Identifying Autism: not a simple picture

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Identifying Autism

It was suggested to me to write something about autism for Exciting Education and one of the topics that had been suggested was a “Top Ten Tips on how to identify autism in children” but this is not a simple picture.

I mulled this over in my mind for a couple of days and the more I thought about it, the more alarm bells began to go off in my head. How can I simplify something so complicated?

Firstly, I am not going to lead you to believe that I am all knowing on this subject and what I do know is through study and having the privilege of working closely in the day to day lives of some adults that have been diagnosed with varying degrees of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).

Guidelines, rules and tips are useful but they can appear to trivialise the true complexities of the individual. To use an analogy; when we look at building a piece of machinery like an engine or a robot we can read a book and follow a method and eventually, with the correct tools and skill set we get a finished product. However, this only scratches the surface when we try to treat the human mind in the same way; many people will never truly comprehend the world in which individuals with ASD have to make sense of.

So with some trepidation I am going to outline some behaviours to look for, but I am also going to draw from my personal experience. These are by no means hard and fast rules and a lot of what I cover can be observed in many people without there being the presence of ASD.

Early detection of ASD can make remarkable difference not only to the lives of those diagnosed, but also to their families, friends, teachers etc. The most notable sign can be apparent quite early on in infancy. However this is not sufficient enough to require a diagnosis and needs to be paired with diminished acquisition of other developmental milestones in later years.


ASD babies may not bond as well to their parents as one might expect.  Yes, this is a very broad statement but it is part of the reason why it is so difficult to diagnose ASD early on. As a parent we lovingly bring up our children and note those developmental milestones. However each child is different and reaches these milestones at different points. This is why it is hard to pinpoint ASD without a combination of signs and symptoms and allowing time for individual differences.



ASD is often diagnosed later in early years when there is a notable difference in how children comprehend themselves and others. Children with ASD may not understand another individual’s happiness or pain and is mostly aware only of themselves.

Social Interaction

Some learnt behaviours we take for granted. For instance eye contact, most of us have been guilty of staring at someone or something for an inappropriate amount of time, however, as children we are usually told to stop staring and that it is rude to stare. We soon become aware of other peoples discomfort at being stared at and our own discomfort at having been caught staring. Sometimes ASD can be characterised by inappropriate lengths of eye contact, either being too long or too short. An individual with ASD may stare for long periods of time at someone and be oblivious to the other person’s discomfort. This is because eye contact is learned through social cues which children with ASD often have to try very hard to learn but is something that most of us learn without even realising it.


It is no wonder that some children with ASD suffer with serious anxiety especially as some learnt behaviours come so easily to us through social cues and it is taken as given that everyone will possess them and express them appropriately.

Anxiety is prevalent amongst us all but the degree to which we experience anxiety is key to understanding some of the difficulties that children with ASD face. So much attention is given to detail, that the bigger picture can create a world of chaos: a seemingly calm environment to some may be exhausting and frustrating for individuals with a diagnosis of ASD. The use of sensory rooms or calmer environments are invaluable in reducing the anxiety in the everyday lives of those who live with ASD.

Sensory Characteristics

During my time working with adults that have a diagnosis of ASD it was clear that different sensory information affected them in different ways just as it does for all of us. Some of us have an acute sense of smell, some of us are more sensitive auditory or visual information.

Sensitivity to sensory information is quite a general description but actually these sensitivities can be quite specific with respect to ASD. You may find children and adults with ASD walking around with their hands over their ears or they may have invested in a quality pair of headphones as they are particularly sensitive to sound. Some are sensitive to touch and might enter your personal space in order to touch your hair, skin and clothes etc. Others may be overwhelmed by their sense of smell. For some, none or all of these may be present.

Things to consider

In outlining some of the ways that it is possible to identify ASD in children and young adults. I have tried to highlight how these differences are present in us all at varying degrees and in doing so I have hopefully reiterated the point that I so often hear when discussing ASD – which is that we all appear on the spectrum. Any one of these signs or symptoms alone may not be enough to warrant a diagnosis, however when these signs appear alongside each other and other key predictors (such as slower speech development, learning difficulties, physical aggressiveness, obsessive behaviours, self-harm, occasionally the presence of a special talent and many more) there is more of a reason to investigate further. Often what we consider to be negative behaviours associated with ASD are usually the result of the pure frustration at having to interact with a world in a way that does not come naturally.

Although diagnosis is important, my aim here is to encourage people to understand some key signs of ASD so that children and parents can find adequate support if necessary; preferably sooner rather than later.

By Shoshannah Harrison, Freelance Consultant 




Guest Blog Teaching: Thinking Outside the Box

In teaching I think we need to continue to think ‘outside the box’ which does not always mean more time, more exhaustion, more resources. We have selected a Guest Blogger to talk about how they improved the enjoyment and progress rates of the children in their Year 5 class – enjoy!

childrens workshop


As Good (and Outstanding) teachers we have two main objectives: enjoyment and progress. These are two intertwined entities that go hand in hand like the best of friends. But sometimes it is difficult to know how to get there. We are bogged down by objectives, new curriculums, new assessments, meetings with parents, meetings with staff, professional development, marking, etc., etc., etc.. The bigger picture is not always clear to us; planning and resource making become more time consuming than the actual lessons we teach – as does the marking.

During my time as a part-time consultant, my classroom teaching was completely turned on its head with startling results. My teaching became less meticulously planned and I relied on the knowledge and natural instincts that made me a good teacher in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, I was still doing a 14 hour day and working weekends and holidays like normal but I had a much better time doing it!

I did three things:

  1. Often, I allowed for looser planning that sometimes went with the ideas of children and for maths was heavily dominated by problem solving. Lots of observations with annotated assessments and small group work. Sometimes I would even let the children move the lesson in a completely different direction which may last for a few days. I went with my instincts and knowledge of what we were covering and where it linked in. However, despite looser planning in that way, I ensured in my normal planning each child had the activity they needed to progress. I had some groups starting an activity while I taught others in a whole group situations, children working on a problem ready for me to come and work with them after starting the others on another activity and went off traditional ways of teaching a class.
  2. Lots of practical work and small focused groups with sometimes very little being conducted (shock horror) in books. Obviously, children need to learn about writing neatly in books and layout out nicely but there is a time and a place and different ways of doing this. If a child can use column subtraction what is the point of them doing this for half and hour in a book. Firstly, they will get extremely bored and secondly, this is not an outstanding lesson as they have not learnt anything they are just going over (and over) a skill they can already do.
  3. Lots of higher-level thinking and metacognition for the children. Getting them to think about things on another level and think about their own learning; with this comes talk. Talk for writing, talk for maths…talk, talk,talk. I thought about the way something could be done in a more interesting way.

What happened? Well primarily we had fun. the classroom became a hub of excitement with children’s motivation to learn going through the roof. We were all smiling and laughing and having a jolly good time! But children also progressed – A LOT! They made immense progress compared to their starting points and parents still stop me now to thank me for how I changed their child’s attitude to learning.

Here I put a few ideas that show how you can teach something slightly differently:

PSHE – How you view yourself : children can create wordles that represent them using a free site such as This can give you a real insight into the child and stimulate discussions on the words and sizes used to get children thinking about how they view themselves.

MATHS – number bonds to 10, multiples of 10 and 100 : use a multiple of 10 piece puzzle but with pieces missing. Think about using ones that are in rows of ten first and then challenge pupils later with different dimensions containing the same number to ensure they are using mental strategies. Children can problem solve, use pieces taken out to show the number bonds. Just a little different from the normal Numicon, Dienes (H,T,U) etc.

Number bonds to 10 with puzzles

Number bonds to 100 with puzzles

ENGLISH – The missing chapter. Turn writing on its head with a story already written with a missing chapter. Get children to analyse characters, plot and think about what could have happened in that chapter.


These are just a few ideas to get you thinking. As you can see they do not require huge amounts of resources or time to put together.

Thank you for reading,

Mr Guest Blogger!