Each child with autism has unique needs and abilities and many will benefit from a 'mixed menu' of support in school. This is a look at some of the educational approaches that may be used, with examples from teachers and other experts.

Here you can find short introductions to using special interests, SCERTS, TEACCH, ABA and PBS.

Using special interests

Many autistic children have special interests. They can really enjoy learning about their interest or collecting items to do with it. Common ones include TV and film characters or more general topics such as cars, dinosaurs or flags.

How can you use special interests to engage children in activities and motivate them to learn? Emma Sanderson, Deputy Principal of The National Autistic Society’s Helen Allison School shares the creative ways they bring special interests into the classroom.


A teacher incorporating Minecraft into a maths lesson.

Emma says, “We integrate special interests as much as possible. We’ve worked with one group in particular to incorporate Minecraft into their maths lessons.

The first thing we did was purchase an educational version of the game that doesn’t allow them to talk to other people. Then we created resources – so for instance when the children were learning about nets of cubes they made different types of nets around the Minecraft characters. When they were looking at calculating area and perimeter they calculated these for the different islands and lands in the game.

So the whole Maths curriculum for a term was based on Minecraft, and during that term these children made more progress than in any other! We still go back to the resources from time-to-time.

Teachers using Henry the Hoover to improve students' literacy skills.

“Our primary students are into Lego Ninja so we use that. We’ve also used Henry Hoover storybooks to improve students’ literacy and as reward-based interventions.

“We’ve got one student who is into volcanoes and we used that to give her a way of managing her behaviour. We helped her to see her behaviour as a volcano before it erupts.

“In our initial in-depth admission meeting with parents and pupils, we always ask about special interests. Some people call them obsessions; we prefer to call them special interests. It’s part of finding out what motivates each pupil to learn and gives us the tools to tailor their individual curriculum and reward systems.”

To read more real examples of using special interests to help children learn in the Your Autism Magazine education supplement, become a member today.

Social Communication, Emotional Regulation and Transactional Support (SCERTS)

SCERTS is a relatively new approach which targets issues such as communication, emotional expression, coping with stress and building relationships. 'Transactional support' describes adaptations that staff can make, such as changes to teaching style.

A senior advisory teacher for autism spectrum conditions in the London Borough of Barnet, said: "When we set up a post-diagnosis programme in 2006 I wanted an approach that would be accessible to all team members, support our work with parents, and allow us to track childrens' progress. 

"I had heard that SCERTS had the potential to do this. At that time, there was no training available in the UK, so we worked from manuals at first. We assessed children and devised targets for them – they have all made progress in relation to their SCERTS targets and many are calmer and easier to engage.

"SCERTS is now used in most specialist settings in Barnet, and a number of mainstream schools. It allows us to support children with autism in an informed, purposeful and ethical way."

Find out more about SCERTS model.

Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH)

TEACCH aims to prepare people with autism to live and work more independently. It's based on the principles of structured teaching. An autism lead practitioner and deputy principal at one of our schools explained what this means in practice:

"TEACCH lets our pupils know what work to do, how much to do, when they are finished and what happens next. Visual cues help pupils to focus on relevant information, and our classrooms are organised into work areas, leisure areas and group areas. 

"This has provided predictability and reduced stress, helped transitions and built independence. Pupils' organisational, attention and concentration skills have developed and we see reduced levels of challenging behaviour.

"Our aim is for pupils to be less reliant on other people for support when they're older, so we focus strongly on their 'goals for life'."

Find out more about TEACCH.

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)

Like TEACCH, ABA has been in use for many years. Director of Education at Jigsaw School explained the theory that if behaviour is reinforced, it is more likely to happen again.

"ABA applies 'positive reinforcement' to all types of behaviour, including communicating appropriately, sharing or getting dressed. Reinforcers might be a nod of the head, free time to play with a toy or giving a child a piece of apple if they communicate that they would like some.

"ABA can address sensory issues through a process called desensitization – pairing positive reinforcement with an object that a child finds difficult to tolerate.

"We use ABA alongside other approaches and it can also be used in mainstream schools, with supervision. The results can be positive: at Jigsaw, children are learning successfully, coping with transitions and accessing the community."

Find out more about ABA.

Positive Behaviour Support (PBS)

PBS addresses 'behaviours that challenge'. It limits the potential for anxiety or confusion, and teaches staff how to respond should a person with autism become anxious or upset. PBS could be used in mainstream schools if a pupil needed this type of support.

Initially, a functional analysis assessment is carried out that examines the function of a child's behaviour: what are they trying to achieve or communicate by behaving in a particular way? Following this, these steps are followed:

  • behaviour support plans that identify setting, triggers as well as proactive, preventative and reactive strategies 
  • implantation through direct support
  • monitoring and collecting data
  • evidence based evaluation.

PBS can be in place for life, adapted as a child grows older and their lifestyle changes, and used alongside other approaches. A service support manager at The National Autistic Society Cymru, said:

"People with autism benefit from a consistent approach from support staff, a lifestyle that offers them what they want and need, and help when they feel anxious. The benefits of PBS are also felt by our staff; they feel more confident about supporting people with complex needs and challenging behaviour."

Sensory diets

Another approach is the sensory diet, a daily activity plan that aims to infuse sensory activities throughout a pupil's waking day to make sure they are feeling 'just right'.

Sensory diets can benefit pupils who find it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses. A child may do sensory circuits, a series of activities such as spinning, skipping and wall pushes designed to wake up all the senses, have alternative seating, or use weighted backpacks, waistcoats or blankets.

The approach is therapy-led and specific to each child. Corinna Laurie, Highly Specialist Occupational Therapist and Frances Edmonds, Highly Specialist Speech and Language Therapist at Helen Allison School explained:

"The right sensory diet helps the child's nervous system to feel better organised and improves their attention and performance. Pupils are calmer and more able to tune in to communication. Over time, they are better able to tolerate sensations and situations they find challenging or distracting. We've found that sensory intervention has improved many pupils' readiness to learn, including some of our most complex and hard-to-reach children."

Find out more about sensory interventions.

Yoga

Lilias Nicholls, Speech and Language Therapist at Daldorch House School, has been using yoga to help pupils with autism.

Lilias introduced yoga initially as part of a research project. Six pupils did 20 minutes of dru yoga four times a week. Dru yoga is based on slow, flowing movements with an emphasis on breathing.

Yoga was a new experience for the pupils, so Lilias created a Social StoryTM to explain what would happen. The sessions were fun but calming with soft music, candles and a comfortable room. The pupils did warm-up exercises followed by the asanas [poses] and relaxation.

Lilias found 'baselines' from which to monitor each pupil's progress. She notes: "Students appeared more settled in class and more confident in the way they approached everyday tasks. They were better able to assimilate information and to learn. They also used yoga as a means of self-regulation – going into their favourite pose to calm down. Our school now has a regular yoga club."

Find out more about the general benefits of yoga.

Using these approaches within broader frameworks

It is possible for all of these approaches to fit into a broader 'framework', such as SPELL. SPELL stands for structure, positive approaches and expectations, empathy, low arousal and links. Richard Mills, former Director of Research at The National Autistic Society, said:

"SPELL encourages professionals to look at autism from the inside out, to recognise children's needs and the impact of their autism before deciding on a particular educational approach. It seeks to address issues such as complex behaviour and sensory sensitivity proactively. It also focuses on childrens' strengths. There are many examples of SPELL being used successfully in mainstream settings.

"SPELL has been evaluated as being helpful in developing an understanding of autism, which is critical to the development of effective education services.

A number of educational approaches can be used with children with autism, and we have only described a few here. We do not suggest that any one approach is best – though we would recommend that a child's individual needs, strengths and characteristics are explored and understood, and that this knowledge informs the support they receive in school.

Find out more about educational approaches for students with autism on the Research Autism website at www.researchautism.net.