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Autism Spectrum Condition


Almost every school in Cumbria will have least one child with an autism spectrum condition because autism occurs in one in 150 children. (National Autistic Society 2007)

Autism is a complex disorder that can be confusing for teachers, support staff and parents.

The information included in this website is up-to-date and drawn from research and practical experience.

Strategies and resources are easy to understand and apply in school classrooms the playground and at home.

It is hoped that this information will help to significantly improve the school's experience of children and young people with autism.


In order to include and support individual children and young people with autism in mainstream schools it is important to have a sound understanding of the nature of this lifelong complex condition, which has day to day implications for work in schools.

It is important to combine this with an individual understanding of the child or young person's differences in relation to their autism.

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What is autism?

Autism is a developmental disorder which affects the way that a person relates to others. Autism affects all children and young people differently but all will have difficulties and differences in 4 key areas of their development. They have problems in understanding the world in the way others do. Each child will have a unique profile that includes their personality, strength, needs, likes and dislikes. It is important to have an awareness of the four areas of difference and to understand the different impact of each aspect for each individual pupil.

The Four Areas of Difference are:

Social communication

Social interaction

Rigidities of thought and behaviour which includes difficulties with social imagination

Sensory differences

The four areas of difference are not distinct and each impact upon the other.


Social Communication

This is an area of great challenge for many children and young people with autism. They may vary from being non-verbal to talking at others, whereby expressive language may not be matched by appropriate receptive communication skills.

They may:

  • Be Non-verbal (no spoken language) and have limited understanding and use of non-verbal language (pointing, social gesture,) and this can lead to them failing to understand and follow requests.

  • Have limited language to make requests to meet basic needs.

  • Have limited social language which can create difficulties in social interaction. Emotional vocabulary may be absent or limited, facial expressions flat, the child or young person may be misinterpreted as lacking feeling and emotion.

  • Have echolalia (repeating the speech of others)

  • Reverse pronouns

E.g. they may say "You want a biscuit" when they mean "I want a biscuit"

  • Have idiosyncratic speech E.g.  speaking with a monotone, difficulties recognising / using rhythm, pitch and intonation. They may speak with an unusual accent that differs from that spoken in their own family or locality, E.g. American.
  • Have a literal interpretation of language and struggle with similes and metaphors.
  • Have difficulties understanding implied meaning or working out someone's intention and this can lead to social misunderstandings. They may miss the subtleties of playground or classroom behaviour and this can lead to social isolation.
  • Have difficulty in understanding facial expressions and failed to make the connections between what is sad how it is sound and the body language and facial expressions that are used.
  • Find using social eye gaze effectively may be problematic.

Children and young people with autism frequently behave differently and present with behaviour that is difficult to understand. This behaviour may be a form of communication but is often not understood clearly by those around them.


Social Interaction

This area of development is seen to be a highly complex area for children with autism.  Some children and young people appear to have no desire for social contact and may appear aloof.

Some children and young people with autism have a strong desire for social contact but struggle with certain aspects.

They may have:

  • Difficulty engaging in shared activities team games and social conversation.
    a lack of know-how in using social knowledge of other people to develop relationships for example there likes dislikes interests ambitions etc.

  • A tendency to be quite rigid and rule-bound. Although this can be an asset in terms of desirable classroom behaviour it can greatly inhibit social development.

  • Difficulties with flexible thinking. In social situations the rules are more fluid and varied. They often change depending on the context or environment. These adjustments and the required flexibility is both challenging and stressful for children and young people with autism.

  • A very superficial and literal understanding of friendship for example "a friend is someone you sit next to in class" or "a friend is someone who looks at you and smiles".

  • The appearance of showing little or no awareness of the needs and feelings of others and this can be often interpreted as a lack of empathy. It is likely however that what is lacking is understanding.

  • Difficulties that make them less likely to observe and follow the social behaviour of pupils. Although they often present as excellent mimics, they find social imitation more challenging.

Many children and young people with autism have an awareness of their differences and a desire for normality this can make them extremely vulnerable to bullying manipulation by others.

Rigidities of Thought and Behaviour Which Includes Difficulties with Social Imagination

This area of developmental difference is often observed in early life in relation to social play and cognitive development. A teacher, parent or carer may notice idiosyncrasies in the quality of play observed in very young children with autism, E.g. they may focus on aspects of a Toy such as the wheels of the car and enjoy them at a sensory level rather than with a social element in their play.

Socially, children with autism may be observed to play alongside (parallel) other children rather than with them. Social imagination underpins social and intellectual growth. Children with autism find it very difficult to think in a future oriented way and to speculate about what might happen and how they might react, behave or respond to a given situation. Consequently their social behaviour is often reactive.

They may have difficulties in:

  • Gaining an understanding/ perspective of others and recognising the impact of their own behaviour on others.
  • Retaining and applying sequences. These can be difficult to keep in mind. Following routines and activities that are regular or repeated may be problematic and require visual support to enable the child to do things successfully.
  • Working flexibly on tasks. Children with autism usually prefer to complete tasks rather than return to them as breaking and shifting attention can be difficult and a source of anxiety.

Generalising skills and behaviour may be problematic.

Children and young people with autism are prone to inflexible and rigid thinking. This may manifest through insistence on sameness: the child may always want to sit in the same place or do things in the same order. Many children with autism eat a limited range of foods and this is an example of their rigidity.

Inflexible thinking can be linked with a literal interpretation of language, E.g. if the child is told that the activity will finish at 1pm, they are likely to expect it to finish precisely at this time and may be distressed if it does not.

 Vague terms, such as, maybe, perhaps or later can cause anxiety as they lack precision and are thereby meaningless terms.

Some children and young people with autism show a high level of dependency on routine on sameness. This aspect of autism is often misconstrued as meaning that there must never be any change around the pupils with autism this is misleading. Change and unpredictability are part of daily life. However people will not become desensitised to change just because it occurs around them and it can be a source of stress and anxiety. It is important to recognise the extent to which this may be an issue for individual children. Minimising unnecessary change where possible will be beneficial.



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