Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
(information for teacher)

The detection of learners with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), in their formative years is vital. As a teacher you are an important role player in this essential early detection.

Autistic Spectrum Disorder is not the result of bad parenting and these children do not choose to misbehave.

Autistic Spectrum Disorder is a complex and variable pervasive developmental disability, which stems from a multi-factorial origin and results in disordered brain development and function.

Estimates of prevalence vary greatly. Recent small scale, but intensive studies give higher numbers than earlier ones, this being due to the criteria for autistic disorders having been considerably widened over the years. The highest estimates for the whole spectrum, range from around 40 to around 90 per 10 000 births, but the true figures are still being investigated. ASD affects 4 times as many boys as girls. Of all the developmental disorders, ASD is the most researched and validated syndrome.

The onset of ASD is from birth or before the age of 3 years. Various subgroups are referred to within the autistic spectrum disorders. The ICD 10 system (International Classification of Diseases, 10th edition, World Health Organisation, 1992) and the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th edition, American Psychiatric Association, 1994) suggests some subgroups, the best known of which are “childhood autism / early infantile autism” and “Asperger Syndrome” There is a fair amount of academic argument concerning the criteria differentiating these subgroups. However, in clinical practice, the most helpful approach to diagnosis is to establish if the child concerned, has an autistic spectrum disorder and then to provide information concerning their present level of varying abilities. This type of detail is far more useful for identifying a person’s needs, rather than just putting him or her in a diagnostic subgroup.

As yet the exact causes of ASD are unknown, but intensive research is being implemented on an ongoing basis. With the appropriate intervention, learners on the Autistic Spectrum can be helped to improve their quality of life.

Although learners with ASD present with many different levels of severity and also display a wide range of individual characteristics, they are all affected by the “Triad of Impairments”. This triad is typically associated with a narrow, repetitive pattern of activities and resistance to change in things that directly affect the individual concerned and manifests with an impairment in the quality of development ( see Triad of Impairments)

In addition to this Triad of Impairments, you may well observe the following additional features:-

  • Little or no eye contact;
  • No real fear of dangers;
  • Abnormalities in the development of cognitive skills, e.g. poor learning skills or resistance to normal teaching methods;
  • Abnormalities of posture and motor behaviour, e.g. poor balance;
  • Poor gross and fine motor skills in some learners;
  • Odd responses to sensory input, e.g. covering of ears;
  • Sense of touch, taste, sight, hearing and/or smell may be heightened or diminished;
  • Bizarre eating patterns - food fads;
  • High pain threshold;
  • Crying or laughing for no apparent reason;
  • Self-injurious behaviour, e.g. head banging, scratching, biting;
  • Abnormal sleep patterns.

Children with ASD usually have accompanying learning difficulties. The range of intellectual abilities amongst children with ASD is vast. The presence of additional disorders such as epilepsy, sensory and intellectual impairments can co-exist with ASD.

Remember that ASD can vary widely and there is no single feature that, if not present, excludes the possibility of Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

Should you think that a child in your class may displaying Autistic Spectrum Disorder, we advise you to discuss this matter with his or her parent.-

Guidelines for teaching a child with Autistic Spectrum Disorder

If you have a child in your class who has been diagnosed with ASD, there are certain guidelines that may assist you with that child’s individual educational plan.

Essential areas need to be addressed. The teaching methods should focus on the child’s strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. The strengths usually are visual skills and rote learning. The weaknesses are usually the ability to process language and the ability to provide their own structure and organisation.

The two most frequent causes of stress and behavioural difficulties are first lack of a simple, clear, understandable, predictable structure to each day and second, pressure to perform above the child’s level of ability.

Children and adults with ASD, whatever their level of ability, find it hard to comprehend time and space and how they fit into the world. Their impairment of imagination prevents them from building up an inner story about themselves. It is difficult for people who are not familiar with ASD to understand the nature of such problems. For example, some of the more disabled individuals become distressed if taken for a walk away from their familiar environment, because no-one realised the necessity of explaining to them that, at the end of the walk, they will be returning to the place they know.

One important way to help a person with ASD is to provide external structure to make up for the lack of a coherent inner world. They need to know where they are in time and space. They need to be given simple concrete guides to the world, such as picture timetables. They can manage change as long as it is not unexpected and they are carefully prepared in ways that they can understand.

The below list covers strategies that maybe beneficial when teaching a child with ASD:-

  • Avoid verbal overload, irrespective of the person's apparent level of language ability;
  • Use visual cues and prompts;
  • Prepare the child for changes in routine;
  • Provide structure, using a visual schedule of daily activities, such as photos, pictograms, representational objects;
  • Give the child individualised instruction, do not rely on their comprehension of directions which are aimed at the class as a whole;
  • Minimise visual and auditory distractions;
  • Be aware that an increase in inappropriate behaviour may be an indicator of stress or frustration;
  • A child with ASD may take longer to learn new skills and you may feel you are not getting anywhere and that you are wasting your time. Do not give up, please be patient and persevere and you will be rewarded!
  • Toys and activities which maybe beneficial for the child with ASD.
  • Children with ASD seem to prefer toys that involve visual/spatial aspects, such as jigsaw puzzles, construction toys, shape and colour matching etc. Computer games may also be very beneficial to a child with ASD.
  • Children’s videos with a definite visual story, as opposed to reliance on the verbal aspect may be thoroughly enjoyed by children with ASD.
  • Physical activity is important for the child with ASD, but these activities must not rely on verbal input or the use of imagination. Physical activity has been found to diminish inappropriate behaviours and has the added benefit of improving motor co-ordination. Supervision of a child with ASD in the playground is essential, as the child with ASD often has no real sense of danger.

Recommended Publications:

  1. Lorna Wing;The Autism Spectrum: A guide for Parents and Professionals (Highly recommended). Published by Constable, 1996.
  2. Maureen Aarons and Tessa Gittens;The Handbook of Autism: A Guide for Parents and Professionals. Practical approach, providing easy reading and digestible information. Published by Routledge, 1992 (reprinted 1994).
  3. Lorna Wing; Autistic Spectrum Disorders: An Aid to Diagnosis. Gives a good insight into the criteria for diagnosis of autism. Published by The UK National Autistic Society, 1993.
  4. Paul Dickinson and Liz Hannah; It Can Get Better: A Guide For Parents and Carers. A light hearted, practical approach for dealing with common behaviour problems in children with autism. Published by The UK National Autistic Society.
  5. Uta Frith; Autism: explaining the enigma. Published by Oxford: Blackwell, 1989
  6. Maureen Aarons & Tessa Gittens; The autistic continuum: an assessment and intervention schedule for investigating the behaviours, skills and needs of children with autism or autistic spectrum difficulties. Published: Windsor: NFER-Nelson, 1992
  7. Edited by Eric Schopler, Mary Van Bourgondien & Marie Bristol. Preschool issues in autism. Published: New York: Plenum, 1993
  8. Edited by Eric Schopler & Gary Mesibov. Social behaviour in autism. Published: New York, Plenum, 1986
  9. Stuart Powell and Rita Jordan (Eds). Autism and Learning: A Guide to Good Practise. Published: London: David Fulton Publishers Ltd. 1997
  10. R/L Koegel, A. Rincover & A.L Egel. Educating and understanding autistic children. Published: San Diego: College Hill Press, 1982
  11. Tony Attwood. Why does Chris do that? Published: London, NAS, 1993
  12. Eric Schopler & Gary Mesibov. Communication problems in autism. NAS.
  13. Tony Attwood. Asperger's Syndrome. A Guide for Parents and Professionals. This book covers the topic of Asperger's Syndrome. Published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1998.
  14. Lorna Wing; Asperger's Syndrome: A Clinical Account.This book covers the topic of Asperger's Syndrome from a more clinical viewpoint.Published by The Journal of Psychological Medicine, 1992.
  15. Uta Frith; Autism and Asperger Syndrome. Published: Cambridge. CUP, 1991
  16. Edited by Eric Schopler & Gary Mesibov. High Functioning individuals with autism. Published: New York. Plenum, 1992

A certain amount of material included in this brochure is chiefly taken from a paper written by Dr Lorna Wing, Consultant at the Centre for Social and Communication Disorders. It has been reproduced with the kind permission of Dr Lorna Wing and the National Autistic Society, United Kingdom, who published this paper in their quarterly magazine, “Communication”, edition Winter 1998.


  1. Classification and diagnosis - looking at the complexities involved-Dr Lorna Wing.
  2. Communication Winter 1998;The National Autistic Society, England.
  3. The autistic spectrum - a parent's guide;The National Autistic Society, England.
  4. Autism: Bibliography. A guide to books and videos;The National Autistic Society, England.
  5. The Autism Spectrum. A guide for Parents and Professionals;Dr Lorna Wing.
  6. Developing a Broad and Balanced Curriculum; Mrs Margaret M Golding. Autism The Way Forwards RSA. September 1998.
  7. Autism: How to help your young child; Leicestershire County Council and Fosse Health Trust. ISBN 1 899280 65 0

Reprinted by permission of The Autism Societe of South Africa Jill Stacey
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