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Understanding the autism spectrum

Autism is a spectrum of conditions characterised by social, communicative, sensory-motor and cognitive difficulties. The social and psychological consequences can be profound. This 20-week module provides an accessible introduction to the autistic spectrum, principles and problems of diagnosis, and biological and psychological approaches to explaining underlying causes. Approaches to care, education and therapy, and issues concerning social support, legal rights and wellbeing of individuals on the autism spectrum are explored. The module is especially relevant to educators, learning support workers and healthcare professionals; parents, siblings, care-givers and able people on the autism spectrum; and all those with an interest in the psychological and health sciences.

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OU qualifications are modular in structure; the credits from this undergraduate-level module could count towards a certificate of higher education, diploma of higher education, foundation degree or honours degree.

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Module code
Study level
1 7 4
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements
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What you will study

The module text, case studies and multimedia materials illustrate the symptoms of autism, the effects on behaviour, psychological functioning and social adaptation, and the consequences for the individual and his or her family. Particular emphasis is given to juxtaposing scientific and clinical approaches with the perspectives of people with autism and their relatives, and to considering the different issues that arise in childhood and the adult years.

The module opens with an introductory overview of autistic conditions. You will then engage with key milestones in the history of work on autism, such as the identification of a ‘triad’ of impairments, and the concept of a spectrum encompassing individuals and sub-groups (such as Asperger Syndrome) differing in terms of symptoms, severity and consequences. You will study the principles and procedures involved in diagnosing autistic conditions, and consider issues such as the implications of autism as a label, and the claim that the prevalence of autism may be on the increase. The module text, case studies and multimedia will guide you through key contemporary approaches to explaining the psychological and biological mechanisms that cause autism. You will then learn about recent developments in methods for helping people on the autism spectrum, and about the issues and choices that must be addressed in both therapy and education. You will engage with family perspectives on autism, considering the impact on relatives, and the complex challenges that families face. The module ends by considering key themes and issues highlighted by the study materials, and identifying the challenges that lie ahead in the autism field. 

You will learn

By the end of the module you will be able to:

  • explain and illustrate what is meant by the autism spectrum
  • describe and illustrate the main symptoms and manifestations of autism in relation to the core ‘triad’ of difficulties in communication, social interaction and flexibility of thought
  • outline the ways symptoms vary in their expression and severity between individuals and sub-groups on the spectrum, and between children, young people and adults
  • outline the main diagnostic sub-groups within the autism spectrum family of conditions
  • explain the significance of key milestones in the history of autism research and practice
  • consider procedures and issues involved in identifying and diagnosing autistic conditions
  • evaluate claims concerning the prevalence of autism across different time periods and in different populations
  • introduce the main levels of explanation – particularly psychological and biological – necessary to understand the causes and manifestations of autism
  • understand the use of scientific methods in exploring autism and helping people with autism
  • outline and evaluate recent psychological and biological research findings concerning the causes of autism
  • discuss the educational implications of autism and consider the educational options for the child or young person on the autism spectrum
  • outline key approaches to care and therapeutic interventions for people on the autism spectrum and consider the evidence base for each approach
  • discuss issues relating to family, social support needs and adulthood in people on the spectrum
  • consider the implications of ethnic minority and worldwide differences in assumptions about – and provision for – people with autism
  • illustrate the importance of first-person knowledge, alongside scientific insights, in building a complete picture of autism.

Outside the UK

Much of the study material considers autism from a globally relevant perspective, and the module also includes case reports on individuals from different ethnic groups, cultures, genders and ages. However, a number of aspects of the module deal with the person with autism in the context of the UK health, educational and welfare services, and include references to UK provision. The provision of health and education services for autism is likely to differ outside the UK, though many of the overarching issues will still be relevant.

Teaching and assessment


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

The interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs) are at roughly three week intervals throughout the module. The end-of-module assessment (EMA) must be completed and submitted online. There will also be some formative exercises to enable you to monitor your progress throughout the module.

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in November 2015. We expect it to be available for the last time in November 2016.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

Course work includes:

5 Interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs)
End-of-module assessment
No residential school


This is an OU level 1 module. OU level 1 modules provide core subject knowledge and study skills needed for both higher education and distance learning, to help you to progress to modules at OU level 2.

You're not expected to have any knowledge of autism, but you should be able to read and understand written English of a style and complexity characteristic of a professional magazine or quality newspaper. If you have not studied up to GCSE level fairly recently, you should expect to spend longer on the study materials.

It is essential that you establish whether or not your background and experience give you a sound basis on which to tackle the module, since students who are appropriately prepared have the best chance of completing their studies successfully. The package Are you ready for science study? offers an interactive quiz to help you decide whether you already have the recommended background knowledge or experience to start the module.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser

Preparatory work

If you don’t already have the necessary computing and internet skills, we recommend you study sections three and four of the SAFARI materials, provided by the OU Library, before you begin your study of SK124. As an alternative you may wish to take one of the many courses available at your local adult education centre.

If you particularly wish to improve your study skills, you’re strongly advised to read The Sciences Good Study Guide (1997) by A. Northedge, J. Thomas, A. Lane and A. Peasgood, which can be purchased from Open University worldwide. Further advice is available from the Learning with the OU website.


Start End England fee Register
07 Nov 2015 See description £675.00

Registration closes 15/10/15 (places subject to availability)


You may need to apply for some payment or funding options earlier. Please check the Fees and Funding information or contact us for information.

This module is expected to start for the last time in November 2016.

Additional Costs

Study costs

There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as a laptop, travel to tutorials, set books and internet access.

If you're on a low income you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after you register.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your monthly fee and number of instalments based on the cost of the module you are studying. APR 5.1% representative.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).  

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU qualifications are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to achieve one. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in ten OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the qualification you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your modules.  

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Maestro (UK only), Mastercard, Visa/Delta and Visa Electron. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. For example, you may wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Account (OUSBA).

For more information about combining payment options, speak to an adviser or book a call back at a time that is convenient to you.

Please note: your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and therefore the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fees and funding information provided here is valid for modules starting before 31 July 2016. Fees normally increase annually in line with inflation and the University's strategic approach to fees. 

This information was provided on 31/07/2015.

What's included

The module includes one main text The Autism Spectrum in the 21st century: Exploring Psychology, Biology and Practice, a DVD-ROM, online activities, and other supporting materials either printed or delivered through the dedicated website.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this module as the study materials and activities are accessible via a web browser. Any other computer-based activities you will need to carry out, such as word processing, using spreadsheets, taking part in online forums, and submitting files to the university for assessment, are specified in the module materials. If any additional software is needed for these tasks it will either be provided or is freely available. For this module you will also need to install software provided by the OU on a disk or USB stick.

We recommend one of the following:

  • Windows desktop or laptop computer running Windows 7 or later operating system
  • Macintosh desktop or laptop computer running OS X 10.7 or later operating system
  • modern Linux desktop or laptop computer.

A netbook, tablet or other mobile device that supports one of the browsers listed below may be suitable. The screen size should be at least 1024 (H) x 768 (W) pixels. If you intend to use one of these devices please ensure you have access to a suitable desktop or laptop computer in case you are unable to carry out all the module activities on your mobile device.

We recommend a minimum 1 Mbps internet connection and any of the following browsers:
  • Internet Explorer 9 and above
  • Apple Safari 7 and above
  • Google Chrome 31 and above
  • Mozilla Firefox 31 and above.

Note: using the latest version for your browser will maximise security when accessing the internet. Using company or library computers may prevent you accessing some internet materials or installing additional software.

See our Skills for OU study website for further information about computing skills for study and educational deals for buying Microsoft Office software.

If you have a disability

Written transcripts of any audio components and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of printed material are available. Some Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader and mathematical or scientific materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. Extended figure captions are available to assist people with visual disabilities in understanding diagrams. Other alternative formats of the study materials may be available in the future.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students.