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Department of Education

What is autism?

Autism is a difference not a deficit. Autism is a term used to describe a neurological difference in brain development that has a marked effect on how a person develops. There are four areas of difference that are particularly important for staff in Post 16 settings to understand and pay attention to because most autistic young people will have individual educational needs to be met in these areas.

Every autistic young person on the autism spectrum will have a range of abilities and needs within each of these areas:

The four key areas of difference

Social understanding

Differences in understanding social behaviour and the feelings of others, which affects the development of friendships and relationships.

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Sensory processing

Differences in perceiving sensory information. Hypo (low sensitivity), hyper (high sensitivity), touch, sight, hearing, smell, taste, vestibular inner ear (balance), proprioceptive (body awareness)

Interests and information processing

Differences in perception, planning, understanding concepts, generalising, predicting, managing transitions, passions for interests and ability to absorb auditory or spoken information.

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Communication

Differences in understanding and expressing communication and language, with skills ranging from individuals who are highly articulate, to others who may be non–verbal. Good language skills may mask a deep level of misunderstanding.

These four areas of difference create high levels of stress and anxiety, and this can have a profound impact on an individual’s performance and behaviour.

Most autistic young people find social interaction with adults and peers difficult and tiring. Autistic young people are not easily able to understand commonly used implicit social messages and may find it hard to understand or relate to how social rules change due to context, or what is considered socially ‘appropriate’ (i.e. what is appropriate to say and do in some situations is inappropriate in other situations). It is hard for young people on the autism spectrum to easily and quickly read and understand the emotional intentions of staff and peers, but it should also be remembered that this can be a ‘two-way’ difficulty. The actions of children and young people on the autism spectrum are often misinterpreted as intentionally insensitive or defiant. Children and young people on the autism spectrum may need help to develop the skills which will support them to understand, manage and/or make friendships and relationships.

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Autistic young people at all levels of intellectual ability have difficulties in understanding the communication and language of adults and peers and in communicating effectively themselves. About 40% of children with autism are delayed in learning to speak and some people develop little or no speech. It is likely that most children and young people with autism will need support and strategies to help teach them how to communicate with staff and peers in order to have their needs met. This can involve the use of alternative means of communication (e.g. objects of reference, visual symbols, photos, gestures, spoken word, or a combination of means). It should be remembered that an approach to communication for young people should be consistent across the school day.

Autistic young people find change much more difficult than other young people as they are not easily able to predict what will happen instead or what to do in the changed situation. Some children and young people with autism develop special interests in a topic or activity which may occupy a great deal of their thought and time. Such interests can be used to very good effect as part of the learning process and can be broadened into related areas and act as a route into employment. Autistic young people have an uneven profile of abilities, which can also coincide with other factors such as age, personality, or the existence of other developmental differences or impairments. It is therefore of paramount importance to assess each young person to gain an overall profile of their strengths and needs.

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Many autistic young people may have levels of sensory perception that are atypical/outside the typical range. This can mean that they may be hypo or hyper sensitive to particular sensory stimuli such as sights, sounds and smells. They may also be overwhelmed as they have problems in separating out sensory information and attending to the most relevant. This can cause high levels of anxiety and staff can do a great deal to reduce this by finding out what each child and young person finds hard and creating a classroom and school environment which addresses these difficulties.

What is the ‘difference not deficit’ debate and current terminology?

There is often an assumption that autistic young people need to behave and live like those without autism. Many autistic adults take exception to this assumption and the fact that much of the literature on autism uses medical terms such as deficit, disorder, and intervention. They argue that such terms are both inaccurate and stigmatising and based on an incorrect notion of what humanity and normalcy entail.

They argue that such notions can further disable autistic people and, if internalised, can lead to crises in self-identity, esteem and worth. On the other hand, there are others that argue that they are severely impaired and want to retain the term disorder to explain their experience. In recognition of this debate, much of the literature now just refers to autism or autism spectrum and not autism spectrum disorder or condition. If their needs are recognised and appropriate support is given, a significant number of autistic young people will experience relatively few difficulties in their school lives and into adulthood.

AET



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