Science Interviews


Mon, 19th May 2014

Helping children with autism

Tom Hughes, Trainee Educational Psychologist, Birmingham University

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Addressing Autism

Given there is no biological treatment available, how best to help those children affected Child technologyby autism, both at school and in the home? 

I met with Tom Hughes, Doctorial Trainee Education Psychologist at Birmingham University.  He’s also working with the Educational Psychology Service to help children with autism, both in the home and school setting.

Tom -   Sometimes we will find in class for example that a member of staff makes a throwaway comment, sets off a child with autism because the comment can be interpreted in a number of ways.  Sometimes by raising awareness of how a child with autism may have interpreted a statement like, “It’s raining cats and dogs” provides additional insight.  So often, we will work with children with autism to develop skills that come quite naturally to lots of other children.  So turn-taking or sharing, or looking at another person on entry in the room.  For example, skills that typically developing children will generally pick up with little instructions.  So, an example of where a peer may support that is by creating sharing or turn-taking games where a number of typically developing peers are working alongside children with autism.  Various studies indicate that peer-based learning is as effective, if not, more effective than adult-led learning when it comes to those social skills that are being developed.

Hannah -   Are there any issues for the peers in the class, maybe their time is being taken up than by helping?  Is there any danger that you're actually holding back the peers in the group in the mainstream education system?

Tom -   That's certainly a consideration for any of these interventions.  Parents are often worried about time taken out of learning for example to support special educational needs or inclusion more generally.  My experience is that children that are providing the support also benefit from these interventions and what they gained from developing or promoting pro-social behaviours and learning to be more empathetic about the needs of others generally as long as the time is within reason outweighs the challenge of taking away from whatever they would be doing in class.

Hannah -   And then as the child develops and they go through primary school, into secondary school for example, and then out, past the educational system, what do you typically see with these students?

Tom -   There's no doubt that children with autism struggle at their points of transition in their education or career.  So, the transition from primary to secondary school is often a source of real concern.  Clearly, the secondary settings are bigger and there are more peers which is often an area that the autistic child might struggle with and there are more teachers.  They will move between class.  The regular transitions are all areas that typically children with autism will struggle with.  Our advice in terms of structuring a learning environment to support children with autism focuses often in 4 areas.  The first one is around supporting the receptive languages needs.  So, supporting their understanding in class and making sure that they've got appropriate ways of communicating their needs.  The second one is to use visual cues so we would often talk about visual timetables or symbols, or objects, or pictures as being an appropriate way to develop understanding of a topic.  Fairly, we often do work to ensure that unstructured times of the day are more tightly managed for children with autism.  So, transitions between lessons or breaks or lunch time or assembly for example are often difficult times of the day.  And children with autism may need more support in those periods.  And then finally, where you often work with teachers and parents to help children predict what's about to happen.  So, children with autism typically may struggle with unknown elements of the day or unpredictable parts of their life and predicting and then helping communicate what's to be expected ahead is an area that really makes a difference for children with autism.

Hannah -   And then past school, past secondary education, what kind of support can you give people with autism spectrum conditions then?

Tom -   Autism is of course, a lifelong disability that will continue to manifest into adulthood.  Many of the children and young people that we work with will progress through education and lead successful and independent adult lives.  Of course, those children and young people that we work with that have a greater level of need may continue to need some assisted living arrangements as they move on from education.  The difficulty of course is generalising any of our expectations because children and young people with autism present differently and making generic statements about what we can expect post-education is impossible.  Certainly, I work hard with schools and parents and families to identify the individual differences within the manifestation of autism, and to consider the autism as an extension of the individual rather than as a definition of the individual.

Hannah -   Thank you, Tom.  Well, that's all we have time for this month I'm afraid.  If you have any questions about autism and you can find information and support with the National Autistic Society at


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