Identifying the needs of students on the autism spectrum

Responding to the needs of students on the autism spectrum is critically important for educators working in a school setting.

An awareness of the challenges, as well as the student's skills and strengths, can assist teachers to address their needs in an inclusive way.

Students on the spectrum often experience high rates of exclusion and, in many ways, their learning and social needs are often not understood or supported.

In a two-year study, researchers from the Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism (Autism CRC) surveyed educators, specialists, students with autism spectrum disorder and their families and carers to build a profile of the educational support needs of students on the spectrum.

The study was led by Queensland University of Technology's Dr Beth Saggers and Professor Suzanne Carrington. Australian Autism Educational Needs Analysis ­­­- What are the needs of schools, parents and students on the autism spectrum? details the study findings and outlines 10 key recommendations to assist educators with their practice in the classroom.

Social and emotional needs of students

There were 1468 participants Australia-wide in the survey. Educators, specialists and parents were asked to rate student characteristics having ‘the most impact on learning and require the most support, assistance, adjustments or accommodations in educational settings'.

All three groups identified the social and emotional needs of students on the autism spectrum (aged 5- to 18-years-old) as the top priority to ensure success at school. Strategies such as one-to-one or teacher aide support, working in small groups, calming or relaxation activities and the explicit teaching of prosocial behaviours were all cited as common ways to support students in this area.

Educators, specialists and parents all agreed that sensory experiences had the greatest impact on the students' ability to participate and learn. Noise was identified as the highest rating sensory issue. Think about how you manage noise levels in your classroom. How do noise levels affect a student's ability to concentrate on the task at hand?

The report also noted that a positive approach to behaviour support at school can make all the difference for students on the autism spectrum. When asked if the schools they worked at had such an approach, on average, educators agreed that their schools did. Comparatively, specialists and parents alike only slightly agreed that the schools they supported had a positive behaviour approach.

What students found helpful and challenging

The students who took part in the survey, who were all aged 11- to 18-years-old, were asked rate how they felt about school activities. The 10 they found most difficult were:

  • planning for assignments;
  • working as part of a group;
  • handwriting and being neat;
  • coping with change;
  • coping with bullying or teasing;
  • the speed at which they completed handwriting;
  • copying information from the board;
  • doing homework;
  • staying calm when other kids annoyed them; and
  • staying calm when the classroom is very noisy. (Saggers et al, 2015)

When asked what would help them at school, students identified technology (including to help with typing and their school work), being able to have a break, and having time away from others as the three top priorities. Other forms of support they rated highly included being reminded of pending changes to schedules, getting copies of things teachers wrote on the board, using special interests to do projects and having access to a quiet space to do assessment.

Connection to school

The importance of school connectedness was discussed in the report, with differing results across the participant groups. Overall, educators and specialists felt some connection to the organisations they worked with, with specialists rating their connection lower than that of educators.

In comparison, parents of students on the spectrum rated their child's connection with the school as low. ‘Ratings from the students themselves were the lowest, indicating low levels of school connectedness…' the report says.

Consider how low levels of school connectedness affects a student's ability to progress with their learning? Will students who experience this also have trouble making friends and sustaining relationships with their peers?

Key recommendations

The report makes 10 recommendations. According to the research team, supporting the social and emotional wellbeing of students on the spectrum is ‘essential', positive behaviour support ‘vital' and a flexible approach (tailored for each student) is ‘critical'.

Stay tuned for an article by Dr Beth Saggers on the 10 recommendations for educators from the Needs Analysis and practical tips for teachers.


Saggers, B., et al (2015). Australian autism educational needs analysis – What are the needs of schools, parents and students on the autism spectrum? Full report. (1.8MB) Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism: Brisbane.

Consider the strengths and skills of students on the autism spectrum in your class. How could you harness these strengths in your delivery of the lesson?

Educators, specialists and parents all agreed that sensory experiences had the greatest impact on the students’ ability to participate and learn in a school environment. How do you manage sensory issues in your classroom?

Consider the way you promote school connectedness with your students. In what ways could you enhance the connection students on the autism spectrum feel towards the school community?