Spoon Theory and Autism.

My friend @AnnMemmott who blogs at  http://www.annsautismblog.co.uk  first introduced me to the Spoon Theory in relation to autism.  It was originally created by Christine Miserandino when asked about her chronic illness, (you can read the original post here http://www.butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/ ) but is a great way of helping us understand why school and college is such hard work for autistic children and young people (CYP) .  @aspiemusings has also written a good post about how it relates to her as an autistic adult. http://musingsofanaspie.com/2014/10/15/conserving-spoons/

Let’s imagine that the social, sensory and intellectual energy an autistic person has each day can be measured in spoons.

An autistic person can start the school or college or work day with a full drawer (which may be only half as full as a typical child) or with some of their spoons already used up in dealing with the demands of getting there.  Depending on various factors such as whether they slept, if their family remembered to say goodbye the right way, if their clothes are itching their skin, if their routine was changed, or any number of other seemingly incidental events, they may be starting the day with, say, only 5 spoons instead of 10.

Then they need to start using their spoons.  Each set of instructions, each set of work demands, each time they have to organise themselves, follow a complex set of instructions or cope with change, and each social interaction may cost the autistic person a spoon.  If there are sensory sensations that are overwhelming, then another spoon is used up in regulating and keeping calm. If they have to work in a group more than one spoon may be needed. Break times are not relaxing, another spoon or two is used up in coping with all the social interaction, noise and lack of structure.  Some  manage to save a spoon by shutting off, taking the time to be alone, so that they can cope with the next set of lessons.

I hope you can see what might be happening

So you have a child or young person who seems okay in the morning but always seems to lose it in the afternoon.  Or they won’t join in anything at break times and paces around the perimeter of the yard or social space.  Or a person who has meltdowns some days but is fine on other days.  Or parents ask you what you are doing to their child as they always have a meltdown as soon as they come out of school…and getting them to do homework is impossible.  You may have a colleague at work who seems not to be able to speak to you on some days, unable to socialise and seems distracted and distressed.

You might assume you need more structure in the afternoons.  You might assume you need to teach the person some social skills so they can make friends at break times. You might assume the parent isn’t disciplined enough.  You might put all kinds of practical support in place, but it doesn’t really work.

It may just be that the autistic person has used up all their spoons.  They have no communication, organisation, sensory, social or intellectual energy left.  They might just be able to keep it together in the morning, but then are far too exhausted to carry on in the afternoon.  Some days there may be no spoons to deal with the things they usually seem okay with.  They might even be able to keep it together through the day but cannot contain themselves in the safety and familiarity of their home.  Some even manage to borrow spoons from the next day but there will be a day when there are no spoons left to borrow and the person has a major meltdown. 

credit: picture from https://musingsofanaspie.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/my-spoons.jpg

We can help by recognising the limited amount of spoons an autistic person may have.  We can help them conserve their spoons to last through the day and we can help them find ways of finding ways to add to their supply (not as easy as it sounds). Through:

  • Giving them calming sensory breaks which are timetabled and regular.
  • Look at your environment and see where you can make it calmer and more accessible, considering the persons sensory needs.
  • Break tasks and instructions into more manageable chunks, give them visual or written reminders so they can check them and allow them time to do each one.
  • Support organisation and set up a communication system where the autistic person can let you know if they are struggling.  Be aware that many find this difficult especially when it demand using a ‘communication spoon’ and they may not be able recognise that they are struggling until it is too late.   But structuring tasks for them whether through a list, visual schedule, practical equipment or a writing frame can still help.  It will be useful if you can learn to ‘read’ their autistic non-verbal communication and know when to reduce demands. 
  • Let the person do activities related to their special interests.  If the topic doesn’t lend itself to this, then allow them time with their interests once the task is finished. 
  • Let them request ‘time out’ or a break.  It is important for the autistic person to recognise when things are getting too much for them and request a break before frustration and overload leads them to communicate this in behaviours or reach the point where they cannot cope and meltdown happens. But this may take a lot of support to help them learn to recognise their pwn state. 
  • Let them have alone time at break times if they want to.  Or give them alternative things to do, especially at lunch times. Social interaction can be encouraged at other times when they have the spoons to cope with it.
  • Make sure they are able to do homework and be as flexible as possible about it.  Ask yourself if they really need to do it at that point.  See if there is a way they can do something more interesting to them such as a project about their special interest. Or for many of our students, homework is just the ‘straw that breaks the camels back’ and we need to cut it our altogether.  
  • If the person is having a minimal spoon start to the day, increase the sensory breaks, reduce the social and work demands and expect that they will find it much harder to concentrate.

If you understand the autistic person and they can trust you, they won’t take advantage of your adaptations, they will feel safe, understood and be able to cope with more challenges than maybe you thought possible.  Maybe you should keep a couple of spoons on your desk with the person’s name on, and remove one when things are not going so well for them.   Then think about how you would cope with just one spoon left and no way of buying any more. 

Have a look at the rest of my website for free resources, information about training and courses I deliver and great autism links.   

Building good relationships with parents of autistic children.

image from http://quotesgram.com/

“We don’t see that behaviour at school”

“He’s doing it on purpose, he gets away with it at home”

“There’s no structure at home, you know”

These are some of the comments we might hear in the staff room. It certainly not from all teachers or teaching staff, and it’s certainly not heard in many schools I work with.  But during training discussions or the occasional, off-the-cuff remark, there is an underlying search to find blame for an autistic child’s behaviour.   Especially when they have meltdowns,  in school or at home.   Or if the behaviour is a controlling or manipulating behaviour.   No teacher likes to think a child is trying to manipulate them.  We are human after all.

Parents of autistic children are as human as the rest of us.  Some are so overwhelmed they don’t know what to do, some are given a diagnosis and then dropped into a black hole of nothing – no advice, no courses, no strategies, no support.  Some are dealing with their own difficulties, some families are broken and dealing with issues beyond what we may know.   Some families are trying everything they can, do all the research, attend all the courses and know their child’s needs inside out.

We have to start with a basis that parents love their autistic child, want the best for them and need support and understanding from the school system to help them travel this journey with a child with additional needs.  No matter what their circumstances the very first barrier they come up against is judgement.  The SEND system is complex and weighted against getting sometimes just the basic resources in place for their child. 

Sometimes, as we discuss behaviour on a course I am presenting, the teaching staff want to know how much of a child’s behaviour is because the parent isn’t doing a good job.   It can sound like a need to explain why they are finding the child’s behaviour difficult to control, manage or change.   Obviously I do explain how supporting a child who has high anxiety, sensory overloads, constant need for routines and familiarity, and difficulty with social relationships (including the interactions with family members) as well as trying to develop a safe, loving, constant, predictable and supportive life for their child is just as much a learning journey for the parent as it is for the school.   We only have the child in our class for one year in a primary school or a few lessons a week if at secondary school.   The parent has the child’s whole life to think of and that will be their focus.   They will be worried that their needs will not be met.  They will worry about admitting that they can’t help their child with their meltdown’s or other behaviours.   They will worry about them growing up and needing care when they aren’t there.   They will worry whether they could ever get married, have children, hold down a job.

And school is so often a battleground.  Parents have to fight to get their child’s needs met.  They have to try to understand this complex SEND process and the tons of paperwork, appointments and in-depth questioning of their family life just to get some help for their child at school.  (Some parents know the SEND law far better than schools, because they have had to).  It can take YEARS just to get a basic assessment and diagnostic services are hugely underfunded and the waiting lists are LONG.  In the meantime, the child still has needs to be met and we have to be careful not to refuse to look at what those needs might be in school because there is no diagnosis yet.  As teachers we are bound by the law to do Quality First Teaching for all, and to implement the Graduated Approach in assessing, planning, doing and reviewing the support for a child with SEND.  

Parents are well aware that their autistic child is often under great stress just to manage the social, communication and curriculum demands of each day.    And yes, occasionally, some parents will be getting it wrong.  But who are we to use that against them?   It’s our job as teachers to do all we can to make school work for an autistic child, and where possible work with parents in a professional and positive way.   Every bit of effort you put into building a positive relationship with parents (even those who start off very defensive or even aggressive) will pay off and can help the child in ways you couldn’t do without it.

So here are my top tips for working with parents.

  • Communicate. Communicate.  Communicate.  Plan this so it is manageable and set an agenda for chats if you need to.  I encourage schools to set a regular time to talk to parents about what their child is doing in school.  For example, every Thursday after school for ½ hour.  Or every 2 weeks for so many minutes.  Whatever time you can make or is available.  Email each other, but put safe boundaries in for you both to understand.  This can help prevent parents and teachers or TAs getting frustrated about when they can meet up and prevent getting into the habit of meeting EVERY afternoon which isn’t sustainable.  Some parents like a list of points they can prepare for, others just want to ‘offload’.  Remember you can’t solve all the problems they are having.  Often all they need is for someone to listen.   If you have agreed the timescale before-hand, make sure you give your full attention to them for that time you have promised.
  • When you talk to parents don’t make it a list of everything the child has done wrong.  Tell them important news about what’s happening in school, what their child has done well and celebrate excellent moments.  Many autistic children do not tell their parents anything about school.  School is school, home is home.   Some are too exhausted to recall what has been for them a stressful day, even when things have gone well.  You could use our visual home – school sheet. 
  • Remember that parents do know their children best.   Ask, listen and learn from them.
  • Consider using a home-school diary.  Share bullet points about the events of the day and a general overview of the child’s positive moments.   If the child is non-verbal you could use a picture based record  You could use our visual home – school sheet. 
  • part of the worksheet for communicating with home from school
  • Parents do need to know about serious incidents but these should be spoken about by phone or face to face rather than third hand (from other parents) or via the home-school book.
  • Invite parents to contribute the targets in the child’s IEP.  We used to have ways the parent could (if they wanted) generalise the target at home.  This was particularly useful for communication, social and independence targets.  
  • Find out where they can get extra help / support for issues that are beyond school.  A list of local support groups for a variety of SEND needs can be put on the schools website.

I’m sure there are many more ideas.  Please do share your good practice in the comments.  There’s too many parents of children with SEND /Autism who find school communication frustrating, patronising and difficult.  It doesn’t have to be.  And if it does break down because there is a parent who doesn’t want to work with school, then we stay professional and still do the right thing.  It’s our job. 

resource made by Lynn McCann @ReachoutASC


We are all different…So why don’t they see it?

I’ve been doing some work with some girls with Autism Spectrum Condition recently and they have been amazingly perceptive about the reasons why they are left out, teased or ignored by their peers.  All of them have talked about not understanding why all the other girls want to be the same as each other and why one minute they are as nice as anything to them, and another time nasty and cruel.  (Two faced!) This is a poem we wrote together based on their comments.

Don’t they just have a point!

We’re all different, then why are they all trying to be the same?

We’re all different.

From the nails on our toes

To our nose, that’s how it goes

Don’t you know?

So why do you insist

On trying to persist

In being the same

Surely it’s a game?

I don’t understand

Why you call me weird

I seem to be feared

But you don’t make sense,

When you dye your hair

To look like her, and her, and her

Losing yourself

On an identical shelf.

Me, I’m different

In the wiring of my brain

But it would be insane

If we were all the same.

Autism makes sense to me

But you don’t, you see

You pretend you fit

Why won’t you admit

We’re all different

From the comfort we need

And the lives we will lead.

Let’s embrace who we are

And forget to compare.

(C) Lynn McCann 8.1.16 

What support do teachers need to effectively teach autistic pupils?

Primary teachers are the most creative people I know.   In just one day they explain, instruct, present, make, demonstrate, coach, advise, organise, design, guide, adapt, mentor, listen, comfort, laugh, cry and

…oh and of course, teach!

Each day there are around 30 individual human beings in our care and we want to nurture them, develop their talents, teach them the curriculum and see them make progress.   We want to help them get along with others and contribute to the world.

If one or more of those children are autisitc then primary teachers want the same things for those children.   But an autisitc child may need us to be more adaptable, do things in a different way and build a support structure around them that meets their individual needs. 


Some teachers feel confident in doing this, especially if they have had some SEND training.  Others don’t.  And that’s okay,  as long as the support for the teacher is available. All teachers can earn and adapt what they do if given the right training and advice.

Having been a primary classroom teacher for fourteen years before becoming a teacher in a specialist autism school, I was always aware that busy primary classroom teachers were crying out for practical class-based ideas and resources when it came to supporting the autistic pupils in their class.   Now, as an independent specialist autism teacher working with schools all over Lancashire, I have been providing that support for teaching staff that has made a real difference for autistic pupils. It’s a joy to see a child thrive and often, some consistent and simple adjustments can make all the difference.

The key is to help teachers understand that being autistic is not a set of deficits, but a array of strengths, differences and sometimes challenges. At the centre is a unique and individual child.   I’ve written the book to be a helpful guide for classroom teachers, teaching assistants and even parents who want to know what help could be given to their child in school.  The book begins by explaining what autism is, and how it might look in different children, including girls.  The following chapters give teachers practical advice about adapting the environment, supporting communication, using visuals, and accessing the curriculum.  There are chapters about sensory processing and behaviour support, social stories and developing independence.  I also share how to support social relationships in ways that build on the child’s strengths and helps them understand the world around them.  Finally, I give advice on how to support change and transition, particularly to the next stage of a child’s education….secondary school!

Throughout the book, I have taken a developmental approach.  Each chapter looks at how the strategies might look in the Early Years, then into KS1 and into KS2.  That way, SENCOs can support a child through the whole school and teachers can dip in and out of the book so that the strategies and support match the actual stage the child is at, rather than it being ‘you must do this or that at this age’. It comes with a CD ROM with some helpful printable resources.  One of these is a handy social interaction tracking sheet so that you have a way of supporting the child’s development in this area and tracking their progress.  It’s autism specific and covers aspects not usually covered in the curriculum tracking systems we use in schools.

I hope teachers, teaching assistants, SENCOs, Head Teachers and parents might use this book as a handbook to dip in and out of as the autistic child goes through the primary school.  Fill it with post-its, underline and highlight passages and write in the margins! Have it with you as you plan and write IEPs or review targets. 

And my greatest wish is that the autistic child in your class will be happy, feel accepted and given the support to thrive.

And now you can do our CPD Accredited course with Schudio TV and presented by Lynn, online for just £20 see here for the primary course  and here for the secondary course

You can order this book through amazon or the LDA website here

And the secondary book Here. 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Post 16 Transition for students with SEND / ASC.

At this time of year many secondary teachers are thinking about the looming GCSE’s for their Y11’s and may also be thinking about what happens next for their students. If a student has SEND / ASC then there are additional challenges when leaving school and moving on to the next step in their educational lives.

I often find that the student’s themselves realise in Y10 that they will soon be leaving school. For some they may be so relieved that it’s all they want to think about.  For other’s it’s such a massive change in their lives, after all, being at school is all they’ve ever known, that the anxiety it causes can seriously impact on their concentration, mental wellbeing and motivation in school.  Some are so anxious, they cannot bear to talk about it.

This blog is co-written by @Mr_ALNCo an FE Teacher who’s created a role for a Transition Support Worker at his FE college in South Wales. First I am going to look at transition to college or training from the viewpoint of the school, and James is going to offer advice from the college’s point of view.

from www.do2learn.com

What Secondary Schools can do.

The Y10 and Y11s I work with who have ASC are often very worried about leaving school. However, working with them to explain what leaving will be like, what options they have and developing some plans that enable them to see the way ahead can be really important. If they have an EHCP then transition meetings should start in Y9. By the time they get to Y11, the meetings should be with the college or other establishment they are going to go to and make a plan of support that the student and their parents can contribute to.  If no EHCP their needs are still important and preparing them for college or apprenticeships is just as important.

  1. Include their parent’s ideas and start with a familiar member of staff who knows the student well.  With the student, work out a number of choices they have for the their future. Talk about their aspirations, their favourite interests and subjects they might do well in.  I use a decision making visual to look at the pros and cons of each option, including what grades might be needed (and what option is available with lower grades if relevant.) This information is shared with parents and the family given time to explore and discuss with their child. I have done this in Y9 to help a student choose their options, but mainly with Y10s and Y11s,  depending on the individual.
  2. Use the internet to research the possible colleges and courses the student might be interested in. There are often a few places to choose from, depending on your area. School 6th Forms might be good for some students for familiarity, but for others might be limited on choice of subjects. Every student will need treating individually to find what will work for them.
  3. Find out what apprenticeships are offered and if support is available for their SEND needs. Present that information to the student and their family, and encourage parents to arrange some visits to these places as early as possible. One student I have worked with has been set up with a farming apprenticeship in conjunction with the family, a local college and a local farm. All bespoke for him.
  4. Talk to the student about growing up and teach them some practical life skills, again working together with parents. Using public transport, making phone calls, sending emails, using money and paying for things are really important skills to help them move on from school into post 16 life.
  5. Plan, talk, prepare, visit, familiarise, support and talk positively about the next stage. But don’t overdo it. They still have to finish their time at school and some pupils with SEND /ASC might not be able to cope with thinking about exams and college. In that case, plan some transition support after GCSEs have finished. One school I worked with brought the student back into school after GCSEs and he worked with his previous TA on getting ready for college with great success.

And now from @Mr_ALNCo

What Colleges can do.

Transition for learners with SEND/ALN is something that traditionally is rather inconsistent across the FE sector in Wales or where it is consistent, the chance to share this good practice is often limited. Many practitioners who work with learners with SEND/ALN know the importance a good transition pathway into college can have for learners.

I am lucky, in that I have a supportive Principal and Vice Principal who supported my view of the importance of transition, allowing me to create a specific role to help support transition and reviews within the college. A new post which we feel will have huge beneficial impact.

Much like the Local Area Reviews now taking place in England, Wales has seen a huge change in make-up of its FE provision over the past years, resulting in fewer, larger, more resilient colleges.

In addition to this, the Welsh Government has introduced a bill into the Senedd in Cardiff Bay which, if passed, will bring about the biggest change to the SEN system in Wales for the past 30 years. Much like the duties contained Children and Family Act 2014, (although there are some differences), FE, for the first time will have new statutory duties, one of which is to maintain an Individual Development Plan for learners with SEN/ASD. If you want to know more, visit the Welsh Government’s ALN pages on its website.

It is crucial that FE in all areas start to plan for this now. If we want better outcomes for our learners with SEND/ALN we need to make sure that they get the best possible start in college. How then can we ensure this happens? From a FE perspective looking out to fellow practitioners in schools, the 4 elements below go some way to helping

  1. Link with your college’s Learning Support department. There are many talented and caring professionals who can advise on course choice, adjustments and transition arrangements. Open up the lines of communication and don’t be afraid to ask questions
  2. Share any relevant material which will help support the learner. If the learner has a One Page Profile, this is a great way for staff in college to get to know the learner.
  3. Invite the college to any Annual Reviews which are taking place for learners who are expressing an interest in college. The more we know about the learners’ aspirations and support requirements, the easier it will be to work together.
  4. Many colleges hold open days and bespoke events in quieter times for learners with SEND/ALN, if not contact the college who will normally be more than willing to arrange a bespoke meeting/tour. Our college has recently introduced VR tours, something that fellow FE colleague, Joe Baldwin has used as a powerful transition tool.

For each learner, we hold a review within the first term to see how they are settling into college. This gives us an opportunity to change the things that aren’t working and continue the things that are working well.

Much like our learners, we as a college are always learning.


You can access our FREE course with Schudio TV about transitions, including an update from Cardiff and Vale College Here