Social Communication Skills in Key Stages 3 and 4

Awareness of self and others

** The diagram illustrates some of the main issues for pupils with social communication difficulties in Key Stages 3 and 4. Rather than developing separate social communication skills, a more useful way to support the pupils’ communication is to focus on the issue and identify the skills needed to manage that situation. For example, to manage leisure time, pupils need to:

  • Understand the concepts of choice and leisure
  • Be able to make that choice and communicate it to others
  • Develop the vocabulary (spoken, signed or symbol) for their choices e.g. preferred activities; leisure facilities; outings.
  • Understand and follow a sequence of events (what, when, where, who, for how long). The Social Story approach may be helpful here.
  • Know how to get to and back from the leisure facility
  • Understand how to use the facility e.g. admission, toilet, lockers, cafe etc.
  • Be able to request their chosen activity and any equipment
  • Ask for help when needed
  • Share an activity with a peer
  • Communicate their feelings in a socially acceptable way
  • Be aware of others’ needs and feelings

See also: Guidelines for supporting people with autism in the workplace and Work Placement Checklists - Appendix 8

** Working with pupils on the autism spectrum in key stages 3 and 4


  • Communication Passports support communication within and between staff teams. They should contain pupil’s views plus key issues/information for pupil to share with staff and visiting practitioners. Remember to keep them updated. See Appendix 6
  • Not understanding the language of instruction, of information and of expectation is the root cause of many difficulties in school:
    • Attention differences. Be aware of joint attention issues e.g. looking at the teacher wherever he is speaking from; staying focused on tasks of others’ choosing; coping with sensory distractions. Discuss with the pupil.
    • Language processing differences slow the pupil’s understanding of spoken information. Adjust your language to give the pupil extra time to think and respond.
    • Literal understanding of language causes difficulty understanding intonation and figures of speech e.g. rhetorical questions, sarcasm, implied meanings, metaphors, jokes. Be very specific - say what you mean and mean what you say. - Non-verbal communication is also affected. This includes when and how to use eyegaze, gestures, facial expression and proximity. Keep yours simple. Don’t insist on eye-contact.
    • Work to the pupil’s strength - use visual means of teaching and learning e.g. written instructions, information and key words; diagrams; tables; charts; maps; illustrations; photos; objects.
    • Consider Technically Enhanced Learning (TEL) to help differentiate your teaching by working to the pupil’s visual learning ability. TEL also encourages joint attention and self-directed learning.
    • Provide extra support for subjects with a high language content e.g. English, RE, History.
    • Try proactive learning. Use rehearsal to work on requisite vocabulary/terminology and component skills prior to the lesson instead of trouble-shooting problems during it.
    • Group tasks can be draining because of the social demands of collaborative work. Pupils on the autism spectrum soon reach sensory overload.
    • Home-school communication is vital. Families can supply useful information about the pupil’s anxieties and coping strategies. Try a home
      school diary.

** School - general

  • An autism-friendly school organises understanding and awareness training for the whole staff and develops whole-school autismfriendly policies, as recommended in the DfCSF Inclusion Development Programme. Has your school got the kite-mark?
  • Rules, sanctions and penalties - make these explicit and inclusive e.g. ‘Every pupil in this school must ‘. Use posters and captions to remind. The individual on the autism spectrum needs to understand why he is being redirected or is receiving sanctions.
  • IEP targets should reflect the three areas of the triad: social understanding and communication; social relationships; social flexibility (thought and action).
  • Homework issues often arise e.g. refusal; not understanding the task; handing in on time; setting time limits.
  • Motivation and using special interests - may need a written contract for when and how long to spend on these e.g. for 5 mins after completing required tasks.


  • Transitions between lessons - visually structure the day, the lesson, the task. Encourage visual forms of self-organisation e.g. schedules and lists.
  • Transition planning - team approach and planning for change are essential. Key transitions: Y6 to Y7, Y9 to Y10 and Y11 to FE etc.
  • Pupils on the autism spectrum also need to be forewarned of changes in routine or planned events. Provide visual information and reminders.


  • Social understanding - the individual with autism doesn’t intend to offend. They tell it like they see it (literal understanding and use of language). Explain the rule or social requirement. Use Social Stories.
  • Social communication issues include conversation skills, informal chat, repetitive questions, obsessional topics. Plan strategies for developing and supporting the individual’s social communication e.g. social skills group.
  • Handling emotions (understanding others’ feelings and expressing own feelings appropriately) can be very difficult. Work on emotions through drama, PSHE/RE, social skills group or Friends Club.
  • Anxiety, stress, anger, self-harming - the emotional backlash is often borne by families. Teach stress management techniques (Emotional Literacy work, brainstorm ‘stress-busters’).


  • Aim for proactive behaviour management:
    • Be aware of sensory issues - try to reduce sensory overload. Issues include personal hygiene, showers, and contact sports.
    • Consider the perspective and learning style of the individual on the autism spectrum e.g. differences in sensory perception and social understanding.

** Free time/Leisure time

  • Break times, school holidays and other unstructured times are often difficult. Teach pupils how to organise their time, for example by using visual schedules, calendars, diaries or planners.
  • Making choices e.g. what to eat or what to wear, may also be challenging.
  • Social interaction with peers (expectations, behaviour, joking, friendly teasing - how can you tell?). Work on friendship skills - concept, strategies for making and keeping friends. ‘Friends’ club and special interest groups.
  • Motivation and using special interests - may need a written contract for when and how long to spend on these e.g. for 5 mins after completing required tasks.

Work experience

  • Be aware that in many cases it is not the absence of a work skill that is the problem, but the coping with the social aspect of the work place.
  • Where possible, provide training (possibly through role play) for likely changes in routines that could be encountered in the workplace.
  • Provide employers with information about the young person, their strengths and likely difficulties as well as how to overcome those difficulties.
  • Risk assessment should be done as to whether the workplace is an ‘autism friendly’ establishment.

Resources for work with pupils in key stages 3 and 4:

There are many excellent resources, locally produced and commercially available, offering guidance for working with pupils autism. The resources listed here give suggestions for addressing aspects of social communication with which pupils in Key Stage 3 and 4 may need support.

A useful source of information is the Lincolnshire Autism/Aspergers Outreach Service, based at:

  • Gosberton House School near Spalding
    (Tel: 01775 840250)
  • St Christopher’s School in Lincoln
    (Tel: 01522 528378)
  • Lincolnshire Support Services
    (Tel: 01522 681600).

Another useful resource is the National Autistic Society website ( which offers a wide range of leaflets, booklets and books, covering the age and ability spectrum.

** This is used throughout the document and refers to puplis with autism

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Last updated: 28 October 2015

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