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Information and resources to support children and young people on the autism spectrum in education and care.
Around 1 in 100 Australian children are on the autism spectrum. Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning there is a wide degree of variation in the way it affects people. Every child on the autism spectrum has unique abilities, characteristics and challenges.
Children on the autism spectrum have problems of some degree with social interaction, communication and flexible behaviour. There are often different terms to describe a child on the autism spectrum including having high-functioning autism, atypical autism and pervasive development disorder. The diagnostic labels do not describe exactly what abilities and challenges a child will have, it is the child’s unique needs that are important.
The autism spectrum and savant skills
Around 10% of children on the autism spectrum will have special savant skills. Savant skills are defined as extraordinary skills not exhibited by most persons. The estimated prevalence of savant abilities in autism is 10%, whereas the prevalence in the non-autistic population is less than 1%. The most common forms of savant abilities involve mathematics, memory, artistic and musical abilities.
Refer to the Positive Partnerships fact sheet on savant skills (PDF 121 KB) for more information.
Signs a child may be on the autism spectrum
The timing and severity of symptoms of autism can vary widely and are very individual to each child. The following signs may suggest a child is at risk of being on the autism spectrum but some children not on the autism spectrum have some of these symptoms, and not all children on the autism spectrum show all of them:
- Avoids eye contact and prefers own activities
- Struggles to connect to other people’s feelings
- Remains nonverbal or has delayed language development
- Repeats words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
- Gets upset by minor changes in routine or surroundings
- Has highly restricted interests
- Performs repetitive behaviours such as flapping, rocking or spinning
- Has unusual and often intense reactions to sounds, smells, tastes, textures, lights and/or colours
- Girls on the spectrum may appear social, wanting friends and keen to relate however, there is often clumsiness in their approach or a need to do things ‘their way.’
Autism Awareness Australia provides information on typical signs of autism across the lifespan.
Diagnosing a child on the autism spectrum
There is no single medical test that can diagnose a child on the autism spectrum and there is generally a team of specialists involved in the diagnosis. It is often 2-3 years from identification of characteristics until a formal diagnosis is made. Early intervention during the preschool years will improve a child’s chances for overcoming developmental delays. Putting a potential label on a child’s problem is far less important than supporting their need to learn differently.
The full diagnostic criteria for the autism spectrum can be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Autism and eating disorders
The Autism Research Centre has identified new research that indicates girls with anorexia have an above average number of autistic traits and an above average interest in systems. This profile resembles that seen in many people with autism. Both conditions share similar alterations in structure and function of brain regions involved in social perception.
Autism is more often diagnosed earlier in males. This new research suggests that a proportion of young females with autism may be being overlooked or misdiagnosed because they present with anorexia.
The research provides new possibilities for intervention and management. For example, appreciating their interest that seems connected to body weight and dieting, may actually be more a sensory issue, a connection to ‘not noticing the need to eat’ and so on. Therefore, working on these issues helps to refocus the direction of any intervention. Recognising some people with anorexia may need help with developing social understanding and communication, as well as with adapting to change, is a primary reason behind anxiety.
Refer to eating disorders for further information on anorexia.
In 2015 the Australian Bureau of Statistics identified the five most common schooling difficulties for people aged 5 -20 on the autism spectrum to be:
- fitting in socially
- learning difficulties
- communication difficulties
- intellectual difficulties
- difficulty sitting.
Some children on the autism spectrum have an intellectual disability, while others have average or above average intelligence. Often children on the autism spectrum show an uneven pattern of skills with areas of particular strength and areas where additional supports are required.
Classrooms are social environments that rely heavily on being able to interact, socialise and communicate effectively with others. This can intensify the stress, anxiety and depression experienced by children and young people on the autism spectrum. Children and young people on the autism spectrum are four times more likely to require additional learning and support services than their peers.
A lack of social-emotional competence can lead to a decrease in a child’s connection with school as well as their academic performance.
Successful and positive school experiences for children and young people on the autism spectrum are dependent on a number of key factors:
- the knowledge and awareness that teachers and school leaders have about autism and the impact of autism on learning and participation
- how schools accommodate the learning needs of students on the autism spectrum from a whole school and classroom teaching and learning perspective
- utilising an individual’s strengths and interests across the curriculum, including social as well as academic, learning opportunities
- building and sustaining positive and valued partnerships between families and school.
The Department for Education autism spectrum guideline (DOC 114KB) and understanding the autism spectrum (DOC 335KB) documents provide detailed information for education and care services working with children and young people on the autism spectrum.
The verbal communication differences and thinking style differences in autism documents have been developed to support education staff to understand the different ways an autistic child or young person communicates and thinks.
More information on the autism spectrum in education and care can be sourced from the Department for Education intranet site (staff login required) and the Positive Partnerships website.
Autism SA provides support to schools for children on the autism spectrum through Specialised Support Services. Further information is available on the Autism SA school program webpage.
A suite of resources are being developed in the ‘Nothing about me without me’ series to assist children and young people on the autism spectrum to have discussions with their families, peers, teachers and support people. These resources can also be used by education and care staff, families and peers to help to understand neurodiversity.
- Nothing about me without me: my passionate mind
- Nothing about me without me: when I’m anxious
- Nothing about me without me: learning – what works in autism (for professionals)
- Nothing about me without me: Object permanence, interoception and theory of mind
- Object permanence, interoception and theory of mind supporting information
Many children and young people on the autism spectrum have low levels of interoception, which means they are unable to understand or connect with their bodies in ways that would enable them to self- regulate. It is important to integrate the teaching of interoception activities to develop interoceptive awareness.
Refer to the interoception web page for interoception information and resources.
Children and young people on the autism spectrum will have complex sensory issues characterised by sensory seeking or sensory avoiding across the range of internal and external sensory inputs.
The sensory overview support plan HSP431 (DOC 389KB) should be completed by the education and care service in consultation with the parents and child or young person. The sensory overview provides a detailed understanding of the individual sensory issues and assists in developing strategies to minimise sensory overload in the education or care setting.
The regulation scale HSP432 (DOC 182KB) is a tool that can be used for any child or young person to identify what is happening around them that is impacting on their mood change, what signals their body is giving them, and ways to respond to their body’s signals that will help them manage the change in mood.
The regulation scale guide HSP432A supports the development of the regulation scale.
The child or young person should be involved as much as possible in developing the scale, with input from parents and staff to support them.
The scale can evolve and change over time as the child develops better interoceptive awareness and expands their vocabulary (non-verbal/verbal). This scale is designed to be used in conjunction with interoception activities so the child is working towards meaningful development of interoception skills.
Interoception is the foundation for developing emotional regulation skills and some children will require explicit teaching to develop these. Some children (especially those who have experienced trauma and/or neglect) struggle to manage mood changes which may be associated with a minor increase in stress levels (new learning, trying something different). For these children, minor stress may induce uncomfortable feelings which trigger a ‘flight, fight, freeze’ response. These children require support to differentiate between feeling slightly challenged/minor discomfort and feeling unsafe/in danger so they can respond differently.
Some examples of completed regulation scales include:
- HSP432 Externalising behaviour (PDF 354KB)
- HSP432 Internalising behaviour (PDF 130KB)
- HSP432 Symbols and reduced language (PDF 170KB)
- HSP432 Year 3 boy (PDF 159KB)
Traditional behaviour management focuses on what to do after behaviour has occurred, but does not determine the purpose of the behaviour.
The behaviour can often be prevented by making modifications to the environment, people, places, time or activities and teaching the child or young person a more appropriate way to get their message across.
It is important to determine the reason for the behaviour before we can try to prevent the occurrence.
This may include:
- identifying dangerous, damaging and disruptive behaviours; and which behaviours are just annoying or irritating to others
- investigating what triggers the behaviour, when and where the behaviour is most likely and least likely to occur
- looking at what happens after the behaviour
By using this information we can identify the purpose of the behaviour and teach appropriate alternative behaviours and new skills.
The HSP433 understanding behaviour template HSP4333 (456KB) is a useful tool to assist in determining the reason a behaviour is occurring and to plan and implement a replacement behaviour. This worksheet is used for a single behaviour and works most effectively when education staff, families and the child or young person work together to develop.
The template includes a most likely/least likely table that can be used to identify possible triggers for the behaviour of concern. Documenting what is happening when the behaviour is most likely to occur (place, people, time and activity) and comparing it to times when the behaviour is least likely to occur. It is equally as important to identify when the behaviour DOESN’T happen. This form is used to gather additional information that can provide useful clues in identifying the purpose of the behaviour. The information concerning least likely times for the behaviour also signals possibilities for the ideal teaching environment best suited to that young person.
Wellness, stress and distress questionnaire (WSDQ)
The wellness, stress and distress questionnaire (WSDQ) HSP426 (XLSX 264KB) is a brief emotional and behavioural screening questionnaire for children and young people. The tool can capture the perspective of children and young people and their teachers.
The 25 items in the WSDQ comprise 5 scales of 5 items each. The scales include:
- emotional symptoms subscale
- conduct problems subscale
- hyperactivity/inattention subscale
- peer relationships problem subscale
- prosocial behaviour subscale.
The WSDQ can be used for various purposes, including clinical assessment, evaluation of outcomes, research and screening.
Autism spectrum support plan
An autism spectrum support plan HSP430 (DOC 298KB) should be completed by education and care services in collaboration with the child or young person and their family. The plan includes a description of the child or young person’s interests, strengths, skills and support needs from the perspective of the child, family and education or care service.
The autism spectrum support plan includes short term goals and provides an overview of preferences and supports for:
- social interactions
- learning and thinking
The autism spectrum support plan must be accompanied by the sensory overview support plan HSP431 (DOC 389KB).
Health support agreement
A health support agreement HSP120 (DOC 243KB) and safety and risk management plan HSP121 (DOC 147KB) may be completed for children and young people on the autism spectrum that require additional support and assistance. There does not need to be a care plan completed by a health professional in place. The support agreement is completed by the parent and education or care service to document specific risk minimisation strategies, individualised management and treatment for the child in the context of the education or care service.
The guide to planning health support – HSP125 can assist in the development of the health support agreement by prompting through a series of questions and considerations.
The health support agreement should clearly identify cultural, spiritual and language needs.
Educational adjustments are designed to support children and young people on an individualised basis. Adjustments should be determined by the parents and education and care service and documented in the autism spectrum support plan HSP430 (DOC KB) and/or health support agreement HSP120 (DOC 243KB).
Further information and resources can be found on the Department for Education intranet site (requires staff log in).
The Association for Children with a Disability provides examples of adjustments that may be used by education and care services to meet the learning and support needs for children on the autism spectrum.
Detailed information for education and care staff working with children on the autism spectrum can be found on the Department for Education intranet (staff login required).
The Department for Education has developed an interoception curriculum that can help children and young people on the autism spectrum improve their emotional awareness and self-regulation (refer to the interoception web page).
Education Not Limited (UK) has developed a video on understanding autism that may support education and care staff who have not worked with a child or young person with autism.
The Women’s and Children’s Health Network Child and Youth Health have developed information specifically for children about autism and the autism spectrum.
The Helping Children with Autism (HCWA) program is a federal government initiative to support families with children on the autism spectrum
The Raising Children website has information and resources for families about children on the autism spectrum.
The Organization for Autism Research (OAR) has useful resources, guides and learning tools to assist autistic students
Finding Your Way: A college guide for students on the spectrum has been developed by OAR to help autistic students to prepare for everyday challenges of student life, academics, financial aid etc.
MyTime is a free group for parents and carers of children with a disability, developmental delay or chronic medical condition. MyTime is a place to socialise, to discuss, to get information, and to support and be supported by other carers.
ReachOut is Australia’s leading online mental health organisation for young people. Resources are available for young people, parents and schools.
Beyondblue are advocates for positive change, and a better deal for people experiencing anxiety, depression and suicide risk.
Headspace is the national youth mental health foundation dedicated to improving the wellbeing of young Australians.
Positive partnerships school/parent workshops
The Department for Education is currently trialling Positive Partnerships workshops across South Australia. The workshop gives the opportunity for parents and school teams to work together to strengthen partnerships and promote improved learning outcomes for children and young people on the autism spectrum.
The workshops include 3 – 5 groups from individual schools. Each group is centred around a single child or young person and should include up to 6 people including the parents or legal guardians and education and care staff that support the child (ie teacher, SSO, site leader, special educator).
By the end of the workshop the participants will:
- be informed about current evidence-based knowledge of autism spectrum disorder and better understand how it directly impacts on the young person’s learning
- better understand the processes and strategies that enable effective parent, school and teacher partnerships
- be equipped with information and strategies to advocate effectively to support the young person’s learning whilst negotiating the educational environment
- be informed about local school system’s processes to support the young person’s learning at all stages of the educational pathway
- better understand ways to maximise the young person’s learning in the home environment.
If you are a parent with a young person on the autism spectrum, or education staff supporting a young child on the autism spectrum and want to find out more, contact Disability Policy and Program by phone (08) 8226 3620 or email Education.DPP [at] sa.gov.au.
Positive partnerships online
Positive Partnerships’ offers interactive, self-paced online modules across a range of topics as well as a range of webinars.
Online modules are available for:
- HSP430 Autism spectrum support plan (DOC 298KB)
- HSP421 Interoception support plan (DOC 170KB)
- HSP426 Wellness, stress and distress questionnaire (WSDQ) (XLSX 264KB)
- HSP431 sensory overview support plan (DOC 389KB)
- HSP432 Regulation scale (DOC 182KB)
- HSP432A Regulation scale guide (PDF 503KB)
- HSP433 Understanding behaviour template (PDF 358KB)
Health support agreement
- HSP120 Health support agreement (DOC 243KB)
- HSP121 Safety and risk management plan (DOC 147KB)
- HSP122 Offsite safety and risk management plan (DOC 148KB)
Planning and management tools
- Ready to learn kit (PDF 6936KB)
- Interoception guide (PDF 610KB)
- HSP422 Interoception activity plan (PDF 74KB)
- HSP423 Interoception personal best tracking sheet (PDF 116KB)
- Interoception small group session structure (PDF 84KB)
- Interoception in the Australian Curriculum (PDF 150KB)
- Savant skills (PDF 121 KB)
- Understanding autism (video)
- HSP125 Guide to health support planning (DOC 87KB)
- Thinking style differences in the autism spectrum (PDF 144KB)
- Verbal communication differences in the autism spectrum (PDF 163KB)
Disability and Complex Needs Team
Phone: 8226 0515
Email: education.health [at] sa.gov.au