solutions for group work

ASD pupils often prefer to work on their own. If this is not possible, here are a few rules to make group work smoother:

  • Ensure groups comprise no more than three pupils.
  • Hand pick people who get on with the ASD pupil or who are kind and tolerant.
  • Give each person (including the pupil with ASD) a specific role, so it is clear what they all should be doing.
  • Use the strengths of the ASD pupil. They usually have fantastic memories so use them to scribe or collect the group’s ideas.
  • Teach everyone group etiquette – for example, taking turns and not interrupting.

Harnessing ob​sessions

People with ASD use their obsessions like a security blanket; in a world they don’t understand this allows them to retreat into something over which they have full control.

Here are three ways to use obsessions.

  • As a reward - 'do 10 minutes of maths and you can have five minutes drawing characters from Minecraft’.
  • As a way to raise self-esteem - get the other pupils to think of really difficult Mastermind-type questions to ask the pupil on their obsession. They will be impressed by the pupil’s knowledge.
  • As a way to access the curriculum - one teacher taught the whole of her maths curriculum through the medium of the Napoleonic wars (e.g. what was the area of the battlefield?) It was the only way the ASD child would do any maths and the other children loved it.

Obsessions can actually be a helpful tool to help teachers spot when a pupil is becoming distressed, as they are likely to retreat into their obsession when their planet wobbles.

Giving instructio​ns

Research from the University of Montreal suggests that the brains of autistic people are organised differently from those of other people; the area at the back of the brain, which processes visual information, is more highly developed. That leaves less brain capacity in areas that deal with decision-making and planning (Samson et al, 2011, DOI: 10.1002/hbm.21307).

These pupils find it very difficult to do two things at once and tend to be visual learners, so anything they can take away and read is ideal.

Issuing checklists whenever you can, in words if possible or using symbols, means pupils don’t have to copy from the board or write down instructions while the teacher is talking.

Handouts given out as part of a classroom activity should be as uncluttered as possible, and not look like photocopied pages of textbooks. If you highlight and organise essential information, your pupil will find these sheets much easier to work with. To avoid panic, you might also include a checklist of materials required to complete the task.

After any instruction, there are four questions the pupil should be able to answer.

  1. What am I expected to do?
  2. How much am I expected to do?
  3. How will I know when I have finished?
  4. What do I do next?

ASD pupils lack intuition. They cannot just pick things up or draw inferences, so you must be certain that they have correctly understood what you said.

Refine​ questions

Because ASD pupils lack social imagination, they find it very difficult to imagine what life may be like for others. Instead of an essay title such as ‘How far do you empathise with Lady Macbeth?’, a better title may be ‘What role did Lady Macbeth have in Macbeth’s crimes?’

These pupils also have problems with simulated tasks that they have to work out in groups, such as ‘work out how you would build this bridge.’ A better task may be ‘design a bridge which has the following specifications and which can withstand these conditions.’ Make examples as concrete and relevant as possible.

Teach study skills

Introduce study skills as early as possible. For example, help pupils learn time management by breaking tasks into bite-size chunks and then make a timetable or checklist of these. Gradually work towards them learning to break tasks up for themselves.

Aim for consistency

Build in as much structure and routine as possible with as little choice and as much explanation as needed. The essential feature of lessons for these children is consistency, not just in the teacher but in all the staff who work with them.

Finally, remember that pupils with ASD have many strengths: they work well alone, they are lateral thinkers (so will come up with interesting and valid answers to problems) and they have extraordinarily good memories.

They tend to be obedient, focused, reliable, dedicated and punctual, and usually try very hard.

In fact, they have many of the traits of a model pupil.

This article is taken from Special Children Magazine, issue 222. PDF versions of the magazines are available to download in the My Account area under My Magazines for subscribers of the Knowledge Centre and Premium CPD.


Last Updated: 
04 Sep 2019