Inclusivity: Autism & Schools work

Posted on June 07, 2018 by Jo Fitzsimmons

‘Yes: did hit him with the bat; he would have won otherwise.’

The words of a young person on the Autistic Spectrum are blunt, often very funny and always make complete sense…at least in their mind! I have two teenagers both with a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder; one diagnosed when they were 6 (a boy), the other at 13 (a trans gender young person) and, because of this, I have a radar for ASD young people. 

No one person on the Spectrum is like anyone else on the Spectrum; just because you have met one person and supported them in a certain way; please don’t think that will be replicated! As vast as humanity is in all its quirks and oddities, that’s the same for those on the Spectrum! You won’t be able to tell a person with autism by what they look like, but here are some things that might be worth knowing.

Autism effects everyone differently but the common issues are:

  • sensory stimulation (too noisy, touch, food);
  • communication struggles (either not being able to verbalise at all or having an area they struggle to verbalise – emotions is the most typical communication difficulty;
  • relationships will be difficult – perhaps keeping friends is hard or perhaps not letting friends go;
  • the world feels too big…often with the sense of feeling overwhelmed and constantly anxious

Think about this for school – the challenges are colossal! The constant shuffle of bodies everywhere down the corridors; different teachers with different rules every hour; the complexities of relationships that are confusing and at times, hurtful; the issues of the smell of food or other pupils; the challenge of not fitting in it…the list is endless…

Someone else to note is that many of the ASD teenagers in our mainstream schools are ‘high functioning’ (look up ‘Asperger Syndrome’). This means that in certain areas they will excel, but they won’t find others easy, which often leads to disruptive behaviour for fear of failure.


Keep your eyes open

Often, ASD teenagers are the group most excluded from our schools. Why?

Because at some point, they burst. They can no longer contain the emotions and challenges they face. For some that will look like wall punching, head butting and fighting; for others it will take the form of self-harm and withdrawing.  Having frequent classroom breaks; having a ‘safe space’ to go to when feeling overwhelmed; knowing there is a person at school they can trust; these are all imperative to how young people on the Spectrum can learn to manage such a tough environment.

 With the average age of girls being diagnosed with autism being 13, we often miss those girls who are quietly struggling to stay above water as they are under the radar of staff as they don’t present an issue or concern; look out for these girls. Give them 1:1 time; play cards with them; use loads and loads of non- verbal communication to let them know when they are safe with you.

Think about how you might be able to offer support in school; 

  • Is there an option for a 1:1 session during a certain subject?
  • Perhaps a lunchtime club around a ‘special interest’ (the thing they do not stop telling you about constantly!)
  • Are you able to have a ‘befriender’ role during lunchtimes (which is particularly difficult due to lack of routine, food smells and peer pressure)?
  • If the young person trusts you, can you attend their Review meetings to advocate for them?
  • Is there any small group work you can offer the school, especially around developing emotional language which would help? Or anger management?

Also, it is important to recognise that those on the Autistic Spectrum are 60% more likely to have poor mental health then their peers, and 80% more likely to self-harm so you need to ensure that you are trained and comfortable to deal with any disclosures that might occur and that you feel comfortable supporting an ASD teenager on their journey: sadly, it will be far more turbulent than their peers’. If you want to know more about supporting a young person who self-harms please check out SelfharmUK at