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Breaking down barriers for autistic students

January 1, 2024, 15:34 GMT+1
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  • Stephanie Smith outlines why Cavendish School uses the International Baccalaureate to teach youngsters with autism
Breaking down barriers for autistic students

Official government data shows that there are more than 160,000 autistic students in schools across England; 70% of whom are in mainstream schools while the rest are in specialist provision, home-schooled or out of education completely.

However, one in four children with autism wait more than three years to receive the support they need at school, according to the National Autistic Society (NAS), while three-quarters of parents surveyed by the NAS say their child’s school did not fully meet their needs. 

The pandemic had an adverse impact on autistic students; 44% of parents thought their child had fallen behind with work and 59% were concerned that their child was becoming more socially isolated.

In 2016, there were less than 2000 children diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder in Cambridgeshire, now there are over 4000.

The idea of The Cavendish School was conceived in 2016 to provide accessible provision for students, aged 8 – 18, whose needs cannot be catered for within Cambridgeshire’s mainstream state provision. The school aims to provide a continuous educational experience for students until they leave education. 

The International Baccalaureate is more usually associated as an alternative to A-levels but we chose to pursue accreditation as an International Baccalaureate (IB) Word School because the primary years and middle years programmes, and then the diploma and career-related programmes, offer a continuous learning journey for students.

Importantly, it is also particularly flexible in meeting the needs of autistic students by teaching them skills for life, instead of finite facts. 


Mainstream education can present multiple barriers to education for students with autism and the challenges include:

  • understanding the hidden learning embedded in the National Curriculum;
  • creating connections between their learning in different subjects;
  • the need to develop their cognitive comprehension.

We believe the IB offers the best curricula to break down the barriers to education that autistic students regularly face and helps them become independent self-advocates who are fully immersed in their communities.

Dissolving boundaries to learning

Implicit learning within the National Curriculum, often known as the ‘hidden curriculum’, is a consistent challenge for students with autism as they struggle to develop life skills that are not actively taught in a school, such as societal cues and values and beliefs conveyed in a social environment.

It is because of this that autistic students need to be taught how to transfer knowledge from one subject to the next, and how to apply what they are learning to real world situations. 

The IB’s primary years programme uses transdisciplinary themes to organise learning and teaching around the construction of meaning in real world situations, to dissolve the boundaries between traditional disciplines and to give students the tools to take meaningful action in the wider world as a result of their learning. 

Tailored learning

A common trait of autistic young people is their intense focus on a small number of core interests that consume their attention, sometimes to the detriment of engagement with their learning. 

The flexibility of IB programmes enables teachers to connect students’ interests with the subject material to create an irresistible invitation to learn.

For example, Thomas the Tank Engine is a powerful gateway to exploring broad topics that remain engaging and accessible to autistic students as a result of their affinity for the series.

Every character in the world of Thomas the Tank Engine has defined responsibilities and there is a clear hierarchy that demonstrates the success of the community when each individual performs their role. 

Creating connections between the important roles of each engine, their strengths and their weaknesses, facilitates understanding of a collective and an individual’s impact on a community because students learn the value they add to society by being their authentic selves.

Harold the Helicopter is often perceived as noisy, but is always welcome; this observation contributes to a broader conversation about embracing your individuality and being welcomed within your community.

Creating connections

It’s often the case that students with autism tend to compartmentalise their learning within subjects.

Interdisciplinary study allows students to make connections between different areas of learning, and to develop appropriate transferable skills - such as communication, research and independence - to support successful progression towards their own education and adulthood goals. 

Using thematic learning, the primary years programme in particular provides a framework for learners to create connections between a theme, a core subject and its relevant applications outside of the classroom. 

By inverting the traditional linear method of education, IB students begin their learning with a generalised line of inquiry that facilitates a deeper understanding of the correlation between concept and context, because the generalisation is explicit.

For example, our students are exploring the hypothesis that a person’s identity changes throughout their life by following the character development of Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter series.

To begin with, Neville lacks confidence in himself but the belief of his friends and teachers helps him develop his confidence and thrive after the battle of Hogwarts. This enables students to create connections between their own experiences and what they are learning at school. 

Success beyond schooling

Progressing to university, joining the workforce and being able to actively participate in society is challenging for some students with autism as they have not successfully recognised and developed the attributes they need to succeed outside of the classroom. 

Alongside academic knowledge, the IB focuses on the development of the whole student, an essential element of which is the IB learner profile; 10 core characteristics that are vital for intellectual, personal and social growth, regardless of neurodiverse or neuro-typical development.

Ethical qualities, such as caring, and practical qualities - for instance, communication - are embedded within the framework to prepare students for independent living and community integration. We aim to give them the ability to solve problems, make decisions and work as part of a team. 

Since we welcomed our first cohort of students in September 2021, parent feedback has demonstrated the impact of explicit learning and student-led, skills-focused education. We have seen that our students are more comfortable with queuing, time-keeping and sharing.

Relationships are being built, which is hugely encouraging for our children who have transitioned from home-schooling, and is evidence that our students are improving their social-cognitive skills to understand their own, and others, desires, beliefs and emotions.

Don’t forget:

  • Remember that autistic students struggle to infer information from social cues and need explicit examples and explanations to use as reference points
  • Use a student’s interests to engage them with their learning
  • Shift your focus from teacher-led to student-led learning

Stephanie Smith is Deputy Headteacher of The Cavendish School, Cambridgeshire.