Autistic student processing informationFor about 5 years, I had the role of Managing And Retaining Secondary School Students in the education system.

This entailed finding students at risk of dropping out of school and trying to assist them to have a successful school experience. It also entailed the integration of students with disabilities into the classroom. Of the students with disabilities integrated into the school system there were,

Sight impaired, Hearing impaired, Cerebral Palsy, Motor Neuron issues, Muscular Degenerative issues, Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Dysfunctional students and students eligible for funding due to a very low IQ.

Tointegrate all students into the normal school system was The Education Departments policy. There are lots of pros and cons with this policy, when there is a good support network within a school it can be highly successful and of a great educational advantage for all students and teachers involved. To this end, a severely autistic student was to be included into the school so the MARSSS coordinator was responsible for making it work. The procedure used in this case was a little different and appeared to work effectively. Certainly, at the time the parent of the child was very happy.

There are many inherent problems with integrating a severely autistic student into the classroom; this is partly due to the manner in which they process information and their lack of ability to filter sounds according to importance. For example, a teacher can be talking to the autistic student and another student will be talking quietly to another student in the room. The Autistic students mind will give the same importance to the student talking as is being given to the teacher talking. the student therefore, will have trouble deciphering the high input of information. The result of this can be high levels of frustration and extreme tiredness.

At the time this took place there was very little information about integrating autistic students into mainstream education so several meeting were arranged with social workers and experts in the field. There was a lot of university information but very little of a practical nature to help the classroom teacher. The topic had to be researched to determine the main issues the student was likely to face in this environment. Contact was therefore made with a forum set up by high performing autistic adults. Some were very helpful and could now articulate the likely problems our student would face.

From this information it was found that careful monitoring was needed during break times so that other students did not set the autistic student up to do things that were inappropriate. Students can learn rapidly that a severely autistic student can be set up to do things that they should not normally do. If a suggestion is made to the student to do something they would not like it can be like programming and the autistic student will carry out the action. In most cases, they realize they are doing something wrong or embarrassing but cannot stop themselves from doing it.


As they tend to know what is happening to them and how they are being teased they will become extremely frustrated and will sometimes lash out at any one close to them. The student being discussed had this tendency. Several reliable students were tagged with a responsibility to observe the child and get help if needed from a teacher or the autistic child’s minder. All teachers doing yard duty were asked to keep a sharp eye out to ensure no problems started. If the boy was showing any sign of stress, he was allowed to stay in a room for the breaks with his teacher aide. He often chose to do the normal things as he perceived them and be outside although as he got older he stayed inside more often.

Note here that although he had a teacher aide to be with him most of the time the goal of the school was integration as much as possible and the middle school class room teacher at this time had very good skills at maintaining a well organized classroom and wanted to see the autistic student have a high degree of success. The yard was the easy part, the hard part was integrating into the classroom so that the autistic student did not become frustrated but still felt (for want of a better word)  like they were part of the normal school population.

Autistic students do not deal with change very well and need to be informed of possible changes very early so they can prepare their thinking to accept the change. Any excursion or activities being undertaken by the school that the autistic student was to be included in was planned well in advance, This was generally not a problem in a Tasmanian school and to inform the student there was a fortnightly time table taped to his desk.

The teacher at this time was exceptionally good at maintaining a timetable for the class so every day the class knew what they were doing and when. Of course there was flexibility within what happened for the other students especially when they left the room for specialist subjects, but for the autistic student there was a feeling (once again for want of a better word) of normality the whole time. As many teachers know even a moderately autistic students has a preoccupation with time and if the class is kept late on a lesson or for chastisement the student will refuse to have lunch as it is not lunch time. This can be the reaction even if the time is only 1 minute late.

Changes of this nature are to be avoided and in the case of the student being integrated, an egg timer was included into the classroom environment so when the teacher said we will work for one hour on this topic the egg timer was set so the times in the class were adhered to for the autistic student. As an aside, it was found the rest of the class loved the definite times and when they were given mathematics for an hour they worked very hard as they knew there was a specific period when they could stop this work. The students general comment at the time was, when we are quiet and working hard the teacher thinks we are enjoying the work so they make us work for longer, so the students loved the timer. This was a grade 8 class but the timer was used in some grade 7 and 9 classes with the same results.

For the integration side of the classroom teaching the autistic student had subject content that was a simplified parallel of what the rest of the students were doing and when he found he could do somthing like show a picture or answer a question with a picture he acted very excited if he could particpate. For some lessons, clearly shown on his timetable, the student went for special subjects on safety and what we called life skills.

As mentioned before an autistic student has problems filtering information so tends to give the same priority in their minds to insignificant sounds as to important sounds. This huge amount of unprioritised input can leave them very tired so a bean-bag was placed in a corner of the room and the student could use this as place to reset his mind by taking a short rest. Like all teenagers he would often prefer to do nothing and just sleep in the bean-bag so a procedure was set up to deal with this. When the student looked a little stressed or indicated the bean-bag, the teacher would say ‘[name] go and have a rest for ten (or fifteen) minutes and when the timer rings you come back for more study’. The student would go happily to the rest area and when the timer rang would happily come back to the desk to continue working.


When the severely autistic student learns they can not conceptualize, imply, or cross-reference. As an example, our student was to be taught safety crossing the road. For an average students simply teaching look right, look left, look right again and if clear cross the road quickly. (driving right side of road). The issues for the average child would be to make them stop at the side of the road and not be impetuous and running ahead without due care.

Using the same words for a severely autistic child the child would stop at the side of the road providing the side of the road was definable and taught previously (e.g. curbing and guttering, gravel, concrete, bitumen). The word clear and the concept of clear would be difficult, as the severely autistic student would tend to see something two kilometers away and not deem the road clear so would not cross. Even if there was another person crossing the road 200 metres away. The same issue comes when the child is being taught and the teacher sees a car approaching so teaches ‘we cannot cross yet as there is a car approaching’. The autistic student sees a white car so will wait for all white cars but a red one is not dangerous so can be stepped in front of.

Autistic student processing information

Another issue for the autistic student is if something has been taught as a specific piece of knowledge and it clashes with something they have already learnt as a similar piece of knowledge, for example the teacher has meant one of the pieces of knowledge to be a general concept for example traffic and they have used a picture of a bus as an example. The autistic student has learnt bus as a traffic so can not understand the use car as being traffic. This could cause frustration and the autistic student would not be able to verbalize this. This would then tend to be an information overload for the student. The off shoot of all this is they have to be taught all aspects of a topic as separate bits of information.

Severely autistic students have problems with social interaction and emotions; the whole idea of emotions is very hard for them so they have to be taught to use the correct facial expressions and voice tones with the words they are trying to use. All the emotions such as happy, sad, envy, jealous etc. tend to be bundled into frustration / angry with no or very little facial expression or no expressions although I have seen this student excited and doing fast mannerisms. If the student is frustrated or angry and is about to lash out there is no warning through facial expressions.

Measuring performance As stated earlier the student was diagnosed as ‘severely autistic’ and one of the characteristics of this diagnosis is often aggressive behaviour. The aggression tends to occur due to frustration as mentioned before. Many things cause the frustration and due to the manner in which they cannot prioritize the input they are receiving it can be very difficult to determine what causes the frustration and aggression if it occurs. The integration of our student was not without issues and he sometime slashed out at anyone close to him. When this happened, he was isolated in another room to give him quiet time to allow the overload of information, time to settle.

His grade 8 year was deemed successful as there were very few physical outburst and he was fully integrated into a classroom where the makeup of students would be considered an average cross section of a school society.

The curriculum for this child was very structured and knowledge based as anything that involved thinking cross-referencing, analyzing, hypothesizing or just basic common sense was a waste of time. If he learnt enough basic knowledge he could learn to select the piece of knowledge that was the best reaction to a problem and appear to other to be cross referencing information. The problem for the teacher is to be able to teach all of the appropriate pieces of knowledge to give the student life skills. In this child’s instance he was given a lot of picture sequences and physical practice.

The last I heard about this child he was in grade11 doing special life skills courses with the goal of him eventually living in a community home with a certain amount of autonomy. If this was achieved I do not know.

It is interesting to compare the high performing and low performing autistic students as now I have a high performing student who has an incredible memory in some areas.

Judging from the chat discussions had with older autistic adults there can be considerable progress in integrating into society at various levels and this also borne out by more modern research in this area.

The extract from the website bright tots described the above child very well.

More Common Traits in Low Functioning / Severe Autism

  • Hand-wringing.
  • Appearance of poorly coordinated manner of walking / stepping.
  • Severely impaired expressive and receptive language development.
  • Lack of or infrequent initiation.
  • Lack of usual nonverbal gestures (i.e., pointing, head shake, nod).
  • Unable to control improper behavior.
  • Avoids or uses eye contact in odd ways.
  • Prefers to be alone.
  • Inability to imitate (body movement, vocal, motor).
  • Engages in rhythmic body movements such as rocking, pacing, hand flapping, toe walking, spinning.
  • Over- and under-sensitivity to sound, smell, touch, visual stimulus and pain.
  • May not be seek physical comfort from parents/caregiver.
  • Unusual display of emotion, for example, giggling or weeping for no apparent reason.
  • Impulsive.
  • Unwillingness.
  • Aggressive behavior.

Self-injurious behavior Education for Low Functioning Autism Limited grammar and an impulsive sensitivity to stimulus are often thought to be typical of low-functioning autism, as is a strong visual processing preference.  When designing educational programs for students with autism labeled as severely disabled, professionals and family members are advised to consider that programs for a particular student is to be specifically determined through the individualized education program (IEP) process. There is no IEP for people who are low-functioning versus people who are high-functioning. There are only IEPs for each individual student. Individualized programs must explain approaches for providing the student with acceptable and understandable ways of communication, teaching situation-appropriate social behaviors, and providing experiences that satisfy sensory needs by promoting desensitization or reducing sensory overload in specific settings and situations.

If a child with severe autism has greater difficulty learning, then the crucial school years should be spent teaching him/her to participate in beneficial activities. A functional living curriculum is various activities the person will need in order to live, work, and participate in his/her community. Life skills such as balancing a check book, recreating at the neighborhood YMCA, eating at a restaurant, maintaining a job, and shopping are vital goals. Parents of those children who are perceived as low functioning autism must advocate the need for such living activities in the child’s IEP. Many children with autism are grouped in programs relating on the level of functioning and disabilities instead of their abilities. There is no set label or curriculum which fits all students with autism; no precise placement. What children learn in school should express their diversity of preferences.

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