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Impact of Autism on Whole School Ethos

IMPACT Responding to the needs of pupils 

Pupils with autism may find the playground or breaks in the routine of school day quite threatening and anxiety provoking. Young children may find it difficult to participate in the games of other children particularly imaginative play. Older, secondary pupils may find it very difficult to "break in" to social groups and networks and may feel very isolated during unstructured times of the day.

Buddy or friendship support systems are likely to be more appropriate for younger children and can form the basis of meaningful work in the area of citizenship.

Older pupils may need an identified safe haven within the school. This may be a room or indeed a trusted member of staff they can seek out when they are feeling stressed or overwhelmed.

Many pupils on the spectrum have special interests. Lunch clubs and after school clubs based on such interests can promote the inclusion of pupils and also add to the community of the school. Special interests provide an excellent opportunity for pupils with autism to shine. They will often have quite expert knowledge and this can help raise their self-esteem. Such expertise could also be utilised in guided study or homework clubs where they may be well placed to support younger or less able pupils.

Pupils with autism are unlikely to manage the school environment independently without a range of visual /verbal supports. autism impacts on the ability to extract and be guided by contextual information including social cues.

Although the specific needs of individual pupils should be addressed in the classroom context it is important to transfer these principles to the wider school environment. This may include:

  • Pictorial timetables (for some pupils a written timetable will suffice);
  • Labelling of areas by function, cupboards to indicate contents;
  • Visual aids or systems to enable pupils to indicate they need support e.g. a card that signifies they need time out;
  • Visual menus;
  • Directional arrows to support pupils queuing for lunch etc.;
  • Any no entry areas;
  • Clearly marked exits.

This is not an exhaustive list but gives some indication of potential areas for development.

Stress may lead to pupils behaving in a way that is viewed as being inappropriate, disruptive or generally challenging.


Promotion of positive perceptions and attitudes towards diversity.

CPD for staff including auxiliary and support staff etc included in any awareness training.

Agreed procedures in relation to behaviour need to be understood by all staff. Such procedures do not need to be complex and could be as simple as staff asking the lead adult if they require assistance. Team approaches to supporting pupils who are displaying challenging behaviour are essential and key/lead staff need to be identified and know they have the support of senior and other colleagues.

Effective support and de-briefing needs to be in place for staff who become involved in difficult or challenging incidents involving pupils.

Approaches to supporting pupil behaviour should take account of the dignity and confidentiality of the pupil. It is important to recognise that inappropriate attention on a pupil may in fact exacerbate the situation. In the longer term this may result in an unjustified reputation that may follow the pupil throughout their school career and beyond.

Opportunities for parents to engage with the wider parent population will be important in developing an inclusive ethos.

Parents of pupils with autism will be coping with a range of emotional and practical issues that other parents are unlikely to encounter. Pupils across the spectrum and of all ages are unlikely to share information, concerns or news about their school life. Whilst many people will feel this is typical of all children it is important to recognise that for pupils with autism this is more likely to be as a result of communication, cognition and social interaction issues that are directly related to autism.

Policy and practice that supports effective home/school communication need to be considered. This should include whole school information as well as specific issues or information that arise in relation to the individual pupil. Respectme, the national anti-bullying service provides support in developing, refreshing and implementing effective anti-bullying policies, practice and training in the prevention of and dealing with bullying.

Pupils with autism are vulnerable to bullying. Due to the extreme social naivety of pupils with autism they are also vulnerable to inadvertently being drawn into bullying behaviour. Pedantic and rigid thinking may also lead to behaviour that others perceive as bullying. Whilst it is difficult to make an accurate assessment anecdotal evidence would suggest that experiencing bullying is by far the predominant issue for pupils on the spectrum.

Robust anti-bullying policies supported by school ethos and values and effective response to incidents need to be in place and known to all pupils and parents.

Recognition that bullying of children on spectrum may take many forms is important. Where children with autism are seen to be bullying or at risk of developing bullying type behaviour it needs to be made clear to them that it is unacceptable, what the consequences of such behaviours are and what the alternatives to this behaviour could be. These messages need to be clear, unambiguous and delivered in a supportive, non - judgemental manner. Good home school liaison will be needed to ensure a consistent message and so that the pupil knows there is communication between both settings. Modern technology can be used to develop approaches that are not time or staff intensive e.g. a home - school e-mail link.

Pupils with autism may find it stressful to participate in whole school or larger events such as assembly, outings or sports day. Difficulties can arise from core challenges in autism and also from sensory processing difficulties, anxiety and motivation.

It will be important for schools to start with the basic premise that all events should be made accessible to pupils and that where possible pupils will be supported to participate.

This needs to be tempered with an understanding of individual needs and skills and that for some pupils an incremental approach will be needed. e.g. attending assembly for 5 minutes then gradually building tolerance.

For some pupils with autism academic achievement will be relatively easily attained. Social success and participating as active citizens within the school with a genuine feeling of belonging will be much harder won.

It is also important to recognise that for some pupils attendance and participation in a range of events may not be realised and indeed it may be counter productive to "force" participation as this may adversely impact on the rest of the day. In some cases it may result in deterioration in confidence or other key areas. Developing practice in this area will require staff to view the event from the perspective of the pupil with autism. Professional judgement based on detailed knowledge of individual pupils and their targets will direct and guide practice in this area.

Schools will need to take steps in a way that recognising wider achievement. This should not be tokenistic but should be age appropriate and should be part of the promotion of positive behaviour for all pupils.

Schools should be aiming for an ethos that recognizes achievement and effort in academic and non academic aspects of school life.

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