Teaching young people with high functioning autism

  • Teaching young people with high functioning autism

In the UK, approximately 700,000 people might have autism, which translates to more than one in every 100 individuals. It’s a neurobiological disorder that presents across a wide spectrum, including what is sometimes known as ‘high functioning autism’ (HFA). Autism is difficult to diagnose unless it is being looked for, and this is more so with HFA, which can easily go completely undiagnosed and untreated – not least because children exhibiting HFA often perform very well, academically. However, they are also at particular risk of being bullied or getting reprimanded by teachers for actions outside of their control. As such, diagnosis can make a huge (and positive) difference to a student’s life. Indeed, it can prevent him or her being tarred with the label of ‘difficult’ or ‘badly behaved,’ and the subsequent stigma of this description.

While motor skill delays may already be apparent in secondary school children, other manifestations might not be so obvious. For example, a student with HFA might be particularly slow in cutting with scissors or in craft activities, such as gluing, due to problems with fine motor skills.

Students with HFA might also have problems in progressing from one class activity to another. They can become fixated on a single task, or part of the task, finding it difficult to move on to something different. Comprehension can be another challenge; a student might be able to read, or even learn by rote, but be unable to give an answer in brief, or struggle to comprehend a particular concept. These students, however, often display talents in other areas; for example, in the arts or sports. Short attention span is another trait to look for, and students with HFA sometimes oppose following instructions. This characteristic is commonly mistaken simply as bad behaviour, although it isn’t within the student’s control.

No limits

The list of famous and successful people with autism is huge, and this can be an inroad for helping parents come to terms with their child’s diagnosis – something that is often, understandably, a struggle for families at first. Albert Einstein, without whom physics would not be what it is today, is one example. Alexander Graham Bell is another. In more recent times, names such as Temple Grandin stand out vividly. Grandin is a professor of animal science, who has been responsible for improving the quality of life of animals; she was named as one of the world’s most influential people in 2010 by TIME. With these names working as an inspiration, teachers can help parents come to terms with their suspicions and anxieties about the condition, and seek the right help for their children; similarly, the young people themselves might find it helpful to read or hear about others’ positive stories.

Collaboration between teachers and parents throughout the educational journey of a young person with HFA is important, and can go a long way in providing such students with the right conditions for developing into successful adults. They often have an intelligence that is well above average, but the distractions in a normal school environment can distress them, and therefore contribute to an inability to perform as well as they might otherwise. Small changes or adjustments are often all that are necessary for helping students with HFA relax and explore their potential. Who knows – that student who can’t sit still may be the next Albert Einstein; have patience.

10 tips for teachers working with HFA students

1. Don’t expect them to react to nuances of language such as sarcasm or jokes, or to read body language. Language has to be clear and direct.

2. Too many choices or instructions may cause them to unravel. Take it step by step.

3. Educate your class not to use nicknames or other phrases – students with HFA will often be quite literal and may possibly object to being called ‘bro’ or ‘pal’; they also often don’t like to be touched without permission.

4. Small things may disturb them – like the clicking of keys on a keyboard or a low murmur in the class. Because this can cause them stress they need to have a ‘safe place’ to which they can remove themselves.

5. Students with HFA often won’t like changing activities once they have become involved. Forcing the issue may result in a meltdown. Accommodate them if you can.

6. These students tend to be either super neat or horribly untidy. If untidy, telling them off is unlikely to help as some lack the organisational skills to get things in order. They will need concrete help in organising a file or laying out their work.

7. Remembering practical necessities like a pencil or a book can be a problem. It is an idea to have a spare, named pencil/pen with their name on it in your desk for when they forget (as they may be picky, and refuse to use someone else’s, or a generic one).

8. They can find it difficult to read the moods of others, so sometimes it has to be spelled out to them

9. They can be pedantic about which chair they sit on and where they sit, so reorganising a class layout may throw them. Sometimes others students will swap a chair just to see the hysterics that follow. Make sure the class knows what is ‘off-limits.’

10. Think carefully about the kinds of questions you put to them. If asked, “What do you think?” they will likely be at a loss – they are thinking about a lot of things, so which one do you want to know about? Be concrete, and specific.

Characteristics of HFA

  • Motor skill development is delayed
  • Intense reactions toward mundane stimuli such as sound, light, smells, or even touch
  • Difficulty interacting with others
  • Preoccupation with certain information or items
  • Inability or decreased ability to understand nuances and intangible concepts of conversation, such as tone and humour


Nicola Davies is a psychologist and freelance writer with a passion for education. You can follow her on Twitter (@healthpsychuk) or sign up to her free blog: http://www.healthpsychologyconsultancy.wordpress.com