Educating Students on the Autistic Spectrum: A Practical Guide


Martin Hanbury

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    Those of us fortunate enough to work with children and young people learn something new each day. Generally, it is the youngster who leads our development as practitioners and our progress depends largely on our ability to respond to what we have learnt. I hope I have listened to those I have worked with and would like to thank them for all they have taught me. Equally, the families and carers of these children and young people are a special group of people. Their resilience, creativity and focus on their children's needs have been both inspirational and informative. Again, I would like to thank them all.

    I have faced the challenges we all encounter in education alongside colleagues whose skill, expertise and commitment has deepened my faith in humankind. Many colleagues have supported the development of this second edition and I would like to thank especially Graham Birtwell, Jill Breden, Francine Brower, Debi Brown, Barry Carpenter, Keith Cox, Anne Murray, Tony Newman, Steve Pyott, Lisa Sharrock, Jim Taylor and Lucy Wood, for their positive attitudes towards this project.

    Similarly, I have benefited enormously from the encouragement and advice of my editor, Jude Bowen. This second edition has provided me with the opportunity to explore this wonderful field in more depth; a gift I thank her for.

    Finally, I must thank Theresa for coffee and cake, and Megan, Tim, Patrick and Fran for keeping the noise down – well sometimes!

    About the Author

    Martin Hanbury is a Head Teacher and author who has worked in the field of autism for over 25 years in a variety of roles including carer, teaching assistant, teacher and, latterly, school leader.

    Martin holds Master's degrees in Special Education, Educational Management and Research Methodology and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership. He has written Educating Students on the Autistic Spectrum (2005) and Positive Behaviour Strategies to Support Children and Young People with Autism (2007) for SAGE alongside a number of other chapters and articles related to special educational needs and autism. Martin is currently researching the accessibility of educational, health and social services for students with learning difficulties and disabilities.

    Martin contributes to a number of university courses focused on autism, and delivers training in the field on a regular and frequent basis to a variety of agencies. Martin has been an active participant in the National Autistic Society's accreditation programme for many years.

    Downloadable Materials

    This book is supported by a wealth of resources that can be downloaded from for use in your setting. A full list of the resources available is below:


    • 1.1 The triad of impairment 9
    • 2.1 Autism: three waves of impact 16
    • 3.1 Observation checklist 29
    • 4.1 Same challenge, different child 40
    • 4.2 Flowchart for risk assessment 45
    • 4.3 Needs checklist 49
    • 4.4 Grading needs 50
    • 4.5 Priority 50
    • 4.6 Hierarchy 50
    • 4.7 Proportion 50
    • 4.8 Behaviour support plan 53
    • 5.1 Student profile 57
    • 5.2 Supporting communication: dos 67
    • 5.3 Supporting communication: don'ts 67
    • 6.1 Transition area 83
    • 6.2 Schedules 85
    • 7.1 Complexity theory and complex learners 97
    • 7.2 Reflection: trans-disciplinary practice 99
    • 7.3 Self-evaluation 103
    • 7.4 The double helix curriculum model 104
    • 7.5 Linking the strands 106
    • 7.6 Planning template: English 106
    • 7.7 Planning template: Mathematics 107
    • 7.8 Planning template: Science 107
    • 7.9 Holistic learning programme 108
  • Epilogue

    In putting together the second edition of this book it has become ever clearer to me that our duty as practitioners is to be constantly seeking to evolve and adapt to an ever-changing learning context. The students we teach, the colleagues we work alongside, the legislation we are operating under and our knowledge of learning are in a constant state of flux. Against this backdrop of change the only thing we can remain sure of is the need to change ourselves by better understanding the people we work with and sharing that understanding with colleagues and families.

    We have come a long way in a short time which is a testament to how the field is growing and learning together. Long may it continue as there is a long way to go.


    Appendix: INSET Materials

    Slide 1

    What is autism?

    • Autism spectrum condition is the term used to describe a range of behaviourally defined neurodevelopmental conditions.
    • They are characterised by impairments in
      • Social interaction
      • Social communication and language development
      • A restricted repertoire of interests, behaviours and activities.
    • Sensory abnormalities and unusual interest in some sensations are common.
    • A lack of imaginative play indicates an underlying difficulty with generation of ideas that is highly relevant in the development of understanding of other people and other situations.
    • All of these characteristics can be seen in varying degrees of severity.
    • As a developmental condition, the manifestation of autism for any one individual will vary
    • across the lifespan
    • with maturation
    • according to the effects of different environments
    • due to specific interventions and treatments.

    Source: Charman and Care (2004)

    Slide 2

    The triad of impairments (Wing and Gould 1979).

    • Social interaction
    • Social communication and
    • Imagination

    ‘we found that all children with “autistic features”, whether they fitted Kanner's or Asperger's descriptions or had bits and pieces of both, had in common absence or impairments of social interaction, communication and development of imagination. They also had a narrow, rigid, repetitive pattern of activities and interests. The three impairments (referred to as the ‘triad’) were shown in a wide variety of ways, but the underlying similarities were recognizable.’

    Slide 3

    Mind-blindness (Baron-Cohen 1990; 1995)

    • People with autism lack a ‘theory of mind’.
    • Theory of mind is the ability to appreciate the mental states of oneself and other people.
    • It is a prerequisite to effective functioning in social groups.
    • It is usually evident in children from around the age of 4 onwards.
    • However, children with autism seem to lack the ability to ‘think about thoughts’ (Happe 1994).
    Slide 4

    Executive function (Norman and Shallice 1980)

    • Executive function is the mechanism which enables us to move our attention

      from one activity or object to another flexibly and easily.

    • It allows us to plan strategically, solve problems and set ourselves objectives.
    • The absence of such a mechanism determines that
      • all our actions are controlled by the environment in response to cues and stimuli, leading to apparently meaningless activity
      • actions and behaviours compete for dominance in a disorganised and inconsistent manner leading to an inability to plan and execute goal generated behaviour.
    • In a school setting, this emerges as
      • highly distractible behaviour
      • dependence upon ritual and routines
      • an apparent disregard for the school timetable or the completion of tasks.
    Slide 5

    Central coherence theory (Frith 1989)

    • Natural impulse to place information into a context in order to give it meaning.
    • People with autism tend to focus on the detail rather than the whole.
    • The failure to appreciate the whole accounts for the piecemeal way in which people with autism acquire knowledge and the unusual cognitive profile presented by many people with autism.
    • Educators may detect the lack of central coherence in
      • the narrowed interests of children with autism
      • the ways in which students with autism are often unable to generalise skills
      • the way in which children with autism often display areas of relative strength described as islets of ability.
    Slide 6

    Sensory processing

    • We experience the world around us through seven sensory channels, namely
      • Visual – what we see
      • Auditory – what we hear
      • Olfactory – what we smell
      • Gustatory – what we taste
      • Tactile – what we feel
      • Vestibular – balance
      • Proprioceptory – co-ordination.
    • People with autism often experience difficulties in processing sensory stimuli.
    • People with autism can be either hyper-sensitive (over-sensitive) or hypo-sensitive (under-sensitive) to specific stimuli.
    • These difficulties can create a ‘Gestalt perception’ in which all stimuli are equally relevant.
    • In order to regulate this difficulty people with autism may ‘mono-process’ sensory stimuli.
    Slide 7

    Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped CHildren

    • Lifelong programme for people with autism based on a recognition of characteristic strengths and typical impairments.
    • Structured teaching has four major components
      • Physical organisation
      • Schedules
      • Work systems
      • Task organisation.

        (Schopler and Mesibov 1995)

    • Structured teaching can be incorporated into mainstream practice through use of the four major components.

      (Mesibov and Howley 2003)

    Slide 8

    Picture Exchange Communication System

    • Picture provides permanence of information.
    • Allows processing time which supports understanding.
    • Learner initiates communicative acts.
    • Takes the learner through six phases, namely
      • Phase One – Initiating communication
      • Phase Two – Expanding the use of pictures
      • Phase Three – Choosing the message in PECS
      • Phase Four – Introducing the sentence structure in PECS
      • Phase Five – Teaching answering simple questions
      • Phase Six – Teaching commenting.

      (Bondy and Frost 2002)

    • Appropriate for students with language as it supports comprehension and allows extension of existing skills.


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