Strengths and barriers to student academic success

14 Mar 2024

To be genuinely inclusive, education systems and practices need to effectively support the strengths and meet the needs of diverse learners. Building on the success of Autism CRC’s school years program, Autism CRC’s Removing educational barriers in Australian schools for autistic students (REBAS) project sought to:

  • furthering our understanding of current educational strengths and needs of all autistic learners, including those with high and complex needs or those who are multiply marginalised
  • identifying what is working and not working well in inclusive education practice for autistic learners.

The project developed several outputs, including:

Policy review

Across Australia, state and territory education departments have developed inclusive policies and guiding documents. However, responsibilities for developing and enacting education policies have been blurred between federal and the state-level.

The policy review has identified strengths, gaps, and needs in the education system to enhance autistic students' opportunities and achieve better learning outcomes.

Analysing the education policies and documents of states and territories draws attention to the need for a national approach to provide more overt and systematic policy support for inclusion in school settings.

Overall, 20 recommendations were made for policy, research, and practice to progress inclusive education in Australia.

Read the Monograph

Perspectives on the strengths, needs, enablers, and barriers to student academic success

As part of the overarching REBAS project the team also sought to explore the perspectives of autistic students, and those supporting autistic students, in relation to the strengths, needs, enablers and barriers related to a student’s academic success.

Read the White Paper

The educational success of autistic students relies upon support from parents and caregivers, teachers and allied health professionals. These groups have differing but vital roles. The following is a summary of the perspectives of adults who took part in a survey to compare where perspectives were the same or different. These included:

  • 64 parents and caregivers
  • 37 educators
  • 33 allied health practitioners.


Across the stakeholder groups, the main strengths identified were related to personality, thinking and reasoning. Teachers and allied health professionals most often highlighted thinking and reasoning as autistic students’ main strength.

Teachers tended to emphasis students flexible thinking style and ability to creatively problem solve, whereas allied health professionals typically noted student’s passion and interest in their school subjects.

Although one-third of parents also emphasised student passion and interest in school, parents placed a greater emphasis on personality, particularly student’s kindness and respect.

Teachers and allied health professionals, while also identifying personality as a strength, tended to focus more on honesty, determination and desire to do well in school as positive traits.

A key difference between stakeholder groups was that one in ten parents identified academic skills as a strength, whereas teachers rarely mentioned this, and allied health professionals didn’t mention it at all.


The different stakeholder groups were relatively consistent with each other regarding autistic student’s needs, with classroom support and accommodations accounting for over 40% of responses for parents, teachers and allied health professionals.

Social needs were also emphasised by all groups, through parents highlighted having social needs met, whereas teachers and allied health professionals tended to emphasis learning social skills.

This highlights the tendency for parents to be more concerned with student’s needs being met, rather than a need for students to change.

This is also apparent in responses related to students’ emotional needs. Parents reported a greater need for support for students’ mental health and self-esteem than other stakeholder groups, with responses often mentioning depression and anxiety.

Teacher and allied health responses were more focused on skill development, emphasising a need for improved coping skills and emotion regulation in students. Around 10% of parent responses also identify a need for more academic support, where this wasn’t mentioned by teachers and very rarely raised by allied health professionals.

Enablers and barriers

Unlike strengths and needs, enablers and barriers identified by the stakeholder groups were often the same concept but opposites of each other. The most common theme was understanding of autism, which accounted for about a third of barrier and enabler responses.

Poor understanding of autism was the most frequently mentioned barrier, accounting for about 1 in 5 responses. Understanding of autism was highlighted as an enabler, for about 1 in 6 responses.

Schools’ teachers and leaders trained in, and personally motivated to, create inclusive classroom environments as helpful. Support network was also identified as one of the most important enablers for autistic students’ success by all stakeholder groups, accounting for nearly a quarter of all responses.

The supportiveness of school staff was the most frequently mentioned enabler for parents, whereas teacher responses emphasised positive relationships more generally, noting positive connections with both peer and staff as key enablers for student success.

Allied health professionals tended to emphasise an accepting and inclusive school environment more broadly. An accessible and inclusive curriculum was also raised by all stakeholder groups as an enabler.

A lack of flexibility in curriculum, teaching styles, and academic and behavioural expectations were frequently emphasised as barriers by all stakeholder groups. A lack of staff resources and training in how to support autistic students was also highlighted as a barrier, particularly by teachers.

What this means

Overall, our findings highlight the importance of a strengths-based approach that acknowledges and harnesses the strengths and talents of autistic students.

Findings also highlight the importance of developing the understanding and skills of educators and allied health practitioners working with autistic students.

With more knowledge and understanding, autistic students, our educators and practitioners are better placed to identify and provide individualised supports and learning opportunities to promote each student’s strengths and address their needs.