Teaching Students on the Autism Spectrum

Each year the University welcomes many students on the Autism Spectrum.  Although each students needs may differ, there are many general strategies that can enable effective teaching and learning.

Social Communication

People on the Autism Spectrum have communication difficulties. Difficulties/differences may include:

  • Absence of desire to communicate or communication solely based on expressing needs. This can present difficulties when engaging in small talk or group discussions.
  • Difficulty picking up on sarcasm, metaphors… Literal interpretation of language is common for those on the Autism Spectrum.
  • Processing delays, particularly with verbal communication. The person may also repeat back information while processing.
  • Processing non-verbal information (tone, body language, facial expressions). The person may also have difficulty in using their own non-verbal communication effectively.
Social Interaction

People on the Autism Spectrum have difficulties with Social Interaction. At university areas of particular difficulty may be group work or times out with timetabled classes. These difficulties/differences may include:

  • Appearing  aloof or eccentric
  • Lack of social empathy. May show little interest in the needs or feelings of others.
  • Finding relationships difficult to establish and maintain.
  • Experiencing elevated stress levels, particularly in new situations/environments.  This may lead to unusual social responses.
  • Difficulty understanding social rules across social situations.
Social Imagination

People on the Autism Spectrum can struggle with social imagination (often referred to as flexibility of thought). This may be particularly evident at University in group work/discussion scenarios but may also come across in written work. Areas of difficulty/differences may include:

  • Difficulty understanding the points of view of others.
  • Inflexibility in understanding and applying social rules appropriately.
  • Difficulty generalising concepts across various scenarios.
  • Difficulty imagining the future, which can lead to difficulty in planning and organisation.
  • Difficulty with hypothetical questions/situations.

NB. Many people on the Autism Spectrum also suffer from sensory sensitivities. This spans across all the senses so they may have difficulty with particular lights, sounds, smells etc. At times these students may experience sensory overload and be unable to continue to participate in tasks.

Book a Staff Awareness Session

We are offering staff awareness sessions on this topic. The sessions will be an informal overview of the topic. Staff will also have the chance to discuss the guidance, it's usefulness and if they feel they have anything to add to the current version.

if you would like to book onto an awareness session please use the following link:


If are interested in attending an awareness session but unable to come along to the planned dates please email us at disability@gcu.ac.uk

We will keep your details on record and contact you should more awareness sessions become available.

Autism Accreditation Scheme

 Let’s make GCU the first autism friendly university!

GCU is working with the National Autistic Society, piloting an Autism Accreditation scheme for universities. The internationally recognised Accreditation Scheme has been awarded to hundreds of services in the UK. We are aiming to become the first university in the UK, and worldwide, to be ‘autism friendly’ under this scheme.

Why does this matter?

Around 1 in 100 people are on the autism spectrum. Some have a formal diagnosis, others don’t. This means that we all know someone with autism. This could be a family member, a partner, a friend, a colleague, or yourself.

Autistic people can face real challenges in a university environment where there is constant change, a need to multi-task, self-organise and prioritise tasks, where there are lots of different people to deal with, and lots of noise and bustle.

Greater staff awareness, considering the needs of autistic people when we design our services, courses and spaces, and some extra support when needed, can make all the difference.

What does this mean for me?

We are asking you to consider what steps you could take to help GCU become more autism friendly.

Here’s a few suggestions:

1. Learn more about autism and how it affects people

National Autistic Society

GCU guidance and training opportunities

2. Ask/find out how your team or department supports the needs of autistic people

If your team would like some support to consider this, or to review current practice, contact the Disability Team for a chat. We’d be happy to help.

3. Share your experience

Know about any initiatives or good news stories we can share, to inspire others and create greater awareness about autism?

Tweet about it! Using hashtag #GCUAutismFriendly

The Disability Team would love to hear your views on how we can make GCU more autism friendly - especially if you consider yourself to be on the autism spectrum.

For more information, or to offer your views, contact the Disability Team.

Good Practice Guidance

General Guidelines - Many of the approaches that will benefit autistic students will be helpful to all students and should be adopted within an inclusive teaching framework.  Try to avoid making assumptions about what the student can and cannot do; including students in discussions about their learning needs and seeking feedback will help them to feel valued and facilitate improvements in communication, teaching and learning.

Clear roles and boundaries - Being clear in what support you are able to offer and knowing what other supports to refer the student to will enable the student to engage with a varied support network. This will also reduce the chance of the student becoming reliant on one particular person.

Clear notification of changes - Change can be particularly stressful for people on the Autism Spectrum. Clear notification in advance of any changes to rooms, staff, deadlines etc. will reduce anxiety and confusion.

Clear rules for classes/conduct - Ambiguity in rules, particularly social rules, can lead to misunderstandings. Clear written rules where possible will ensure the student knows what is expected of him in terms of class conduct. E.g. if questions are not permitted until certain classes/times then this could be made clear to avoid interruptions throughout class.

Clear unambiguous instruction and feedback - Instructions should be clear and concise to avoid any misinterpretation. Feedback should be clear and direct avoiding any ambiguity. Avoid using sarcasm, metaphors etc. Do not assume that a student has picked up on any non-verbal cues/prompts. Where possible, verbal instruction and feedback should be backed up in writing. Avoiding ambiguity when setting assessment/exam questions will also be beneficial.

Consideration to management of group work - Group work is a common area of concern and anxiety for students on the Autism Spectrum. Consider if groups could be assigned to avoid the social anxiety of finding a group. Monitoring of group interaction would be beneficial to address and support any concerns within the group. Often a student on the Autism Spectrum could be either too passive or too dominant within a group, meaning group relations can become strained.

Regular Review - Students on the Autism Spectrum often avoid telling people if they have concerns and worries. Scheduling regular meetings with the student will provide a structured opportunity to discuss concerns/progress. It can be helpful for other supports to be involved in the meetings when appropriate (LDC, disability adviser, student mentor…)

Notes - Allowing the student to access notes in whichever format they prefer is helpful. This may include electronic notes in advance or permission to record classes.

Use visual supports - Visual supports and written information are beneficial to back up any verbal information. Consider if words are what are needed. In some instances a better, more concise explanation is given by a picture or diagram.

Give processing time - Ensure that adequate processing time is given for verbal information, particularly when a response is required from the student. If the student doesn’t respond promptly then it can be detrimental to simply ask the question again as the student then needs to start processing the information again. As you become familiar with the student you will find it easier to assess how much processing time they require in order to digest information and formulate a response. However in times of anxiety the student may take longer to process information. Where possible it is also best to avoid springing questions on the student, asking them to read aloud in class etc.  This is likely to increase the student’s anxiety, which can in turn lead to the need for much more processing time.

Placement planning - If a student is required to undertake a placement then prior planning and matching will be a key factor in their success. The student will most likely benefit from multiple site visits prior to the placement commencing. This will give opportunity for the student to familiarise themselves with the environment and staff. A staff mentor should be identified as early as possible with opportunity for expectations to be made clear and any foreseen difficulties to be discussed.

Limit choice -  Too much choice can be overwhelming for students on the Autism Spectrum. Where possible it can be helpful to provide limited choice or guidance on choice, for example when choosing essay or presentation topics.

Adjustments in class - Be aware of and sensitive to any information/adjustments detailed in the students RAP. While the information/adjustments have been agreed with the student it may be that there is an element of anxiety or embarrassment around these, particularly in front of other students. e.g. if a student wears dark glasses to combat a sensitivity to light a light hearted joke about wearing sunglasses inside may cause the person undue anxiety.


The guidance provided is not exhaustive. The Autism Spectrum is varied and as such the needs of each individual will differ. Specific supports and adjustments will be detailed in a student’s RAP.