29 August 2016
Reader Submission / Long reads

School connectedness for students on the autism spectrum

Last month, Teacher magazine explored several key recommendations outlined in the Australian Autism Educational Needs Analysis ­­­- What are the needs of schools, parents and students on the autism spectrum?  Here, one of the lead authors of the study, Dr Beth Saggers shares some practical tips on how schools can encourage a community of connectedness and inclusion for students on the autism spectrum.

School connectedness has been defined by Goodenow (1993) as ‘the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment’.

School connectedness is one factor which can help support positive mental health and wellbeing for all students. Recent findings from the Autism CRC Australian Autism Educational Needs Analysis (ASD-ENA) suggest that school connectedness is every bit as important for students on the autism spectrum as for other students, and that they often struggle with developing a sense of belonging and sense of connectedness in the school environment. 

The ASD-ENA aimed to develop an understanding of the educational needs of school-aged students on the autism spectrum using a nationwide survey to obtain information from four key stakeholder groups – educators, specialists, parents, and students on the autism spectrum aged 11–18 years.

A focus of the surveys was to obtain participants’ views of the educational and school-based needs of school-aged students on the autism spectrum. Further information was obtained from follow-up interviews with some participants.

Many of the key recommendations resulting from the findings of the ASD-ENA can be used to promote not only school success but also a sense of connectedness for this group of students.

Social and emotional wellbeing

Recommendations from the ASD-ENA have implications for practice and can enhance school connectedness, promote wellbeing, and support school success for students on the spectrum. In addition, supporting these needs in the classroom environment ensures benefits not only for students on the autism spectrum, but for all students in that learning environment.

Support for the social-emotional wellbeing of students on the spectrum was highlighted in the ASD-ENA by all stakeholders as one of the highest priorities and most essential elements of programming in schools to promote school success. As we all know and have experienced, teaching and learning in schools not only has a strong academic component but also a strong social and emotional component (Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004).

Social and emotional learning plays a critical role in the academic performance, school attendance, classroom behaviour and academic engagement of all students. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process of acquiring and effectively applying the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to recognise and manage emotions, developing caring and concern for others, making responsible decisions, establishing positive relationships, and handling challenging situations capably.

One essential element of school connectedness is the positive social connections students develop. While it is now widely recognised that social-emotional wellbeing is a protective factor for wellbeing and mental health, as well as a key to educational success, the current emphasis on academic achievement and data-driven accountability in schools tends to relegate social and emotional learning to one side.

This is despite evidence that poor social-emotional competence is associated with lower school connectedness and academic performance. This is true for all students but particularly true for students on the autism spectrum, most of whom are now educated in mainstream schools and require a strong focus on social-emotional learning. This is reflected in their own and other stakeholders’ views of their educational needs in the ASD-ENA.

Implications for school leaders and teachers

Schools need to actively and explicitly support the social-emotional wellbeing of students on the spectrum as part of the curriculum. While it is suggested in the Australian Curriculum that the personal and social capabilities be addressed in all learning areas and at every stage of a student’s schooling, the ASD-ENA findings suggest that work on the personal and social capabilities needs to go beyond integration in other learning areas and, for many students on the spectrum, will require far more explicit instruction and ongoing focus on these capabilities.

As a result, recommendations from the ASD-ENA suggest that support to promote these capabilities and school connectedness for students on the autism spectrum will involve explicitly helping, supporting and teaching them how to navigate the social aspects of schooling (e.g., working as part of a group, getting along with others, teasing and bullying). Additionally, students on the spectrum may require support for the comorbid conditions they experience. For a student with autism, comorbidity means there may be one or more additional diagnoses, conditions or difficulties co-existing with the diagnosis of autism that have an impact on the student.

In the ASD-ENA, some of the most comorbid conditions identified included anxiety, depression, attention difficulties, learning and communication issues, and auditory processing needs. Support for comorbidities will be particularly important as students move into adolescence. In the ASD-ENA, students themselves identified additional means of support for anxiety that they would find most helpful, including:

  • help learning to stay calm in stressful situations
  • being able to take a break from the demands of the classroom when needed, and
  • support to cope with change and transition.

Another recommendation from the ASD-ENA that was identified as critical to promoting school connectedness was the need for a flexible and individually-tailored educational approach to programming and support for students on the spectrum. This requires a bespoke approach with tiers of support and an array of services put in place to ensure the heterogeneous needs of students on the spectrum are adequately met. In addition, it requires educational approaches that consider student preferences and stakeholder views to ensure essential elements for support are implemented.

The ASD-ENA identified a number of programming and support strategies from both student and other stakeholder perspectives that should be considered essential when working with students on the spectrum and may help promote school connectedness. It is important to note, however, that what these ideas look like in practice will vary based on the individual needs of the student in question and will need to be interpreted accordingly.

Key recommendations centre on a number of essential programming and support considerations including:

  • the use of technology to support student academic and learning needs
  • a focus on support for students’ executive function needs (e.g., planning, organisation, time management skills)
  • the flexibility to be able to provide one-on-one support inside and outside the classroom when needed
  • additional support when handwriting is required to complete a task
  • consideration to the sensory needs of the environment (especially the noise levels, touch and staying still for long periods of time), and
  • a positive approach to behaviour support.

Ensuring success, retention, participation and engagement

Ultimately, any support put in place in schools needs to ensure maximum success, retention, participation and engagement of all students, and must be responsive to the needs of the students in their care. It must also ensure that staff working in schools have access to adequate and appropriate support and knowledge to ensure they can effectively meet these needs.

The needs identified by stakeholders in this research can help inform future practice with students on the spectrum. The ASD-ENA has identified from a range of stakeholders’ views some key elements for programming and support for students on the autism spectrum. It has also identified some of the professional development needs of educators and specialists and barriers experienced to effectively put these ideas into place.

The ASD-ENA data has helped to highlight a number of identified learning needs and offers some useful insights on how to best support students on the spectrum in the following areas: academic and learning; behaviour; sensory issues; communication; transition; school connectedness; student wellbeing; and, technology. Implementing practices to support these needs will not only benefit students on the autism spectrum but all students in the classroom environment.

To read the full ASD-ENA report go to: http://www.autismcrc.com.au/australian-educational-needs-analysis


Goodenow, C. (1993). The psychological sense of school membership among adolescents: Scale development and educational correlates. Psychology in the Schools, 30(1), 79–90.

Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Wang, M. C., & Walberg, H. J. (Eds.). (2004). Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say? New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

As a school leader, how do you ensure that staff working in your school have access to adequate and appropriate support and knowledge to ensure they can effectively meet the needs of students on the autism spectrum?

As a classroom teacher, in what ways do you explicitly support the social-emotional wellbeing of students on the spectrum as part of the curriculum?

Dr Beth Saggers

Dr Beth Saggers is a Senior Lecturer at Queensland University of Technology with almost 30 years of teaching experience working with students on the autism spectrum (ASD), across all phases of schooling and across a very large diverse range of educational settings. She is a key researcher in the Living with Autism Cooperative Research Centre (Autism CRC), Program 2: Education. Since 2014, Beth has been Chair of the Research Advisory Group for AEIOU Foundation for Children with Autism.


  • please keep me in the loop

    06 September 2016

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