Skills for the job: Working with autistic children

Patience and consideration are qualities needed to work effectively with children and young people with autism.

What is autism?
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects one in 100 people in the UK. It affects the way a person communicates and how they experience the world around them. It is a spectrum condition this means that while people with autism, including Asperger's syndrome, share certain characteristics, they will be highly individual in their need for support and services.

Some people with autism are able to live relatively independent lives, but others may face additional challenges, including learning disabilities, which affect them so profoundly that they need support in many areas including communication, education and health.

How many children and young people are affected?
Autism affects one per cent of children and young people in the UK. We know that early diagnosis and intervention is critical to a child's development and yet the average age of diagnosis for autism in the UK is over six-and-a-half.

What factors influence working with an autistic child?
Each young person with autism is different, so it is important that support is tailored to their needs. Staff should find out what their interests are and what they want to learn and then design a plan for achieving it.

If a young person is non-verbal, make sure that you are familiar with their preferred method of communication. This could be Pecs (picture exchange communications system) or Makaton, which is a simple form of sign language.

Young people on the autism spectrum can find change difficult, so provide a clear and simple structure for all activities and try to avoid any last-minute adjustments. Talking through what is going to happen using a visual schedule or social story may support the young person to understand what is going to happen. Any sensory issues, including sensitivity to loud noises or bright lights, should also be accommodated for.

If the young person becomes anxious or stressed, then go to a quiet space where they can get away from whatever is unsettling them.

Anxiety can manifest itself in many ways, but self-stimulatory behaviour such as hand-flapping or rocking could be a sign that something is wrong. Always try to communicate with the young person, be patient and give them plenty of time to calm down.

What additional help or services are available?
For families of young children with autism, there are several services available pre-school, including the National Autistic Society's EarlyBird programme and Portage. Children of school age can receive additional support at school through measures such as School Action and School Action Plus initiatives, for children who are not achieving their potential or falling behind their peers.

Children who still require additional support at school can be issued with a statement of special educational needs.

A statement is a legal document that outlines the child's needs, provision required to meet those needs and the suitable school placement.

Some families may be in need of additional support and services at home, such as respite services. To access these services, families need to undergo an assessment by social services.

Where can further information be found?
Parents and carers looking for support can go to

Andy Swartfigure MSc, senior applied behaviour analysis consultant, Ambitious About Autism


  • Have a clear structure to any task or meeting and allow for plenty of preparation time
  • Make sure a quiet space is nearby just in case a young person becomes anxious
  • Young people with autism can find it difficult to manage change, so stick to the schedule and try to avoid any surprises
  • Understand how a young person prefers to communicate, for example Pecs or Makaton
  • Be aware of any sensory issues such as a sensitivity to loud noises, crowded spaces or bright light

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