Autism and the SEND Code

Written by: Carol Povey | Published:

Autism is a common condition that many schools must work to support. Carol Povey outlines what some of the key changes within recent SEN reforms mean for young people with autism

Autism affects more than 1 in 100 people in the UK so teachers, teaching assistants and other educational professionals are bound to come across children and young people with the condition in the classroom during their career.

Last term, reforms to the SEN system and a new SEN and Disability Code of Practice came into place. These are set to change the way educational professionals in England identify and meet the needs of all pupils with SEN up to the age of 25. The reforms bring an opportunity for all schools to re-evaluate the arrangements they make for children and young people who may have SEN.

The SEND Code of Practice

The new SEND Code sets out the basic principles on which the reforms are based:

  • Early identification of needs, and early intervention to support them.
  • High-quality provision, assessment and planning.
  • Achieving the best possible outcomes, through the knowledge, skills and approach of everyone working with children and young people.
  • Inclusive practices and the progressive removal of barriers to learning and participation in mainstream education.
  • Collaborative working between agencies (education, health and social services) to ensure that children and young people receive the right support.
  • Support for successful transition to adulthood with high expectations and aspirations for what children and young people can achieve.

The Code emphasises that successfully identifying and meeting SEN is a whole-school responsibility.

The quality of teaching for pupils with SEN should be a core part of schools' performance management arrangements, and their approach to professional development for all teaching and support staff.

The Code also emphasises schools' duties under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments for individual pupils with SEND. These duties are anticipatory; they require thought to be given in advance to what pupils might require and what adjustments might be needed to prevent them being put at a substantial disadvantage. So what does this mean for staff in schools?

SEND support in school

School Action and School Action Plus, which provide mainstream school-based support for pupils with SEN, are replaced in the new system by a single category of support – SEN Support. The process of identifying SEND involves a four-stage cycle referred to as the "graduated" approach – Assess, Plan, Do, Review.

Assessing the student's needs

The teacher and SENCO must first assess the child by undertaking an analysis of their needs. The Code identifies four broad areas of need:

  • Communication and interaction.
  • Cognition and learning.
  • Social, mental and emotional health.
  • Sensory and/or physical needs.

It notes that "children and young people with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) may have needs across all areas, including particular sensory requirements". Detailed assessment should ensure that the full range of a pupil's needs is identified.

Planning and doing

Following assessment, school staff should then plan, in consultation with parents and the child (where appropriate), what support and intervention should be put into place. This leads to the third phase of the cycle, which is to do what has been planned.

Regular review

The final phase is to regularly review the intervention. Specialist professionals from outside the school will become involved in the process if the pupil continues to make less than expected progress. Schools need to work with the local authority and other service providers to ensure they have access to a range of services that can provide additional advice and, where necessary, assessment of a child's needs.

Any assessment, plan or intervention should be accurately recorded and the written record must be shared with parents and the child or young person. It is for each school to decide how they record and share this information, but it is important that all staff within the school are aware of a pupil's needs and that parents are regularly kept informed.

Autism best practice

As autism is a spectrum condition and affects each person differently, effective strategies will differ from pupil to pupil and must be tailored to their individual needs.

However, as all people with autism share certain difficulties surrounding social communication and interaction, there are some common examples of reasonable adjustments and tailored teaching approaches.

Preparing the student

People with autism often feel highly anxious when confronted with unexpected situations and try to manage their anxiety through routine and careful preparation.

Schools have an important role to play in this process, starting long before the student's first day, with the child's transition to school. Transitions between home and primary school, primary to secondary school and then secondary school to adulthood can be highly challenging for people with autism, but can be managed through careful preparation, early and on-going consideration of reasonable adjustments, and working out transition plans with parents.

Careful preparation should continue throughout the pupil's time at the school. Learning objectives for every lesson should be made explicit to pupils so they know what they are supposed to be doing in the class and what they are supposed to learn from it.

The student's "in lesson" understanding of the objectives can be checked through Assessment for Learning. This structured approach will also help to lower anxiety levels.

Tailoring teaching to each individual

Everyone with autism is different and has unique support needs, so working out the preferred learning style of the pupil and tailoring teaching to their needs can make a huge difference.

Adapting the environment

People with autism are often over or under-sensitive to light, sound, smell, taste and touch, so the teaching environment can have a major impact on the quality of their learning and their experience at school. Wherever possible, teachers should allow pupils to sit in an area of the class they are comfortable in. It is also advisable to have special areas in school and/or preferred people the pupils can go to for extra support or to reduce their anxieties.

Involving parents

Parents should be involved and informed about the support their child will be receiving from the school so they can contribute to the plan and ensure that it meets their child's needs. This relationship is especially important when it comes to homework, as parents may need to make adjustments in the home environment or in other ways to actively support the learning process at school.


The recent SEN reforms are the biggest shake-up to the system in more than 30 years and represent a huge opportunity for educational professionals to examine how they approach teaching and supporting children and young people with autism. Autism is a complex condition and affects everyone differently but careful planning, involving the child's parents and tailored support can make a huge difference and help children with the condition to reach their full potential.

  • Carol Povey is director of the National Autistic Society's Centre for Autism.

Further information

For more information on best practice at school, visit

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