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Personal and social development

Please be aware that this section contains information prepared in 2009 and may now be out of date. Some links may no longer work. We are reviewing this section.


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Because children on the autism spectrum often struggle to understand the social behaviour of others and what is socially acceptable behaviour a focus on personal and social development at school is particularly important. Other children develop this understanding without being explicitly taught but children on the autism spectrum are very literal thinkers and interpreters of language, and don’t always understand its social context. They also have difficulty with non-verbal communication, not understanding the meaning of common gestures and facial expressions. This affects their ability to play and socialise with others.

However with appropriate teaching and support many children on the autism spectrum will improve their social understanding. Social skills and social situations need to be broken down, explained, and practised so children on the autism spectrum can absorb them at a level that makes sense to them.  Whatever strategies the school uses it is really important that they discuss them with you so that you can reinforce them at home with your child.  Strategies designed to help your child need to be used by everyone involved with them. An inconsistent reaction to behaviour by different people causes confusion, stress and frustration for someone on the autism spectrum.

Helping your child at home

One of the biggest learning issues for children on the autism spectrum is generalisation. Children who are not on the spectrum will often learn a skill at home, such as tying their shoelaces and then be able to do it in a variety of contexts. Children on the autism spectrum may need to be re-taught skills in new environments and with new people. Many children learn skills but then have difficulty replicating them in another environment.

They may not understand the similarities between tying their shoelaces at home and tying their shoelaces at school. They may need the similarities of the two situations pointed out to them. This issue is very important to keep in mind when addressing social skills.

Try to link a skill you are teaching to a real tangible situation, refer to examples, use people's names, get the child to practise the skill they are working on in as many environments and with as many different people as they can.  There is an NAS information sheet on social skills and young children with gives lots of ideas about how you might help your child to learn about facial expressions, body language, emotions, games, conversational skills and turn taking, making mistakes, coping with losing, and conflict resolution.

Personal and Social Development and the School curriculum
Personal development in school is the means by which all young people are supported in their spiritual, moral, physical, emotional, cultural and intellectual development according to their needs.

Working in groups or within teams can pose problems for many children on the autism spectrum. Opportunities for personal and social development and the development of life or independence skills will need to be available, even to children of high ability. As well as difficulty in communication, children on the autism spectrum often lack an understanding of the rules and conventions of team games, and may struggle to understand how to co-operate and interact with other people in order to achieve a group target.

Ideally your child should have a named member of staff with knowledge of autism available to them that they or you can turn to if your child is experiencing problems at school with the social aspects of learning. Support and mentoring from a key person such as a teacher, learning mentor, Connexions personal adviser or mental health professional may be appropriate to reduce the risk of bullying and to support a young people who may be experiencing depression or feeling turned off from learning. Positive relationships between children and their peers can be fostered in this way or through types of group support such as circle time, buddy schemes and lunchtime clubs.

Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) is a non-statutory part of the National Curriculum and is taught throughout all four key stages.

Key stages 1 and 2

Children on the autism spectrum will need a differentiated curriculum (see the separate section on the national curriculum) to help them understand themselves as developing individuals and as members of their communities. They will need support to learn the basic rules and skills for keeping themselves healthy and safe and following behavior rules. In particular, teachers will need to use a range of strategies to help them understand other people's feelings so they can become aware of the views, needs and rights of other children and older people. They may also need particular help, for example a trained playground assistant, to learn social skills such as how to share, take turns, play, help others, resolve simple arguments and resist bullying.

Children on the autism spectrum will need particular help to prepare them for the transition to secondary school so they can manage the changes of puberty and transfer of school. (Link to transitions section) Teachers and other staff will need to consider putting specific programmes in place to teach skills and concepts which other pupils may acquire as a matter of course.

Key stages 3 and 4

Personal, social, health and economic education brings together personal, social and health education, work-related learning, careers, enterprise, and financial capability. A new programme of study, personal wellbeing, provides a context for schools to fulfil their legal responsibilities to promote the wellbeing of pupils and provide a programme of sex and relationships education and drugs education. It also provides schools with an opportunity to focus on delivery of the skills identified in the framework for Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) (See links below)

Is your child’s school following good practice guidance?
The Teachernet autism good practice guide lists a number of pointers which may help you think through whether or not your child’s school is doing all it can to foster your child’s social development:

•    Does the school have a named member of staff to identify any areas of difficulty a child on the autism spectrum might encounter?
•    Within the school's general anti-bullying policy, are staff aware of the vulnerability of children on the autism spectrum to bullying?
•    Does the school foster positive relationships between the child and their peers?

School Report Cards

Many people have expressed concerns about the way in which current school league tables reward only academic achievement.  The Government have released a consultation paper (December 2008) setting out their intention to develop a ‘school report card’.  This will be an annually updated report card which will focus on a school’s achievements in its broadest sense.  One of the outcomes on which schools will have to report is ‘wider outcomes’: pupils’ health, safety, enjoyment, opportunity and ability to make a positive contribution, and prospects of future economic wellbeing.  Hopefully when the school report cards come in it will give help give a greater focus to children’s social development.

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The NAS information sheet on social skills in young children

Autism and PDD social skills lessons. Reese, P.B. and Challenner, N.C. (1999) LinguiSystems, East Moline, Illinois. There are five different books each looking at social stories to do with community, behaviour, home, school and getting along, aimed at 3-8 year olds.

Inside out: what makes the person with social-cognitive deficits tick? Winner, M. G. (2002). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Martian in the playground. Sainsbury, C. (2000). The Book Factory, London.

Playing, laughing and learning with children on the autism spectrum: a practical resource of play ideas for parents and carers.  Moor, J. (2002). Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Revealing the hidden social code: Social stories for people with autistic spectrum disorders. Arnold. E. and Howley, M. (2005). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Social awareness skills for children. Csoti, M. (2001). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Super skills: A social skills group program for children with Asperger syndrome, high-functioning autism and related challenges
by Judith Coucouvanis; Autism Asperger Publishing Company
Another structured programme.  Has a good screening questionnaire and information pertinent to initial stages of the teaching process. Very visual and easy to read.

Teaching children with autism to mindread: a practical guide. Howlin, P., Baroh-Cohen, S. and Hadwin, J. (1998) John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Addresses issues specifically around 'theory of mind' in relation to other social skills. Looks at interpreting facial expressions, recognising feelings, affective conditions that impact on someone's feelings and actions, seeing things from another person's perspective and understanding their beliefs and knowledge.

The hidden curriculum: practical solutions for understanding unstated rules in social situations. Myles, B.S., Trautman, M.L. and Schelvan, R.L (2004). Autism Asperger Publishing Company

The incredible 5-point scale: assisting children with ASDs in understanding social interactions and controlling their emotional responses. Dunn Buron, K. and Curtis, M. (2003) Autism Asperger Publishing Company

The new social story book, illustrated edition, Gray, C. (2000). Future Horizons Inc.

The social skills picture book: teaching communication, play and emotion. Baker, J. (2001). Future Horizons Inc.

Why does Chris do that? Some suggestions regarding the cause and management of the unusual behaviour of children and adults with autism and Asperger syndrome. Attwood, T. (1993). London: The National Autistic Society.

Winslow Publications and Incentive Plus also have a large collection of books on social skills and ASDs. Call Winslow Publications on 0845 230 2777 or visit their website at and ask for a copy of the Education and special needs catalogue. Visit the Incentive Plus website at or call 01908 526 120 for a catalogue.

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Children with autism: strategies for accessing the curriculum: personal, social and health education, North West SEN Regional Partnership 2004

Social Stories

21st Century Schools: A World-Class Education for Every Child / A School Report Card: consultation document
Launch Date: Tuesday 9 December 2008
Closing Date: Tuesday 3 March 2009

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Case studies

Sex and Relationships education

Grange School in the East Midlands has adapted the ASDAN/NCB module on Sex and Relationships Education for its pupils who have moderate learning difficulties and include those on the autism spectrum. The module covers the requirements of the national curriculum and meets the learning needs of the pupils in this special school.

The programme based on the pack is started in Year 7 with adaptations to provide the detail needed to help the pupils understand the issues. The school programme also enables pupils to re-visit topics, to make sure they have fully understood. For example Year 9 sees the introduction of contraception and HIV and these are picked up again in more detail in Year 10. The school feels it is important not only for pupils to know that practising safe sex is important, but that they need to understand the implications for themselves should they fail to do so. The school participates in the Healthy Schools Programme and is about to seek accreditation for Sex Education.

Ealing Social Competence Programme for Pupils on the Autism Spectrum

Children on the autism spectrum need to be actively and explicitly taught social skills but generalizing or transferring those skills to different environments can be a challenge. Ealing SENSS developed a pilot project involving one pupil on the autism spectrum in a mainstream school. Stage 1 involved a teacher/consultant from the SENSS team going into the school to initiate and run a six-week social skills course. The pupil’s teaching assistant attended all the sessions in order to see how it worked and understand the teaching principles and practice.

At the end of the six weeks, the teaching assistant took over the running of the group developing skills and confidence in expertise in delivering the programme. During this time she was supported by the SENCO and the class teacher and had some input from the SENSS teacher/consultant.

The final stage of the project was for the teaching assistant to start working with the pupil on transferring the skills learnt in the small group to his general environment. The SENSS teacher/consultant provided further training on approaches that could be used.

Evaluation at the end of the pilot highlighted a very significant improvement in the pupil’s social behaviour. He was calmer and more in control of his emotional responses. Involving the teaching assistant from the start meant that there was continuity of approach. In addition the teaching assistant had the opportunity for specialist professional development which has been of benefit to her and to the school.

London SEN Regional Partnership report In Practice, Issue 2, March 2003

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