A while ago (apologies that it HAS been a while), I was asked by a lovely trainee teacher what advice I could give to her on teaching children within the spectrum.
The spectrum is vast – as demonstrated by the above diagram – and although the aspergers diagnosis is disappearing (aspergers is now being referred to as high functioning autism), it’s an opportunity to remember that many different levels, traits and characteristics are contained with that one word.
I asked my followers what advice they would give and it was a resounding request for the following:
Treat every child as an individual. No two children are the same. Although there may be several children with autism in the class, each will have their own traits, anxieties and needs. Do not generalise.
However, many autistic children (and adults) respond better to positive reinforcement and a softly-softly approach when it comes to requests. Sudden noises and raised voices will cause them anxiety and may draw out a situation far longer (for example, an autistic child lashing out through fear) rather than a getting-down-to-their-level and gently finding out what has caused the anxiety.
With regard to positive reinforcement, consider using visual aids (ie a visual timetable), even if the child is verbal, there may be too much background activity for them to focus solely on verbal commands, visual aids will help with transition.
Don’t assume that just because a child is verbal, they necessarily understand. Many children use a form of “learnt script” or “echolalia”. This may mean that they appear to understand what someone else is saying but very often it’s a learnt response.
For example, ask D when her birthday is and she will say 20th May, which is correct. But ask her what the date is the day before her birthday or the day after, or what her birth year was and she is unable to tell you. This is because she’s learnt her birth date but can’t compute the other information.
There was a very good example of this mentioned by the National Autistic Society recently during their Push For Action campaign:
“Our conversation turns to the support some adults need, and a lady called Sally who took part in the Government’s trial assessments for PIP.
“When the assessor asked Sally if she can make her own meals, she said ‘yes’. But she can only make pasta with butter! Sally’s sister had taken more than six weeks to teach her this one meal and she still needs to be prompted and supervised. She’d obviously misinterpreted the question but ended up scoring no points –no wonder people with autism were so worried about those assessments!” The couple beside us turn around as Anna’s voice gets louder.”
Food is mentioned above and this is another point to mention, many individuals on the spectrum have sensory processing disorder and will stick to the food and drink they are familiar with. This does not mean they are “picky” and should not be classed as “difficult” or “fussy eaters”. Do not force them to try unfamiliar foods if it is causing them distress.
D has a fear of jelly, the sight, the texture, that funny squishy noise when a spoon goes in it. This was explained to staff but it did not stop them attempting to make her try some. She didn’t and couldn’t. They were surprised (but I wasn’t) when she then vomited due to anxiety.
The same would apply for new activities, in unfamiliar surroundings.
Take notice of anxiety soothers and calmers, they are carried for a reason. If the soother is not large, not constricting movement and helps the child/adult cope with the environment then it’s not an issue in my book. Better that than the fallout if they are purposefully separated.
For D, it’s Bunny, little Bunny who is either carried in her hand or under her arm if she’s writing/drawing. It used to be a play food asparagus when she was a baby, something easily grabbed and held.
For T, it was laminated Top Trumps cards or laminated football pictures, it’s now a book. Whenever we got out, even if there’s no likelihood of him reading it, it’s something for him to hold and focus on.
Every child is different but there are underlying traits.
Be aware of how lessons are taught, autistic children will take topics literally.
For example, D’s teacher last year ran an initiative on healthy eating and made great emphasis on “good” and “bad” foods. See my post on Lunchbox wars here. Her teacher at the time didn’t understand the consequences of her using “good” and “bad”, which D interpreted as she must not eat certain foods at all.
A home-school diary is a great idea, as long as it’s used. If a school commits to one, it should be completed. It doesn’t have to be pages and pages but parents like to (and need to) know what their child has been doing at school. The information can be used as a prompt to engage conversation, which if the child is anxious about their day/or has stilted speech or non-verbal is vital.
Of course, a diary works two ways, so read what a parent has written and acknowledge it, even if it’s just by an initial.
There can never be too much information when communicating about an SN child, never.
This is the one piece of feedback that came through time and time again:
Listen to the parents/carers. They know the child best of all. There will be times when they get emotional in meetings, in parents evenings, in class. That’s because they love their child very much, feel protective of them and want the best for them. They’re also probably running the gauntlet of emotions with the diagnostic process/the statementing process/the LEA/GP/CAMHS/OT – you name it – and they’re probably exhausted physically and emotionally.
Our autistic children are not just numbers and a budget figure on a spreadsheet, they are great individual children/young adults who with the right support and guidance will enjoy their school life. And they deserve to.