Teaching Students on the Autism Spectrum

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

Many autistic people experience sensory differences. Any of the senses may be over- or under-sensitive, or both, at different times. This can result in sensory or information overload. Too much information can cause stress, anxiety, and possibly physical pain.

In 2019 Glasgow Caledonian University's Student Wellbeing Service has become the first in the UK to achieve Autism Accreditation from the National Autistic Society. You can find out more about what this means for our students and staff, at our Autism Accreditation Scheme Award pages.

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.
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.

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 check our eventbrite to see if there are any upcoming sessions, or email us for information. 

If there are no more scheduled sessions for the trimester, we will keep your details on record and contact you when more awareness sessions become available.