Butterfly on Bluebells

What is autism?

Children on the autism spectrum in mainstream schools

Our understanding of the autism spectrum has changed rapidly in recent years and this is likely to continue. There have been great advances in knowledge through medical and sociological research and, in teaching, through reflective practitioners. We are also able to learn through listening to the voices of people on the autism spectrum.

The publication of DSM 5 ( the 5th and most current edition of  the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013) will have a significant impact in schools, particularly ones with an international and transient population as it redefines how ‘autism spectrum disorders’ or ASD are diagnosed. For a diagnosis of ASD – my preferred term is ‘autism spectrum condition’ – there must be evidence of a significant impairment in the domain of social communication and social interaction, and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities. Significant difficulties must exist in both domains.

DSM 5 also recognises that there may additionally be sensory processing issues when individuals interact with their environment. These sensitivities can be either ‘hyper’ (too much) or ‘hypo’ (too little) and may not be apparent until such time as the individual is overwhelmed by the demands of the environment (Lawson, 2013). There may be further ‘specifiers’ accompanying the diagnosis, which are particular to the individual. For example, a child may be diagnosed with ADHD alongside autism spectrum disorder.

Asperger’s Syndrome has disappeared from DSM 5. This form of ‘high functioning’ autism is now part of the ‘spectrum’ of autism. Of course, if somebody has been diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome in the past it will remain as their ‘label’, until they get a new diagnosis. It is worth noting that in some cases high functioning autistic people may still have areas of weakness that are not immediately apparent.

There are many children on the autism spectrum in mainstream schools. These children are very likely to need support in learning how to interact with others socially  or they may need modifications to the sensory environment, or they may have unusual behaviours – that their peers and teachers will need to be taught to accept.

In common with many children with learning differences, it is essential to bear in mind that children on the autism spectrum will have individual and unique sets of needs and that any steps taken by teachers or carers will need to reflect that fact. Furthermore, it is worth emphasising that the nature of the autism spectrum will presuppose that children will have very differing profiles of needs and that they will require unique adaptations.

Teachers need to ensure that they are sensitive to the individual’s characteristics, and follow the advice contained in the child’s learning plan. It may be that the child on the autism spectrum will not be able to adapt to ‘fit in’ with the norms and expectations of the school and that steps will need to be taken to change the wider school environment, not the child.

  • Did you know that 1 in 100 children is likely to be on the autism spectrum?
  • Boys are much more likely to be diagnosed than girls – particularly among higher functioning individuals.
  • It has been suggested that girls are under diagnosed.

There is plenty more information about the autism spectrum on the website of the Autism Education Trust: http://www.autismeducationtrust.org.uk/

– Adapted from part of a paper submitted to the University of Birmingham – please contact Mr Bob for more information.
Reference: Lawson, W. (2013, March 1). Autism spectrum conditions: the pathophysiological basis for inattention and the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. OA Autism


One thought on “What is autism?”

Comments are closed.