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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) A resource for educators

Tuawhiotanga Whanonga a Te Hinengaro me ngā kaiako


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): A resource for educators - booklet front cover

This publication has been produced by the Ministry of Education, Special Education and replaces the booklet Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) for teachers.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) A resource for educators – Sept 2016 (PDF, 2 MB)

ISBN: 978-0-478-34297-0 | Web ISBN 978-0-478-34298-7
MOESE0031 – Reprinted September 2016
© Crown Copyright 

We encourage you to share this information with others. If you do so, please acknowledge its source.


Go to the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) for educators support presentation. This presentation is useful for Specialists or members of ASD teams who may be training others in their school or setting on how to get started with ASD.



This resource gives teachers an introduction to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and how it might affect a student in any classroom or school setting. It aims to give a taste of what it might be like to stand in the shoes of a student with ASD and some guidelines on how to incorporate goals for students within The New Zealand Curriculum.

This resource is intended as a starting point that describes the core characteristics of ASD and how these might impact in the classroom. The resource identifies some goals and types of strategies. Further information on specific strategies is available from Ministry of Education, Special Education staff and at ASD in Education and the Ministry of Education website.

There is no ‘typical’ student with ASD and this resource covers a wide range of ages and educational contexts. Classroom teachers will need to talk to families, whānau, specialist teachers and other members of the student’s team to decide what further information and professional learning and development may be needed to support an individual student.

What is ASD?

As a child grows from birth to early adulthood there are a number of milestones (skills or age-specific tasks) that he or she will usually reach. These are in areas such as thinking (or cognition), social interaction, communication, gross motor and fine motor skills.

While many people have some delay in development of one or other of these areas, ASD is the name for a group of conditions where a student has a noticeable delay or
difficulty in three important areas of development:

  1. communication
  2. social interaction
  3. cognition (thinking).

In this resource these are called the core "characteristics" of ASD. In addition, many students (particularly younger children) with ASD either under- or over-react to sensory information.

"I am proud of who I am and autism is part of who I am. In fact, you can’t separate the autism from what I do, think or am."

What is it like to be a student with ASD?

Each student with ASD will be very different because of:

  • the level of difficulty they have in each area
  • their family setting and circumstances
  • their level of intellectual ability
  • individual factors, such as age and personality.

People with ASD range from needing significant help with all day-to-day tasks, to working and living independent lives.

As well as being very different within and across the three ’characteristics’, their abilities, interests, personalities, age, situation, cultural and family
circumstances, beliefs, values and preferences all make a difference to what teachers might see in each student in their class/school.

  • Oscar can use single words but is unable to use his language to make his needs known.
  • Jimmy has some quite sophisticated language when talking about his special interest in computer games.
  • Rebecca wants to interact with other students and to make friends.
  • Ruby prefers to be on her own and does not like other students in her space.
  • Ben is passive and so it can be hard to work out what he is thinking and feeling.
  • Hemi becomes distressed by sudden noises like the bell but he likes singing at kapa haka.
  • Michael copes well with changes of room, teacher and subject if he has warning, a written schedule and colour-coded subject bags.
  • Moana relies on routine and becomes very vocal and distressed when there is any change.

"People who know the details of my autism are usually more comfortable dealing with me. Also, the more information my teachers have, the more ideas they have to help me learn."

Teaching students with ASD - a framework

To learn, all children and young people need to be able to pay attention, communicate, be motivated. Children and young people learn by watching others. Most of the
leading learning theories describe these as important conditions for learning. Most students come to school with many strengths and abilities in these areas.

The characteristics of ASD mean that these skills are often delayed and will need to be taught, supported and structured for the student to access the curriculum.

There are many ways in which teachers and students with ASD will share success by using evidence-based strategies throughout the daily classroom programme. Many of these strategies will also have a positive effect for other students who might also have difficulties with these developmental skills.

There are clear links between the key competencies of The New Zealand Curriculum and the needs of students with ASD – and school offers multiple opportunities to practise skills as part of an everyday, natural learning environment.

"It’s not wrong to think in a different way."


Communication characteristics

Students with ASD:

  • often develop communication or language later than their peers
  • often have unusual ways of making themselves understood
  • sometimes use language in an unusual way
  • may have difficulty in understanding others
  • do not always understand gesture, facial expression or body language.

For children and young people with ASD, understanding other people can often be more challenging than trying to communicate needs, preferences and ideas. To develop communication skills, students need lots of opportunities to use their skills in authentic contexts.

Schools provide many rich, everyday opportunities for students to learn and practise their communication.

Communication is a complex business, involving language, signs, gesture, setting, facial expression and intonation. Individual students will need different levels of support but some strategies teachers can use include:

  • use fewer words
  • slow down the rate of speaking
  • give the student more time to process the information
  • use clear, concise visual information in the form of written language, pictures, objects and gestures
  • develop a communication system using pictures, signs, words and symbols for those students who are not able to use verbal language.

Communication aims


  • Communication is essential to share and make sense of knowledge and information. Students need access to verbal, visual and written information to access the curriculum.

Relating to others

  • All students need some form of communication to be able to express their needs, thoughts, feelings and intentions.

Using language, symbols, and texts

  • Students need to express themselves and understand what others are sharing with them, using visual information (which may include symbols), oral language and texts.

Managing self

  • When students are not able to express their needs and concerns, they can become anxious or frustrated and need to use other behaviour to get attention or to get their needs met.

Participating and contributing

  • Students with ASD often need to be able to follow visual schedules and timetables to help them understand the structure of the day, to participate in classroom routines and prepare for changes.

Social interaction characteristics

Students with ASD:

  • may not join in with play or social opportunities
  • will sometimes like to do things on their own
  • may not respond to greetings, smiles or waving
  • frequently do not know how or why to share things of interest with other people (such as toys or games)
  • often have difficulty with the social rules that guide conversation and social situations.

Understanding and enjoying social interactions can be a puzzle for students with ASD. Unlike most of their peers, these students may not watch what others are doing and are less likely to learn by observation.

Opportunities for social interaction need to be set up and structured for success. Students are unlikely to spontaneously seek out social contact and where they
do, they usually do not have the prior learning or social understanding to be successful.

Peer education, step-by-step teaching and structured supports (including scripts and visual reminders) are important for successful social interaction goals.

School settings are very busy social places that can be stressful, so social teaching needs to be balanced with opportunities for breaks, and supports to ensure that the student with ASD is not over-loaded or anxious.

Once they have learned the rules of the classroom or games, some students feel the need to avidly police them.

Social interaction aims


  • To interact and be able to learn from adults and peers, students need to learn the skills of observing and showing (sharing attention). They also need to be taught concepts about social interaction that typical children understand intuitively.

Relating to others

  • To enjoy reciprocal relationships with adults and peers, students need to learn to understand the feelings and motives of others.

Using language, symbols, and texts

  • To have meaningful social interactions with peers and adults, students need to be able to use some form of shared communication.

Managing self

  • Students need to learn about what they like and how they feel, and learn to communicate these to others in an appropriate way. They also need support to identify stressors and learn some strategies to deal with stress.

Participating and contributing

  • To learn to play and engage with peers, small groups or the rest of the class, students need explicit teaching to understand social situations and support to learn which social interaction skills are useful in which contexts.

Thinking characteristics

Students with ASD may:

  • prefer routine and structure, and like to do things in a particular way or order
  • dislike change or moving from one place or activity to another
  • find it difficult to organise themselves or their possessions or to tackle and solve problems
  • develop strong interests in particular subjects
  • have unusual mannerisms (such as flapping) or movement patterns.

The busy school day, with many transitions and changes of topic, is a challenge for students with ASD. While they can find change and transitions difficult, most school days follow a routine and simple strategies (such as an easily accessed copy of the timetable) to help a student to understand what is happening are usually very successful. Some students strive for perfection and need to complete their work to the highest standard to be satisfied with it.

Once students have support to understand what is going to happen and have systems to get the correct materials and know what to do, they will be able to start the
activity and access the learning objectives.

It can be a challenge to motivate students with ASD in academic tasks – using their interests usually motivates them to stay on task and make good progress.

When teaching a new skill, teachers need to check that once the student has mastered it in one setting, they also teach it in a different setting (eg, classroom and library). One way to do this is to make sure there are clear prompts and cues that will allow the student to recognise the skills required in the new setting.

Teachers need to specifically teach skills and structures that help students to problem-solve (such as flowcharts, mindmaps, decision trees and other cognitive frameworks).

Thinking aims


  • To be able to use structures and a range of media to help students to think and learn. These include checklists, assessment criteria, using mind-maps, story maps and flowcharts to structure writing and other learning tasks. Visual media, such as pictures and video, often prove useful.

Relating to others

  • To be able to use a range of strategies to help understand the perspective and intentions of others.

Using language, symbols, and texts

  • To understand and use a range of communication forms for learning (visual, verbal and written). Explicit teaching of multiple meanings and literal language is also important.

Managing self

  • To be able to follow instructions and work independently. Supports may include structures (such as visuals and checklists) to plan for the day, organise equipment, complete tasks and manage time.

Participating and contributing

  • To be able to apply new knowledge and skills gained in one setting to another setting. Strategies may include providing clear links and cues, and coaching peers to provide support.

Sensory characteristics

Students with ASD can sense things differently and may:

  • react to loud noises or particular smells
  • under- or over-react to pain
  • have difficulties with their personal space
  • react to different textures (shiny, smooth, rough)
  • have unusual motor movements (such as walking on tiptoe)
  • react to visual stimuli (busy environments, bright lights).

Sensory differences can be as a result of hyposensitivity (not enough of a sensation is registering) or hypersensitivity (too much of a sensation is registering). These differences can be very intense for the student and they may not be able to do anything else while they are experiencing them.

Sometimes very small adjustments to the student’s environment can have a significant impact on their well-being and ability to learn.


Where to start

The first priority is to ensure that the student is able to be comfortable in the class. Any student will find it difficult to engage, respond and learn when they are stressed and anxious.

The most important goal for any teacher with a student with ASD in their class is to work as part of a team:

  • parents, families and whānau are usually very knowledgeable. Listening to their experiences and building on the strengths, knowledge and strategies the student already has are key to learning new skills
  • goals that can improve communication and social opportunities in home, school and other settings using a similar format (such as similar types of visual supports) will help the student to learn more quickly and to generalise their skills
  • effective relationships and communications between the people who work with the student, good planning, coordination of goals and systems for sharing information are vital for success.

Developing and maintaining a profile of the student that can be used to introduce them to teachers, relievers and others is a useful way to ensure that relevant information is shared to minimise misunderstandings.

"I’m tired of having to do 100% of the changing, and there is no change with most people without autism."

Strategies across the curriculum

  • Tasks, timetables, environments and expectations need to be structured and made explicit.
  • Teaching needs to be clear and systematic – breaking down tasks into small steps that the student can understand, and clear criteria for completion so they can see when they are successful.
  • Communication needs to be simple, clear and – for many students – supported by visual materials.
  • It is vital to give students choices and teach them socially acceptable ways to communicate their needs and wants.
  • Behaviour issues are usually directly linked to difficulties with communication, thinking and socialising or arise because of sensory issues.
  • The busy social environment of school means that students with ASD sometimes need strategies, times and places to have a break and calm themselves.

Strategies linked to the key competencies


  • Instructional strategies (structure)
  • Generalisation
  • Motivation
  • Provide structured settings and teaching.
  • Teach and use thinking frameworks.
  • Make use of strategies to encourage generalisation.
  • Use the student’s interests to motivate and encourage learning.

Relating to others

  • Socialisation strategies
  • Help students to learn to observe others so they can learn from them.
  • Provide opportunities for social engagement with adults and peers.
  • Teach specific social understanding skills.
  • Coach peers to understand the perspective of the student with ASD.
  • Structure social supports, particularly for situations where the ‘rules’ or conventions are not clearly spelled out, such as at break times.

Using language, symbols, and texts

  • Communication strategies (receptive and expressive)
  • Provide opportunities for students to communicate with different people in different places for various purposes.
  • Help teachers and others who work with the student to learn skills to become more supportive communication partners and to be able to understand the student’s communication intentions.
  • Support teachers and other adults to develop and use some forms of shared communication – such as visuals to share information and encourage independence.

Managing self

  • Environmental and emotional supports
  • Adult change
  • Positive behaviour support
  • Assist with sensory regulation (not being over- or under-aroused by sensory experiences).
  • Adapt the student’s learning environments.
  • Teachers and other adults change their initiations and responses.
  • Carry out functional behaviour assessments.

Participating and contributing

  • Whole-school education
  • Family involvement
  • Coach peers to understand the perspective of the student with ASD.
  • Encourage whole-school awareness and understanding of the challenges for students with ASD.
  • Plan for effective relationships between the people in the team to ensure good planning, coordination of goals and systems for sharing information.


People with ASD find any transition challenging. They:

  • have communication, social interaction and thinking characteristics that can make new people and places seem overwhelming
  • often rely on familiarity and routine
  • have difficulty ‘imagining’ what the new situation might be like
  • are easily over-loaded by sensory and other information.

Strategies to make transitions easier (between activities, people, places, situations and schools) include:

  • assessment of the new situation
  • considering possible sensory issues and ways to lessen their impact
  • careful planning and collaboration
  • using structures and systems the student is already familiar with (such as visuals)
  • incorporating strengths, skills and interests as part of transition.

Good quality profile information about situations, strategies and skills needs to be passed on when students go to a new classroom or school.

More information

ASD facts and figures

  • ASD is an umbrella term for a wide range of conditions, including autism and Asperger syndrome, as well as some other conditions with similar features.
  • The wider spectrum of ASD is thought to affect about one per cent of the population or more than 40,000 New Zealanders.
  • The cause of ASD is not known but genetic factors are known to be important.
  • A great deal is known about how to minimise the impact of the condition. Some students make so much progress that their differences are hardly noticeable.
  • ASD is a developmental condition – this means that what is seen with each student will vary with age and will vary over time.
  • There is a group of students who have significant difficulties in one or two of these areas but who may not meet the criteria for ASD. The strategies in this
    resource will still be of benefit for these students.
  • In addition, some people with ASD also have other disorders (such as epilepsy).

Useful websites

Ministry of Education


ASD in Education (TKI)

Altogether Autism

Autism NZ

"Education should be equal for all. And appropriate for all but it must be chosen individually. If adaptations and supports are needed so that children with autism can learn, make them. If methods or materials need to be provided so that children with autism can succeed, provide them. Segregation of any kind is wrong."


  • Ministries of Health and Education 2008, New Zealand Autism Spectrum Disorder Guideline. Wellington: Ministry of Health
  • Ministry of Education 2007, The New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media
  • The quotes in this resource are all from the New Zealand Autism Spectrum Disorder Guideline

"It is common for me and other people with autism to be unable to say the words to describe what is bothering us. It’s also hard for us to figure out that other people don’t experience the world the same way we do."

For more information

For information about services and support available to children with special education needs, visit the Special Education section of the Ministry’s website for an overview of the services for children with a range of needs please see Services and support section.

For more specialist classroom, teaching and curriculum resources, visit the Te Kete Ipurangi website www.tki.org.nz

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