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Autism spectrum

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 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 behaviors 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. 

Education implications of autism

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. 

Managing autism in education and care

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.

Further 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.

Interoception 

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.  

An interoception support plan HSP421 (DOC 170KB) may be completed by the education or care service, family and the child or young person (where possible). This will provide a detailed understanding of the interoception issues and support the development of individualised strategies to increase interoception.

Refer to the interoception 101 (PDF 3MB) for strategies to incorporate interoception into class activities.

Sensory overview

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.

Regulation scale

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 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:

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:

  • communication 
  • social interactions
  • learning and thinking 
  • accommodations.

The autism spectrum support plan must be accompanied by the sensory overview support plan HSP431 (DOC 389KB).

Care plan

A non-specific care plan HSP110 (DOC 166KB) may be completed by a health professional in consultation with parents or legal guardians for children and young people on the autism spectrum that require support and assistance in education and care services.  

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 Health Support Agreement should clearly identify cultural, spiritual and language needs. 

Educational adjustments

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. 

Supporting 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.  

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.

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.   

Training and education

Positive partnerships school/parent workshops

The Department for Education is currently trialing 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 centered 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 1769 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:

Resources

Support plans

Care plans

HSP110  Non-specific care plan (DOC 166KB)

Health support agreement

Planning and management tools

Contact

National Disability Insurance Scheme

Phone: 1800 800 110
Email: www.ndis.gov.au