Autism in children

High school

Autism in children

Autism is a difference in how someone processes and interprets the world (and other people).

Neurodiversity describes the variation of brain responses across all of the population, with some brains being “neurodivergent” (noticeably different from the neuromajority). Autistic individuals could be described as neurodivergent.

Autistic people may:

  • find it hard to communicate and interact with other people
  • find it hard to understand how other people think or feel
  • find things like bright lights or loud noises overwhelming, stressful or uncomfortable
  • get anxious or upset about unfamiliar situations and social events
  • take longer to understand information
  • do or think the same things over and over (NHS, 2023)

What you might see in an autistic child

Differences with communication and interaction

Communication is a two-way process, and it is important that adults supporting autistic children are aware that communication is not simply verbal or “neuromajority” communication methods. 

A key aspect of the diagnosis criteria for autism is that autistic children have a difference in how they perceive and understand non-verbal communication. Given that around 80% of typical interaction is nonverbal, it means that a significant amount of communication and “clues” to intent and purpose are lost or misunderstood by autistic children. Autistic children will often talk about “not getting” social rules or the real intentions behind a person spoken communication. 

Some books written by autistic individuals emphasize this point of feeling “outside” of everyday social understanding, such as “Martian In The Playground” by Clare Sainsbury. 

Children with autism present with differences in how they communicate and also how they interpret other people’s communication. Autistic children can struggle to read and understand other’s perspectives, thoughts, and emotions. This might present in different ways, with children appearing seemingly rude, for example, or they may “over-read” other people, leading to worry and anxiety. Many autistic children benefit from peers and adults being clearer in their thoughts and feelings and having the opportunity to practice interpreting them.

Differences and challenges maintaining friendships is a distinct part of the diagnosis criteria for autism and is a common area of difficulty for autistic children. Some autistic children might not struggle obviously in this area, whereas other present with challenges such as:

  • having no friendships, although they would like them
  • fixating on one particular friend
  • believing they have a number of friendships when, in fact, the “friendships” are not reciprocal
  • thinking they have no friends when they actually do, but cannot recognise this 

How we can support with differences in communication and interaction

  • role-play ways to start an interaction 
  • start at the child’s level and move at their pace when trying to develop interaction
  • allow some time to be alone
  • explicit and consistent examples of positive social interactions, for example turn taking and sharing (board games can be very useful for this)
  • be aware that language may be interpreted literally and modify language used. Ensure what you say is what you mean
  • use positive direction rather than telling the child “Don’t….” for example, “Don’t sit on the table” would be “Come and sit on the chair” and “No we are doing this now” could be “Yes, we can do that when we have finished this”
  • keep facial expressions and gestures simple and clear
  • allow quiet time where adults are not directing or talking especially in moments of change

Differences with processing information

Autistic children often present with differences in Information Processing and, specifically, processing differences or difficulties around Receptive Language. Many autistic children will struggle with too much information and benefit from chunking of information, reduced instruction, and supportive visuals. Autistic children who are not supported in their Receptive Language processing may present as bored, unfocused or disruptive.

Many studies show that autistic children have differences in their Executive Function, such as planning and prioritising, as measured against “typical” development. Autistic children will often need support around the key skills of Executive Function and may present with need in some or all of the following skills: managing time, paying attention, switching focus, planning and organising, remembering details and multitasking.

How we can support with differences in processing information

  • use simple, minimal language
  • give instructions calmly and with a positive expectation
  • say what you mean – try to be direct (but approachable) in your communication
  • interact with a consistent approach – try to be a predictable presence in the child’s life
  • start instructions with the child’s name so that they are aware that they are included in the instruction
  • make sure the instructions are given in the correct chronological sequence
  • give instructions one at a time or in manageable chunks
  • unless there is a real choice, direct rather than asking. For example, avoid asking, “Would you like to read?” or expect the answer “no!”
  • allow time for processing language. Up to 8 seconds may be required before the child is able to respond
  • reinforce verbal instructions with visual cues
  • use the child’s special interest positively (although be careful not to “overuse” it!)
  • an approach that includes routines, structured tasks and positive praise

Differences with sensory perception and tolerance

Autism is a neurological difference in how a person’s brain interacts with the world and this difference has an inevitable impact on a person’s sensory experience– the information our senses receive from the world and send to the brain. Autistic children often report differences in their sensory experiences in all of the sense areas like noise, smell and visual.

Children with sensory differences to the “typical” experience may be under (hypo) or over (hyper) sensitive to particular sensory inputs, compared to the “typical” average.

How we can support with differences in sensory perception and tolerance

  • ensure the child is provided with a ‘safe-haven’ (quiet area) which they can go to in order to help with regulating sensory experiences
  • help the child mutually regulate through consistent, loving support
  • individual sensory allowances, for example ear defenders, as need dictates but with the approach that it is the environment and others that should be altered first and foremost
  • consider the home environment, taking into account sensory issues and develop a plan
  • adaptations and reasonable adjustments shared with all family members
  • be aware what might be considered a comforting touch by other children, may cause discomfort or even pain to a child with autism, such as being hugged when upset
  • understand that the child may not be able to tolerate close proximity of others
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