Children with high functioning autism in SEMH settings. Are they failing at education or is education failing them? (Guest post)

Children with high functioning autism in SEMH settings. Are they failing at education or is education failing them? (Guest post)

An SEMH school leader, Graham Chatterley has become a regular guest-blogger for Axcis. In this post, he discusses the suitability of an SEMH setting for students with high functioning autism, and what mainstream settings can do to better support children on the spectrum.


The range of needs that we work with in SEMH is vast, and on the whole the children are in the right place and we are the best option to meet their needs. Smaller classes, more staff time, more individualised learning and more understanding of how to get the best out of the children, is what they need and on the whole our children make enormous progress. Unfortunately during our process of looking beyond the behaviour and focussing on the child, there are times when the lower level behaviours have to be ignored. We cannot tackle every swear word and every piece of aggression in a punitive way because that is the approach that failed them and why they ended up in the SEMH setting in the first place. So we have to be different and we have to approach the children’s learning in a different way.


Balance is important but it is the different approach and looking at the reason they are being aggressive or abusive that allows us to build relationships. It is far easier to row with somebody who rows back and gives them something to 'fuel the fire' . It is much harder to continue an argument with someone who won’t take you on, in the end you feel silly or just give up.


Children who have anger which comes from trauma, or rejection, or frustration at a learning difficulty are rightly placed with us and we can teach them to manage that anger, re-build self-esteem and make them better prepared for society. These are children who come to us filled with negative emotions which no school could have been prepared or equipped for. They were already exhibiting abusive language, aggression and violence long before they changed setting. They need a setting like ours and the alternative things we can offer. Often in these intense situations, we are not even dealing with the child themselves, but rather a fear and emotional defence mechanism they have created in order to survive the life experiences they have had. By seeing through this, not engaging with it and allowing the child to come through it we can teach them self-control.


For so many children (like our majority) who have experienced attachment trauma in one form or another and are overpowered by their emotions, we are equipped to manage them well. However, there are still children coming to us who are portrayed on paper as angry and aggressive who in reality are nothing like that. The reason they are angry and aggressive does not come from home. It is not an emotional defence mechanism created to survive because of abuse or neglect or rejection. It is because their mainstream school hasn’t taken the time to understand them and their different needs. They haven’t noticed that their way of learning is different - because their autistic needs aren’t obvious they are misunderstood and the following pattern often emerges:


  • Due to the fact they are intelligent, when the child with autism has said they don’t understand something they are dismissed as work-avoiding.
  • When they have pursued an explanation they may have been seen as difficult.
  • When they haven’t received the explanation they will want to know why.
  • They will then have been told they are behaving incorrectly.
  • They don’t want anyone to think badly of them and want to explain themselves because being ‘naughty’ was never their intention.
  • They get accused of answering back.
  • When they challenge this they are told they are being defiant.


Put yourself in this child’s shoes, would you not be frustrated? Would you not be angry? Is it not possible that could bubble over into aggression? What if this happens every day?


I’m sure many of us have been in a position where we couldn’t get a point across, get people to listen to us and felt like we were speaking a foreign language. This is how many children with high functioning autism often feel in mainstream school and sometimes that frustration boils over. The decision then is what do we do with them - the options are:


  • Recognise the child’s needs and adapt our practice to suit, try hard to understand their differences and how they learn. Help them understand themselves, why they find situations difficult and offer a safe place. Thereby allowing them to achieve in a mainstream setting.
  • Identify their autistic needs, explain the process to them and the reasons for it so they don’t feel rejected and a failure. Then find them a mainstream or specialist setting better equipped to meet their needs and allow them to thrive.
  • See a defiant, naughty child who is difficult and focus on the behaviour not the individual. Explain nothing to them, reject them and leave them thinking there is something wrong with them. At which point the child is often identified as too high ability for an SLD or MLD setting and as a result is sent to an SEMH setting.

What is best for the child?

‘I wish I had known sooner why I was different to everyone else, it would have helped me so much’

I’m not saying that we don’t have success with children with autism. We have had many come through and be very successful. We look way beyond the behaviours, allow them to understand why they find situations challenging, improve social skills and most importantly get them to understand why they are different. If I had a £1 for every time a child gets to the end of their time with us or comes back as an adult and says ‘I wish I had known sooner why I was different to everyone else, it would have helped me so much’ I could retire now. We can help them to understand why people won’t always 'get them' and how to be themselves successfully in society. These are the priorities for these children - the academic stuff will take care of itself with an adaptive way of explaining. We can signpost them towards a career with an employer who will cherish their differences and see the potential. Sadly, this won’t happen if self-esteem is so low and anxiety so high they are scared to put themselves out there. However, there is no reason why mainstream settings can’t do these things. The problem for children with autism lies in the fact they will fit in even less around the children in an SEMH setting and they will pick up behaviour they would not have previously had - like bad language for example, because it is hard for them to distinguish what is correct and normal behaviour. Their ideal learning environment is one with reduced stimulus which is hard to offer them when they are surrounded by children in crisis. In reality, so many high functioning autistic children do not need an SEMH setting, they probably don’t even need an alternative curriculum, extra academic support, mentoring or smaller class sizes. They simply need somebody to take the time to understand them and the fact that their brain works a little differently.

How can teachers help to support autistic children more effectively? 

  • If the child says they don’t understand then it’s because there is something they don’t understand. It may not be an obvious thing but be willing to explain it differently
  • Don’t ask them to move on! Don’t tell them it doesn’t matter! For a child with Autism this is impossible. Problems have to be solved and unless they are, there will be no moving on and the child will become more and more frustrated - and frustration can lead to aggression.
  • Don’t assume! Just because something doesn’t bother us or appears minor does not mean it’s nothing to them. Noises, textures and smells can be big things - and for a child with autism a scratching sound which seems negligent to us can feel like an alarm going off. Simply being aware of this and reducing exposure may be all that is required.


If we can make these concessions and become more aware of high functioning autistic children and the behaviours they may exhibit, then we can better support them. These children and young people can then manage successfully in mainstream settings and never need to feel that they are a failure or that they don’t fit in and need to be sent to an alternative provision.

Are you looking for SEND staff or work?

If you're looking for a SEND teaching or support job in England or Wales, why not register with Axcis, the SEND recruitment specialists? Or perhaps you need to recruit staff for your school or provision? If so, why not take a look at the Axcis Website, or get in touch today to find out how we can help?


Emily Marbaix