Teaching and Learning: an Overview

Teaching and Learning for autistic children and young people who also have a Severe Learning Disability

Within all forms of teaching and learning, and particularly so in teaching and learning for autistic learners with SLD, the focus of the provision and the construction of the supportive environment must ensure that the child or young person is central in all forms of interactions.  Each autistic young person with SLD is unique and takes an array of talents and abilities, as well as previously attained knowledge and insight, to new learning (Kerou, 2004). Teaching and learning for this population of learners, however, cannot be planned in isolation from their other areas of development and influence.  All extraneous factors must be considered.  This can make it difficult for the parent or professional when considering how to meet a young person’s social, emotional, physical, communication, and educational needs.  

Autism is a way of developing, so too is SLD: both are integral to the way a child or young person experiences, understands and learns about their environment and the world around them. Prizant (2016) reminds all fulfilling the role of educator, that to help autistic children and young people learn, we don’t need to change them or fix them. We need to work to understand them – and then change what we do.  

The process of understanding the learner’s profile ensures that whatever learning activity the parent or professional presents it does not intensify the learner’s difficulties and is appreciative of the learner’s differences and difficulties. Jordan (2008) reminds educators, that teaching and learning is bidirectional in that the parent or professional must recognise and respect autistic learner diversity, just as the autistic learner must also endeavour to understand their educator. Thus, for the parent or professional educator the process is cyclical starting with observing and assessing, progressing to planning and implementing before consolidating the learning and reflecting before the cycle starts over again. Engaging in this cyclical process will ensure high-quality teaching which is imperative for autistic students who also have SLD since they must learn so much more than their peers with other disabilities and peers who are neurotypical; “what many intuitively grasp autistic students must be taught” Jordan (2008).

Teachers continually endeavour to meet the specific, and at times, specialised needs of their autistic students who also have SLD by putting in place supportive strategies and interventions designed to ensure that the student is at the heart of their practice.  They offer artful instruction, build integral relationships, provide proactive footholds for tomorrow, and all while remaining cognisant of many inescapable barriers (Carpenter-Ware, 2021).

It is after assessments and observations have been evaluated that meaningful learning intentions and plans are devised. Such assessments and observations must be conducted regularly, almost continuously, for the educator to determine if the strategies used are meaningful and beneficial to the learner. Link to assessment section for more information.

Link to Enabling Education Research Bulletin

The teaching and learning strategies employed must be varied, flexible and creative to meet the diverse needs and developmental level of the autistic learner with SLD.  The adult, in their capacity as a teacher, should endeavour to make learning enjoyable and challenging through a variety of teaching techniques. Many of the teaching and learning experiences will need to be differentiated to consider level of cognitive ability and age appropriateness, acknowledging that progress and development for many students may be subtle and difficult to fathom, however, ‘this is not to say small steps in progress cannot be made and they must be acknowledged and celebrated.‘ (Hobbs, 2009).

As the autistic learner with SLD is likely to need a high level of support to enable them progress towards their potential, the starting point should be collating knowledge and insight from all who live and support the autistic learner with SLD.  This includes information on personality, strengths, prior experiences, likes and interests and areas of difficulty, so that an environment conducive to effective teaching and learning can be formulated.  Link to Parent and Professional Partnerships Research Bulletin

Teaching and learning is a multifaceted process which involves attention, engagement, motivation, and tailoring learning so that it is relevant to the autistic learner with SLD.  The initial step in this process is getting to know the autistic learner with SLD including their readiness to learn.  Once the parent or professional has understanding of these key teaching and learning concepts, effective ways of assessing and teaching incorporating a structured approach can shape future learning objectives.  

Know the Learner

Parents and professionals fulfilling the role of educator must consider the intricate interaction of 

  • autism 
  • sensory differences 
  • learning difficulty
  • any co-existing medical need

Autistic learners with SLD often function at an early stage of development.  The presentations will differ for each individual child or young learner. The more severe the learning difficulty is, the greater the level of support required by the young person. This means parents and professionals acting as educators need to be mindful of this and use their knowledge of the young person’s profile, including their strengths and interests to facilitate learning in the home or school setting.  The parent or professional should skilfully observe the young person’s behaviour for signs of progress. Progress may be a subtle sign such as tensing or relaxing of muscles or a very evident sign, such as observable enthusiasm by the young person to engage in the learning activity.  

Autism is a way of developing therefore it is integral to the way a young person experiences, understands and learns about their environment and the world around them.  A dual diagnosis for autism and SLD can create barriers or challenges to learning, the parent or professional should understand what these are for each learner and deploy a range of personalised teaching approaches that will bring about beneficial and meaningful change for the learner.  Good teaching and a supportive adult who can adapt the environment and tailor the learning are important if the autistic student with SLD is to reach their potential. 

Readiness (ability) to Learn

Prior to planning the teaching and learning process, the parent or professional should consider the readiness/ability of the autistic learner with SLD to learn.  Readiness to learn is much more than cognition or IQ alone.  It involves recognising and considering all extraneous factors which may be impacting on the learner’s ability to learn at a moment in time and in a context.  It refers to the learner readiness and ability to acquire knowledge and initiate a change in behaviour leading to successfully achieving an identified learning target.  It is closely related to early educational experiences and is fundamental to the learner’s capacity to engage actively in the learning process at their fullest potential. Some of the factors impacting learner readiness may be health (physical and/or medical), emotional instability or distress, social, economic, environmental, sensory, as well as how resources are presented and how the student or young person comprehends these.  Other key factors are the learner’s disposition for learning including their desire to learn, attitude towards the learning situation, a willingness to take a risk with learning, the ability to persevere, an understanding of the significance of the learning.  The parent or professional should assess these before starting to plan the learning process.  

Ideas and Strategies designed to Promote Successful Inclusion Experiences
*Kari Dunn Buron’s webinar
Dr Fiona McCaffrey’s webinar
Frances O’Neill’s webinar
Jill McCanney’s webinar

*Please note that registration with the Centre’s Virtual Learning Environment will be required for viewing the webinars linked in this resource. Link here to Centre VLE registration

Learning and Understanding 

Autistic learners with SLD may share similar characteristics, but as each learner is unique there is likely to be a significant difference to how each young person learns and understands.  This means learning instructions for autistic learners with SLD (referred to as ‘exceptional learners’ in the United States) should be individualised, explicit, systematic, interactive and intensive. Additionally, as the autistic learner with SLD benefits from a multi-sensory approach, tailoring the learning to take account of sensory preferences as well as any other challenges the learner may be experiencing is vitally important. This should ensure that learning is holistic and not isolated. 

At a fundamental level, the principles of teaching and learning involve:

Whilst these fundamental principles are applicable for all teaching and learning moments, the teaching of autistic children and young people with SLD also calls upon additional skills including structuring the environment to maximise learning, choosing learning which is relevant to the learner, carefully breaking the learning into meaningful steps, and ensuring multiple opportunities for consolidation so the autistic learner with SLD can achieve the specifically targeted skill.  

Attention, Engagement and Concentration

According to Wokle (2013) attention and engagement are the most important predictors of successful learning outcomes.  Sustainable learning can occur only when there is meaningful engagement. Engagement is a process which connects the learner and their environment (including people, ideas, materials and concepts) to facilitate learning (Carpenter et al., 2015).

When the learner is immersed in the activity, because it is of interest, they are in a teachable moment (Wachsmann, 2020).  Another way to maximise concentration is to share experiences.  As Davies within the Attention Autism Programme claims, “Shared good times make powerful memories.” 

Link to Attention Autism
Link to Attention Autism webinar

Motivation and Learning 

Active participation in learning is coupled with motivation and conversely motivation is closely correlated with successful performance or mastery of a skill.  Motivation varies depending on the setting, the people involved, the task and the situation. In the learning environment, factors such as lack of challenge, lack of meaning and emotional dysregulation can impact on motivation. It is vital that the parent or professional identifies what motivates the autistic learner with SLD and uses these strengths in the teaching and learning process.

The underlying principles of a strength-based approach for autistic learners with SLD include:

  1. All children have strengths and abilities, irrespective of cognitive or physical abilities
  2. Children grow and develop from their strengths and abilities. These should be identified and used within the activities and resources
  3. The problem may be how the skill is being taught – the learner is not the problem
  4. When those around the learner appreciate and understand the learner’s strengths, then the learner is better able to learn and develop

Link to Introduction to TEACCH

Link to Engagement Profile and Scale

There is not an absolute, definitive way to motivate and engage any learner including autistic learners with SLD, however a range of strategies can be called upon to achieve this:

  • Work in partnership with all who live, teach, support or mentor the young autistic learner with SLD
  • Adopt a collegiality approach where shared learning and shared experiences are optimised to support each young person realise his or her potential
  • Be innovative, flexible, and creative, using all the resources available, e.g. Augmentative and Alternative Communication systems (ACC), visual supports, environmental structure, sensory strategies
  • Link to understand Theory of Mind and Executive Function
  • Have high and realistic expectations for autistic learners with SLD.  Believe that they can learn irrespective of cognitive ability and remember that each child or young person has the potential to reach his or her potential with the right support

Learning must be relevant to the autistic learner with SLD

Present learning opportunities that are relevant to the autistic learner with SLD. Make them real and relevant by adapting resources to meet the child or young person’s learning style and profile.   Autistic learners with SLD tend to be explicit, concrete, visual learners which places the onus on the parent or professional to provide explicit, visual, concrete teaching strategies, tools, and interventions that maximise the use of visual supports. (Link to Best Practice Resource

It is essential that teaching methods, resources and materials do not intensify student difficulties and is appreciative of learning differences and difficulties. Jordan (2008) advises that educators, who wish to enrich the teaching offered to their students, thus recognising, and respecting diversity, must work out what to offer and what to do cognitively when working with autistic students.

Evidenced ways of Teaching Autistic Learners With SLD

There are evidenced ways of effectively teaching autistic students with SLD.  These should be tailored by the parent or professional so that they meet the learning needs of the autistic young person with SLD and the learning should be relevant for the learner:

  • Establish a rapport and relationship and use this to underpin all future learning.  This can be established by the parent or professional working consistently with the child or young person, thus affording them time to get to know the adult and to establish a secure trusting relationship. 
  • Involve the learner and follow their lead.  Through knowing and observing the young person, the parent or professional will be able to identify when the young person expresses preference or disengages from an activity.  This knowledge should be key in the teaching and learning process. Offer the chance to express opinions and contribute to the learning process. Teaching how to make a choice is an incredibly empowering skill. Many autistic learners with SLD may have limited choices in life; therefore, parents and professionals should consider how they can encourage and provide choice regularly throughout the day (Daly, 2020).  Start by teaching the process of choosing, a choice that can be fulfilled. This may not seem like a huge skill, but making small choices throughout the day can empower the autistic learner with SLD.
  • Use a multi-sensory approach, however, the parent or professional may need to carefully manage this and select to utilise just one sensory stimuli at a time.
  • Link new learning to prior learning.  When introducing new learning, the parent or professional should build new learning onto a prior relevant positive learning experience as this is known to help all learners manage new complex information more easily.  
  • Provide multiple practice opportunities.  For a learner to become proficient in a new skill regular practice is vitally important, which is why the parent or professional should ensure that the autistic learner has multiple opportunities to practice what they are learning.  Practicing the components of that skill repatedly allows the learner to make progress. Through practicing a new skill, fear is reduced and the learner gets to fully understand the new concept.
  • Generalisation of a new skill.  For any autistic learner, it can be difficult to transfer new learning from one context to another.  This means the parent or professional may need to re-teach the skill using the same learning process but in a new setting.  For autistic learners with SLD the ability to generalise a skill represents progress.
  • Foster independence otherwise the learner can become dependent on the parent or professional acting as educator.  To achieve this Daly (2020) reminds parents and practitioners to consider what can be added to the environment to make it easier for the student to cope or what could be taken out of the environment to allow the student to flourish?  “The long-term goal of every learner, young and old, with any range of disabilities, should have the opportunity to reach his or her potential, with minimal supports and being overall independent as possible” (Partington and Mueller, 2012).

Link to Building Capacity Resource
Link to Dr Patricia Daly’s webinar

A Structured Approach to the Teaching and Learning Environment 

All autistic learners benefit from a structured approach to the teaching and learning process.  This includes structuring the learning environment through the use of visual support strategies to visually represent events or activities in the day, as well as steps necessary to complete a task. It may also involve altering the learning space by having specific areas for specific tasks.
Link to The TEACCH autism programme
Link to inclusive classroom
Link to how can we make modifications
Link to goals of structure
Link for tips for geting the physical environment right


Providing a safe, secure, positive learning environment where the learner feels safe to make mistakes is an important aspect of the teaching and learning process.  Autistic learners with SLD may not recognise when they make a mistake, therefore it may be unfair to point out or discuss the mistake.  Instead think of an alternative and more appropriate way of addressing the action. As Ros Blackburn states –‘I cannot help getting it wrong. That is all part of being autistic, but it is no excuse. If I am to exist and get along in the real world, I will have to learn to obey the ways and conventions of the real word, whether I understand them or not. This may seem rather harsh and unfair on the person with autism, but reality is harsh and quite often unfair.  Surely, it is even more unfair if parents, teachers, support workers etc. do not prepare the person with autism for reality but shelter them from it.

Link to It’s ok to make a mistake


Learning and therefore teaching, can only begin after an intense period of assessment from the viewpoint of all who support the autistic learner with SLD.   Assessment is an ongoing process and an integral part of the teaching and learning process.​ The parent or professional should identify what the autistic learner already can do and what they need to learn in order to progress and develop.​ By assessing the autistic learner with SLD accurately and consistently and recording key information, the parent or professional can establish a clear profile of current functioning.  Professor Tommy Mackay (2018) suggests that assessment is divided into four overlapping types: 

  1. Formulatory assessment – to determine the learner’s overall profile
  2. Monitoring assessment – to establish and check progress over time
  3. Curricular assessment – informing teaching and intervention programmes
  4. Evaluative assessment – for evaluating research hypotheses

Link to Enabling Education Research Bulletin

Working as Part of a Group

Group activities may be challenging for autistic students with SLD, therefore the parent or professional may need to teach this skill specifically for example, start with only two in the group and build up from there.  

Two examples of small groupwork effective for supporting autistic learners develop skills are Circle Time and using LEGO.  

Circle Time in a school setting is recognised for being effective in supporting learners with SLD:

  • Increases tolerance of social proximity
  • Practises previously taught social skills
  • Includes peers in a group activity
  • Uses their emerging receptive language skills
  • Helps their understanding abstract concepts (e.g., calendar, weather)
  • Develops sustained attention

Circle Time can provide predictability and consistency if held at the same time every day, in the same location, with similar activities.

Using LEGO as a group activity involves working together to construct a pre-planned, pre-organised, item.  LEGO offers,

  • A sense of control: providing predictability and consistency, by being able to interact with something which plays by an unchanging set of rules
  • A sense of achievement: completing a task that is understood and when taught can be accomplished independently 
  • A sense of development: achieving in a task that can then be differentiated and developed and can become a bigger group task

Link to Laura Tate description of Lego Therapy
Link to Building Capacity Resource

The teaching process may need to be differentiated to ensure the voice of each learner is heard.  To achieve this teachers and professionals can provide a range of tools depending on the needs of each learner.  Parents and professionals should be cognisant of the fact, that at different times, on different days or even the same day, in different or even similar situations, the learner may prefer a different means of interaction. 

Switches: Use switches for regular repetitive phrases throughout the story.

Sound effects: Record sound effects on switches. Sound boards or microphones to play back or use for sequencing activities.

Symbol supports: Visual supports, photos, symbols, scans of book, text.

Building Capacity Resource
Best Practice Resource
NCSE Supports
NCSE Occupational Therapy Support
NCSE Information Booklet for Parents of Children and Young People with Special Educational Needs
Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools

Additional Supportive Resources