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Understanding Autism

What is autism?

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how a person makes sense of the world around them. It is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share three main areas of difficulty, their condition will affect them in different ways. Some people with autism are able to live independent lives, but others may need a lifetime of specialist support. The nature of these challenges is best described by The Autism Education Trust.

What do people with autism generally experience difficulty with? 
  • Social interaction - This includes recognising and understanding other people’s feelings and managing their own. Not understanding how to interact with other people can make it hard to form friendships.
  • Social communication - This includes using and understanding verbal and non-verbal language, such as gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice.
  • Social imagination - This includes the ability to understand and predict other people’s intentions and behaviour and to imagine situations outside their own routine. This may be accompanied by a narrow repetitive range of activities.
What are the other characteristics of autism? 
  • Need for routine and difficulty with change - The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place to people with autism, who often have a narrow, repetitive range of activities and may prefer to have a fixed daily routine so that they know what is going to happen every day. People with autism may not be comfortable with the idea of change, but can often cope well if they are prepared for it in advance.
  • Adherence to rules - It can be difficult for a person with autism to take a different approach to something once they have been taught the ‘right’ way to do it.
  • Sensory sensitivity/processing difficulties - People with autism may experience some form of sensory sensitivity or processing difficulties which can appear in one or more of the five senses – sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. A person’s senses may be intensified (hyper-sensitive) or under-sensitive (hypo-sensitive). People with sensory sensitivity/processing difficulties may also find it harder to use their body awareness system. This system tells us where our bodies are, so for those with reduced body awareness, it can be harder to navigate rooms, avoid obstructions, stand at an appropriate distance from other people and carry out ‘fine motor’ tasks such as tying shoelaces.
  • Special interests - Many people with autism have intense special interests, often from a fairly young age. These can change over time or be lifelong, and can be anything from art or music, to trains or computers.
  • Learning disabilities - Some people with autism may have learning disabilities, meaning that they may not learn things as quickly as other people. As with autism, people can have different ‘degrees’ of learning disability. A learning disability can affect all aspects of someone’s life: from learning in school, to preparing a meal.

It is important to remember that the degree, or severity, of autism will vary for each student.  It can also affect children and young people across the whole range of intellectual ability.

The majority of children and young people at Windmill Hill School will have additional learning difficulties. The nature of these disabilities has implications for each student's teaching and learning. As a specialist school, it is essential that we recognise these implications and attempt to address them, giving careful consideration to what we teach (curriculum content), how we teach (teaching styles and approaches) and where we teach (context for teaching and learning).

At the same time as recognising the special needs and difficulties that are shared by students with autism, it is essential that we keep at the forefront of our minds the individuality of each student. At Windmill Hill School, we devise a highly individualised programme of learning and experiences for each student. This takes account of their strengths, interests, needs and choices.