Autism, Communication and Education

May 30, 2018

When children on the autism spectrum are accepted and valued they participate more in education, writes Dr Emma Goodall.

BOOK SIGNING: Emma Goodall at the recent Altogether Autism conference.

For parents and wider whānau, this can mean helping the pre/school to understand their child’s communication profile and for educators it can mean needing to use unfamiliar ways of communicating. Other professionals such as Speech Language Therapists (SLTs) may or may not be involved to support this process.

Communication is the way we not only signal wants and needs but it forms the basis for the transmission of knowledge from one person to another. As an example text, words, pictures, music and videos can all be forms of transmitting knowledge, but without shared meaning, there is no communication. Thus when I watch a Japanese film, which I love to do, if there are no subtitles, I cannot often understand the details in the story. Instead, I have built up an understanding of Japanese cinematic styles and imagery of rural and city scapes. I have received some knowledge, though perhaps not that which was intended by the film makers!

In schools, where knowledge is being shared in ways that are not accessible to all students on the autism spectrum, these students may well not acquire the lesson plan goals, nor score well on any resultant test. Parents and whanau are uniquely equipped with prior knowledge of their child on the autism spectrum, and the knowledge that has been built up around the child’s preferred communication, as well as their difficulties, is both useful and a step towards enabling success in the education system.

Many ‘non-verbal’ students on the autism spectrum can and do verbalize sometimes, usually with a trusted person in a safe space. For some of these students, it may be that they can respond verbally if they have a teddy or puppet that they can speak through. However, speech should not be pushed as for autistic people speaking can be very stressful. If a child on the autism spectrum can and does or wants to talk, that is one thing; if they do not wish to talk or struggle hugely, ensure that there are other communication systems in place.

Many schools are good at having visuals in the classroom and are able to use them to varying degrees, for example as a visual timetable for the class or a first/then visual for a particular child. However, there seems to be less in place in schools to provide non or partially verbal children with the means to use visuals to communicate to others (i.e. for the child to have free access to visuals or other communication systems). When schools use PECS (a formal and trademarked picture exchange communication system), the student will have their own PECS book and board, however in other schools the student may only receive visuals and not use them of their own volition. This does not seem to be a deliberate policy, more of an oversight and misunderstanding of how non-verbal communication exists (i.e. just as two way as verbal communication). If your child uses some kind of visual or textual system in the home, just ask the school to use it too and offer to spend half an hour before or after school in the first week to show the school how to use the system. If you are lucky enough to have an SLT involved, they would do this step for you!

It may be that you have no idea what system of communication would suit your non or partially verbal child, nor be able to access an SLT (Speech & Language Therapist). In this case, if your child does not yet read or type, then you basically have a choice of photo type visuals, cartoon type visuals or drawn/icon type visuals. Each of these systems has its own benefits and drawbacks – though photos are most easily recognized if the child is not able to generalize at all yet, they may need a photo of water, milk and juice rather than a cup/mug for example. Icon/drawing type visuals can be obscure initially but most children adapt to them quite quickly; for others they remain unrelated to anything real and so are effectively meaningless. If your child can read and/or write/type, a textual based communication system may be the most meaningful and facilitate your child’s ability to express themselves deeply and profoundly as well as connect through humour.

Communication Type












Photo visuals






Sign language (or Makaton)












Preferred way to receive information




Preferred way to communicate needs/





Preferred way to ask for help




Typical way of showing need for help




Typical way of communicating sensory





Typical way of communicating need for





If your child has a non-standard set of words/visuals/signs providing a brief dictionary can be very useful:


Word/visual/sign used by X


What this is communicating










Ensure that your child is able to express the need to go to the toilet and have a drink, signal that they need help, and that they understand the communication used to express consent and time to eat and time to go outside and play and time to return to the classroom. I have lost count of the number of times schools have requested assistance with ‘non-compliant’ autistic students not returning to the classroom when the bell goes at the end of playtime. Due to the nature of autism, some of these students will genuinely not have noticed the bell, or not realize that there is a message in the bell (return to classroom) or that the message applies to them too.

Schools will generally respond positively to information provided to them by whanau as long as it is not too detailed and time consuming to read. Even though it is important, if every parent in the class provided 20 pages for the teacher to read at the start of the year, the teacher would quickly become overwhelmed. I suggest one to two pages of A4 maximum with the following layout, type examples have been provided on page 2 to make it clearer.

So, for example, if your child calls their teddy Blue (even though it is green), it is important their teacher knows this, otherwise the teacher assumes your child either does not recognize their colours, is colour-blind or is developmentally delayed in this area! A typical area of confusion is when students on the autism spectrum say yes, when they do not mean yes in a conventional sense. For some on the spectrum, this reflects their difficulty with closed questions, for others it can be a learned response to cover slow processing or auditory processing difficulties.

With older autistic students, teachers and schools may need reminding of your child’s literal understanding and use of language as a highly verbal child is not always understood to still have areas of difficulty with spoken language.


  • Goodall, E. (2018) Understanding and Facilitating the Achievement of Autistic Potential: How to effectively support children on the autistic spectrum, Adelaide,SA: HealthyPossibilities
  • Emma Goodall is a university lecturer, educational autism consultant, author of the handbook for parents and teachers; “Understanding and facilitating the achievement of autistic potential”, public speaker and presenter, self-advocate and occasional actress. Emma has Asperger’s.
  • This article first appeared in the Altogether Autism Journal Autumn 2014 and updated May 2018.



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