An exploration of autism in education

6 min read

As a design researcher at Common Good, I am constantly looking for new opportunities to apply my design thinking to challenges which interest me. I am given the opportunity to explore topics I feel passionate about. Improving my skills, discovering new challenges and identifying key insights.

I wanted to explore and understand autism in the education system, looking deeper into special needs and neurodiversity.

Why is this topic important to me?

Previously I had worked as a teaching assistant in a very small primary school. During my 2 years, I worked with children on the autistic spectrum. Although I witnessed first-hand children’s struggles with academic targets and social interactions with other children. I was totally inspired watching them achieve goals while building their personal character.

Watching documentaries intrigued my interest further, some of these included ITV ‘Girls with autism’, BBC Three ‘The Unbreakables: Life and love on disability campus’ and a television drama series on BBC called ‘The A word’. All three of these programmes show different sides to disability and autism, how people interact, learn about relationships and general awareness of needs.

Key insights

Before I begin, I want to stress these are insights from my personal perspective. Throughout my research, I realised I was only really touching the surface on autism.

I needed to explore the bigger picture to understand all different types of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

1. Autistic spectrum

What is autism? ‘Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others. Autistic people see, hear and feel the world differently to other people.’

No person with autism is the same, their needs are all so different which makes it difficult for many people to understand. There are around 700,000 in the UK living with autism, more than 1 in 100.

In 1979 Lorna Wing published ‘the triad of impairments’ showing traits that exist in autistic children. Autism is a spectrum, no one is the same. Also echoed in The Babble Out’s post Everything you have to know about Autism – a site aimed at helping everyday family, nursery, parenthood and health problems.

There are 4 main types of autism; Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Autistic Disorder and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. If you like to understand things in a more visual way I recommend looking at Rebecca Burgess comic book illustrations ‘Understanding the spectrum’.

2. This is such a complex issue

The education system currently categorises people into learning abilities. Using the continuum of learning ability’ to help planning, set targets and gain relevant support. Below shows the four main categories:

Children and young people who need support because of their learning ability require special education needs (SEN). The 0–25 SEND Code of Practice is a detailed assessment to ensure the individual’s needs are identified. This assessment will highlight the individual’s strengths and abilities. The Code of Practice looks at:

  • Communication and interaction — Individuals with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) who may have difficulty communicating with others. Might have trouble understanding what is being said to them or how to have social interactions with others. Individuals might improve this skill over time. It is more likely individuals with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) suffer the most with this need.
  • Cognition and learning — Individuals who learn at a slower pace than others in their class. Relating back to the continuum of learning abilities this need can cover from MLD to PMLD where individuals need support for learning difficulties. This might also include specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and much more.
  • Social, emotional and mental health — Individuals who struggle to manage relationships with other people. They might have underlying mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or eating disorders. They might show signs of withdrawal or isolation, or displaying challenging, disruptive or disturbing behaviour.
  • Sensory and physical needs — Individuals with visual or hearing impairments or a physical need that means they need additional support and equipment. Individuals who may have more profound and multiple learning difficulties.

There are many different needs and areas to consider in the education system. Speaking to teachers it was apparent how difficult it can be to accommodate these needs while trying to meet targets.

Placing individuals in these categories can also create a stigma about SEND support and lack of knowledge around the reasons why individuals need support. Potentially affecting parents and child’s relationships with others i.e teachers and other students.

3. Invisible needs

During my research, I spoke to numerous people working in the education system, both past and present. A recurring theme was mental health issues. The education system has to consider social, emotional and behavioural needs and academic learning. Mental health is a huge problem which is suffering because of lack of support and knowledge.

“Three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health condition. Over the past two years, there has been a 70% increase in the number of reported cases of self-harm in British 10 to 14-year-olds”

There is a lack of funding to support mental health problems in education, which can affect individuals as they go through one of the most important stages of their lives. Teachers are unsure how to deal with these situations due to lack of training.

Finding the right support is difficult but becomes even more difficult when a student turns 16 years of age. Teachers I spoke to voiced their concern, saying students are in a ‘grey area’ where they are neither considered a child nor an adult. Where can they access support?

Although I wasn’t focussing on this area it was important to recognise the challenges teachers are constantly facing.

5. Insufficient training

During my research I spoke to teachers who discussed their lack of training around SEND and in particular autism. One particular teacher I spoke to told me she had no training in SEND and autism until she qualified and started working on supply in a special needs school specialising in autism.

“A NASUWT survey revealed six in ten teachers said they hadn’t been given the training required to teach autistic children”

“More than 1 in 100 children are on the autism spectrum, and over 70 per cent go to mainstream schools, so every teacher will teach autistic students during their careers. Yet, autism training has historically not been mandatory for teachers, and some start school with no special educational needs training at all.”

Mark Lever, chief executive of the National Autistic Society

After months of campaigns last year it was confirmed the Government’s intention to make autism a mandatory training subject for teachers in England. Hopefully, this will be able to make a huge impact in teacher training, giving them more understanding and knowledge about autism.

6. Lack of funding

Recently there has been an outcry for funding for SEND education, many students are not given the correct support especially students who have mild or moderate learning difficulties.

“Extra or different help is given from that provided as part of the school’s usual curriculum. The class teacher and special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) may receive advice or support from outside specialists.

Schools feel they do not have enough funds to support SEND students which mean teachers feel overworked and many students aren’t being assessed. The Key did some research and found that 89% of school leaders believe financial cuts have had a detrimental impact to the support schools are receiving.

7. Employment

Following on from a Neurodiversity event: ‘how can we design a city that is accessible for Neurodiverse people?’ I started to see a link between education and employment. Referring back to the ‘grey area’ of a student reaching the age of 16, what options are there for further education or employment?

I also read about employment and autism. The National Autistic Society reports on ‘the autism employment gap’. It highlights that only 16% of people with autism are employed. This has only risen by 1% since 2007.

The NAS also created a video to raid awareness of the employment gap.

I’m inspired by Project CAPE produced by the BBC. As they are trying to Create A Positive Environment for neurodiverse individuals and changing the working environment at the BBC. We should always be aware of the people we are designing for.


Once I’d gathered all this information I downloaded my findings. It illustrated how complex this topic is. There are so many factors to take into consideration. Mainly, everyone has different needs. It’s about understanding the individual.

Exploring autism in education, including neurodiversity and special educational needs, has helped me expand my perspective on how diverse our society is. And the importance of considering the way we design products and services.

One way I was able to apply my understanding of neurodiversity and autism was on a project with NHS Blood and Transplant Services to reimagine the design of donation centres. We used behavioural personas to describe types of donors, this included needs, behaviours and stories. We were able to highlight sensory needs especially relating to colour.

As a design researcher, I’m constantly aware of the people I am designing for, meeting their needs and understanding their barriers. Using my knowledge about SEND and autism has already started to have an impact on the work we do at Common Good.

Next steps

My next step will be to take this research and insight and start creating design principles for inclusive design, which can be applied to future projects at Common Good.


A documentary was recently shown on the BBC which follows Richard Mylan raising his son who is on the autistic spectrum.

Richard and Jaco: Life with Autism – BBC One