How does autism impact learning?

Here we’ve grouped frequently asked questions from parents, carers and teachers in relation to the follow areas:

  • Communication
  • Social interaction
  • Repetitive behaviour


My child is not talking what should I do?

All children communicate in their own way but for many children on the autism spectrum, speech is delayed. This means we need to encourage communication in whatever form your child can use at this time (leading, pointing, vocalisations, pictures, signing), while always seeking to develop skills at the next level to give a child the best chance at developing meaningful speech. Support from a speech pathologist might also be useful.

Should I use sign language? What other communication can be used?

Even though most people on the autism spectrum are not deaf and can hear, it has been found that using signs and speaking at the same time may help people on the autism spectrum to understand language and to communicate. Key Word Sign (also known as Makaton) uses manual signs used by the Deaf community along with speech to support communication. Signs and speech are always used at the same time and only the main words in a sentence are signed.

Using Key Word Sign may be a useful option for some students on the autism spectrum, in addition to speech and other strategies including visual supports. Sign language interventions such as Key Word Sign will not slow or stop the development of speech.  Children who are more likely to find signing useful general have good fine motor and imitation skills.

There are many other types of communication that can be useful for students on the autism spectrum. Another common option is Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), which teaches children to exchange pictures with adults to communicate.

Find out more through online learning [link to parents & carers/online learning]

How can I get my child to follow directions when I ask them to do something?

Difficulties understanding and following directions are common in students on the autism spectrum, but there can be many reasons for these problems. It is important to start by really looking at what your child’s understanding is like. Many children on the autism spectrum have significant problems with understanding language but the problems may not be recognised because the child uses other cues in the environment to understand what is being said (e.g. watching what other children are doing). To maximise your child’s understanding, you can try:

  • always get your child’s attention by getting down to their level where possible and saying their name 
  • keep the instruction as simple as possible and break down long instructions into single steps
  • remember that a simple instruction, such as ‘Clean your room’ can have multiple elements (e.g. make the bed, put away clothes, tidy the desk, take our dirty dishes) that a child on the autism spectrum can have difficulty breaking down and organising
  • allow extra processing time – it could take a few extra seconds to several minutes for your child to process and then act on an instruction
  • be careful about repeating an instruction too soon
  • use visual supports wherever possible

I tell my child we are going somewhere but when we get there they gets upset.  It seems like they forget what I have said.  Is there something I can do?

There are many reasons why your child might react in this way. Think about the following:

  • your child may not have understood the message in the first place – receptive language difficulties are very common in children on the autism spectrum
  • speech is transient - even children who are good at remembering some things may find it very hard to understand and remember verbal information
  • many children will have a strong idea of what a routine should be, so if every Saturday morning they get in the car to take their brother to soccer, this may be what a child expects, even though you have told him that soccer is cancelled today because of the rain

Using a visual support makes speech more permanent – your child can keep checking what is happening and reassuring himself about where they are going, what is happening next and what will happen once they are there. Your child might benefit from a single picture to hold throughout the journey or might like a sequence showing what is happening now, next and later.

My child interprets language really literally. What should I do?

Interpreting language literally is common among children on the autism spectrum and confusion and anxiety can be the result. You and those working with your child should be aware of your language and keep it free of sarcasm, idioms and other non-literal language when possible and particularly when your child needs to understand an important piece of information or when they are stressed. It is also possible to teach children about figurative language and many books and websites are available to support this.

Social interaction

My son has always been uninterested in being around other students at his school and often tells me he would much prefer to read a book alone during lunch time. The school means well and keeps trying to encourage him to play with the other boys. What should I do?

Not all students will want social interaction – some students prefer to separate themselves from their peers and do not wish to engage in social interaction with others. Often, these students would rather follow their own interests or need some down time after coping with the stressful demands of the classroom. It is important that your son’s school understand this. Students who choose to isolate themselves may increase their risk of bullying if they are isolated completely from other students and staff. Making provisions for these students, such as using the library or a designated classroom as a passive play area is a good idea. When these spaces are created and opened to other members of the school, the chance increases that your son may meet another student with similar interests to him, creating an opportunity for social interaction or friendship.

Repetitive behaviour

Should I try to stop my child’s obsession?

One of the characteristics of autism is repetitive behaviours and restricted interests. This trait sometimes results in children becoming obsessed with specific topics that are as diverse as each individual child. Some examples include: the Danish royal family, movie characters, wheelie bins, soap powders, war, Thomas the Tank Engine, birthday cakes, computers, ripping paper, phone books, maps, numbers – the list is endless!

Repetitive behaviours and restricted interests (obsessions) are often activities or objects that are calming and can assist the child in reducing anxiety. Because anxiety is often high in children and adults on the autism spectrum, activities and/or objects that reduce it are highly preferred and very effective. Taking them away or trying to change them can increase the anxiety and result in a behaviour meltdown. Often when we try and deny complete access to obsessions we can trigger extreme behavioural outbursts. A more productive way can be to utilise the child’s obsession in a meaningful way. For example a child with a paper ripping fascination could be taught paper mache` during art class, a child obsessed with phone books could use them during literacy activities. It is also a useful strategy to timetable free-time when the child is allowed to engage in their obsession. It may be necessary to replace an inappropriate or unsafe obsession with one that is more acceptable but provides the same calming effect.