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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Please be aware that this section contains information prepared in 2009 and may now be out of date.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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Case studies




A key characteristic of those on the autism spectrum is their difficulty in understanding the social behaviour of others and what is socially acceptable behaviour. Other children develop this understanding without being explicitly taught but children on the autism spectrum are generally very literal thinkers and interpreters of language, failing to 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 interact 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.

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. An effective curriculum that supports personal development is one of the main ways in which a school can demonstrate its contribution to the Every Child Matters (ECM) outcomes:

  • be healthy
  • stay safe
  • enjoy and achieve
  • make a positive contribution
  • achieve economic wellbeing.

Working in groups or within teams will 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.

A named member of staff with knowledge of autism should be available to address any concerns at school level for children on the autism spectrum. 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 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 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

Under the PHSE (Personal, Health and Social Education) Curriculum a new programme of study, personal wellbeing, provides a context for schools to fulfill 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)

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The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA)

QCA has produced the following materials to support inclusive teaching in PSHE: planning, teaching and assessing the curriculum for pupils with learning difficulties: activities and guidance to help schools respond to the needs of pupils with learning difficulties. It includes performance descriptions for assessing attainment before level 1 in the national curriculum (the P scales).

National Healthy Schools Programme
The National Healthy Schools programme is a long-term initiative based on a whole-school approach to physical and emotional well-being focused on four core themes, one of which is personal, social and health education. More than 97% of schools nationally are now involved in the programme and over 70% of schools have achieved National Healthy School Status aimed at equipping children and young people with the skills and knowledge to make informed health and life choices and to reach their full potential.

Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL)

SEAL is a voluntary programme designed to develop the social and emotional skills of all pupils through:

  • using a whole school approach to create a climate and conditions that promote the skills and allow these to be practiced and consolidated
  • direct and focused learning opportunities for whole classes, across the curriculum and outside formal lessons and as part of small group work
  • using learning and teaching approaches that support pupils to learn social and emotional skills and consolidate those already learned 
  • continuing professional development for the whole school staff.

The skills are in five groupings:

  • self-awareness
  • managing feelings
  • empathy
  • motivation
  • social skills.  

Mind reading: The interactive guide to emotions, Cambridge University Autism Research Centre
Based on research conducted by Cambridge University it addresses the issue of recognising and understanding over 400 emotions. It puts emotions in context, provides an opportunity to see and hear different emotions, and has lessons, games and a quizzes section. It comes as a DVD or a CD-ROM.  

Navigating the social world

by Dr Jeanette McAfee; Future Horizons Publishing Company
Full programme developed with her daughter with high-functioning autism in mind. This is a comprehensive ready-to-go programme which addresses many issues such as recognising and coping with your emotions, stress management and relaxation skills, communication and social skills, abstract thinking skills, and some behavioural tips.

Teaching children with autism to mind-read: A practical guide

by Patricia Howlin, Simon Baron-Cohen and Julie Hadwin; John Wiley & Sons
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.

Reading faces and learning about human emotions

by Barbara Maines; Lucky Duck Publishing Ltd
Specifically focusing on understanding emotions and reading facial expressions, this programme (CD-ROM and workbook-based with printable worksheets) breaks many of the skills down under National Curriculum headings.

Social skills training for children and adolescents with Asperger syndrome and social-communication problems


by Jed. E. Baker; Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Covers lots of skill areas, such as conversational skills, cooperative play skills, friendship skills, self-regulation, empathy and conflict resolution. Very detailed and broken down lesson plans for children who may need very specific instruction. Puts a lot of emphasis on practising the skill at other times to help generalisation.

Skillstreaming books


by Ellen McGiniss and Arnold P. Goldstein; Research Press Publishing Company
Series of three social skills books looking at development in early childhood, middle years and adolescence. Written very developmentally and gives a good hierarchy of social skill development. Has lesson plans corresponding to skills at that level. Comes with skill cards and is in CD-ROM format.

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.

The Incredible 5-point scale: assisting children with ASDs in understanding social interactions and controlling their emotions


by Kari Dunn Buron and Mitzi Curtis; Autism Asperger Publishing Company
Shows children how to work at problem behaviour such as obsessions or yelling and move on to alternative positive behaviours. Uses scaling as a way to rate and modify behaviour level.

Socially speaking


by Alison Shroeder; LDA Publishing
This book is aimed at helping teachers to introduce and practice skills with pupils. It is divided into 3 units: let’s communicate, let’s be friends, and let’s practise. The book is aimed at children aged 7-11, however it may be suitable for older children as well.

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

NAS – sex education and children on the autism spectrum

Information on:

Marriage where one partner is on the autism spectrum

Social Stories

How the body changes at puberty, useful for teaching SRE

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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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