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Supporting development of a sense of self with autistic pupils

Autism sense of self

Principal Investigator

Professor Nick Hodge

Research team

Helen Basu Chaudhuri, Dr Jill Pluquailec and Dr Lisa Reidy

The team also included a researcher from each participating school, whose contributions to the project were critical and we would like to acknowledge and thank them for their work. We are unable to credit them by name, to preserve the anonymity of the schools.

Project date


This project involved researchers from Sheffield Hallam working with educators as co-researchers across four schools to explore how staff conceptualise and respond to the notion of sense of self in relation to autism.

Research questions from the project were:

  • What does ‘sense of self’ mean, to both educators and autistic pupils?
  • How do ideas about the self develop for those with and without autism?
  • How do schools support and nurture a developing sense of self for autistic pupils?

Project findings - Educators:

  • Reflected from the perspective of the autistic pupils
  • Demonstrated awareness of and sensitivity to the role of social, cultural and physical environments on development of the sense of self
  • The term ‘sense of self’ was not immediately accessible to staff and so was not specifically considered and addressed as a concept
  • Strategies of support for development of a sense of self were mixed across schools with a varied level of focus on ‘sense of self’
  • Educators recognise that autistic and non-autistic people face many of the same challenges with development of a positive sense of self
  • Yet educators still ‘specialise’ and set apart the autistic pupil through use of 'us' and 'them'.

Project findings - Autistic Pupils:

  • For younger pupils and some older pupils who demonstrated less self-awareness, educators focused on developing sense of self through distinguishing oneself from others, identifying interests, skills and challenges and relationships with significant others
  • Some older pupils with developed levels of self-awareness seemed to educators to feel out of place, excluded and not belonging. These pupils tried to mask their perceived differences at great emotional cost, or
  • Defiantly celebrated difference and built an empowering identity around the category.


  • There needs to be more discussion in schools about what it means to have a positive sense of self and how best to support autistic pupils with achieving this.
  • Some pupils will benefit from being enabled to connect with other autistic people through a framework of activism engagement that could support them with relocating the ‘problem’ of autism outside of the self and within the external attitudes and practices that marginalise, devalue and excluded autistic people.

A journal article featuring this research is currently under review and due for publication: @ResearchSEND ‘Using Research to Change Classroom Practice’.


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