How can I help autistic pupils develop more independence in learning tasks?

an adult working with children in a classroom

By Sarah

One of the most common issues we come across when going into schools is children struggling to work without constant prompting.  This can be for a variety of reasons including (but not exclusively) fear of failure, difficulty getting started (the dreaded blank page problem!), distractions in the environment around them, trouble understanding the work or lack of motivation/sense of purpose. Another key factor is that a lot of the children we work with have had a 121 TA with them for years. Often, they haven’t had to ever sit and work by themselves and as a result, they can become dependent on the constant prompts that they are used to.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that some children really do need specific support.  There are many TAs (and teachers) out there are doing their best to help autistic children succeed. You’re all great and you hold schools together – we know this. But what is increasingly common – with expectations for both children and teaching staff becoming increasingly pressurised – is that we as the adults also have a fear of failure when trying to support children’s learning. If they don’t do enough work, our work ethic is scrutinised. If they don’t answer all the questions, our ability is questioned. If they lack motivation, our motivations must be lacking.

So, when you read these suggested strategies please know that they are written from a place of understanding and empathy. They are options, advised tactics, and potential ideas in your toolbox which may work some days but not on other days. They may work wonderfully for Child A but get Child B absolutely nowhere. We know that autism is never one-size-fits-all but hopefully some of these strategies will at least start a conversation about how we can begin to develop some of this much-needed independence in our children (whether autistic or not!)

It is also worth reading the research from the Education Endowment Foundation on the best use of TAs which we discuss in our TA mentoring course.  We think about how we might enable children to think for themselves when faced with a problem and how we might sit back and give them that thinking time, whatever the pressures around us to get on with it are.

diagram of 5 different ways to intervene to help more independence when TA s work with children

From p15

It’s also worth noting that you may be a parent reading this who is home-schooling through choice or necessity. As we go through, I’ll try to suggest ways that this can be adapted for a home environment too, as many of these strategies will be helpful as children try and complete homework or house chores too.

 How can we support autistic children to work independently?

  1. Environment

One of the main struggles for children trying to work in a classroom (or hectic home environment) is the constant distractions around them. They have all the best intentions to sit and focus on their work but somebody is talking nearby, a bird just flew past the window, their seat is uncomfortable and someone just started using the hand dryer after flushing the toilet. Start by checking what your child needs.

  • Ear defenders or putting music on (either out loud or with headphones on) may drown out some other auditory distractions and help them focus.
  • A stability cushion or weighted blanket over their legs may help children feel grounded and calm, enhancing their ability to focus.
  • Sitting alone or further apart from others may be useful, especially if they have a chatty or fidgety table partner/sibling!

Workstations

In order to cut out some of these distractions (especially the visual ones) you could put up a cardboard box around the edge of their table to create a workstation. This creates a wall without making them sit facing a wall and the great thing is that it’s portable. Need it for Maths? Pop it up. Don’t need it during group work in English? Take it down. If you want it to be a more permanent fixture then of course you can leave it up on their own table but it’s nice to have the option. This is useful for parents who want to make it clear to their children when it’s homework time and when it’s playtime. If the workstation is up, it’s time to work. Take it down and the message is clear – work time is finished.

Within the workstation, you may want to personalise it with the child’s name or a couple of pictures but don’t let the workstation get too cluttered. Only get out the resources they need for that lesson – you don’t need every workbook and word mat on display all the time. Cut out the clutter and keep it simple, otherwise it may become a distraction in and of itself!

A cardboard screen with trays to put work to do and finished work in

With all our strategies we recommend that you do them with the child. Please don’t suddenly set it up one Monday morning as a “surprise” – this often doesn’t go down as well as we’d hope! Autistic children often find change difficult, struggle to cope with the unpredictable and many of them have deep seated anxiety and self esteem issues. If you suddenly give them their own table with a workstation all set up without any prior warning they may just end up confused, worried and might even feel like it’s a punishment because they haven’t been working hard enough. Take the time to talk about it with them first, explain that we’re going to give it a go to see if it helps them focus and show them pictures of adult workstations so they recognise that it’s a lifelong strategy that they can use (not anything baby-ish or patronising) like this:

various examples of wall mounted storage and organisation ideas.

photos from Pinterest

 

Let’s leave workstations for now but I’ll come back to them later…

For more info on sensory support check out this blog: https://reachoutasc.com/what-is-a-sensory-diet-and-how-do-i-implement-one-in-my-busy-classroom/

2. Chunking

I don’t know about you but I have a list for just about everything: chores, holiday packing, meal ideas – you name it, I have a list for it. Why do we do it? Often, it’s because our brain appreciates us breaking things down into smaller chunks. It helps us to process what needs doing, things seem more manageable and we get a sense of achievement every time we cross something off. Our aim with the next strategy is to do the same thing with school work. Especially as children get older, they are given whole worksheets full of information or questions and it can be difficult for autistic children to know which bit to focus on first or how to process it all effectively. By breaking it down, we’re making this tricky task a little bit more manageable. It also helps to keep it visual – how many times do you have to give an instruction to tidy their room? Writing it down gives autistic children something to refer back to, thus building independence (and saving your sanity) as you point them back to the visual instead of repeating the instruction.

Work schedules

These are so easy to adapt and personalise for your child, depending on what their interests are, how old they are and how easy/difficult they currently find independent working. The aim is simple – complete short, manageable tasks to work towards a quick, motivational reward. The aim is to keep it visual and work with whatever attention span the child has in order to tick things off. Rather than trying to push them through a big long list of tasks, the work schedule breaks it down into short bursts of productivity with regular breaks in between, supporting them with that visual reminder. 

chart outlining 4 steps to a task with car pictures

 I used this example with a Reception child who couldn’t process more than one instruction at a time. We started with “one instruction = reward” and over time we built it up to following “two instructions = reward” and so on. Does it require patience? Yes. Is it slightly more time consuming to write down/draw the instruction? Yes. But does the child build independence? Yes.

work schedule chart with football pictures. Titles, first, nest, last and sensory activityThis second example is for a child in year 2 who initially loved monster trucks and football! After two weeks of using this, he decided that actually he loved Minecraft more than anything else in the world. No problem – we simply stuck pictures of Minecraft over the other photos and the work schedule was back in business. For this child, he was able to manage 2 or 3 tasks before getting a quick reward. He still needed lots of modelling and scaffolding to begin with but over time, as he became moreImage comfortable and familiar with it, his independence grew.

Note: the reward doesn’t have to be time-consuming or lots of extra work for you. I worked with a year 1 child who loved those little pop up toys so for her, this was a super motivational reward. (We wrote all our numbers to 15 and read a whole reading book in 20mins just by using a 1-step work schedule with the pop up toy as a reward each time).

This third example was used with a child in year 6 who loved the NYPD. When I went back for my first visit after giving them the work schedule his unfiltered autistic honesty shone through as he told me straight up “oh, we never use that!” Goooood. It turns out he was being asked to get through all of morning challenge, all of English, and all of Maths before he got a reward. This is just too much! We want to use this resource to break everything down into little chunks so that the reward is always within reach. Waiting almost 3 hours for a reward may be attainable for children who are already pretty independent or have used a work schedule for a while but as a first step it was too big a jump. For this child, it was also helpful to give him some rules for the reward so that it wasn’t distracting and difficult for others around him. He chose to play a game on the iPad as his reward so we agreed the rules with him and stuck them on his table. Again, visual support and an active discussion helped this strategy to succeed. We don’t want children to feel confused or out of control; these strategies are supposed to help them!

  1. Organisation

One thing that can hinder independence is not having the right thing at the right time. Your child may be very capable of writing 3 sentences in one go…if only they could find their pencil. Or maybe your child could sit and focus for the whole lesson on their maths problems…if only they knew where their worksheet was. One of the benefits of using these strategies is that we’re not only getting work done (hopefully!), we’re also teaching them life skills. If they are able to organise themselves and independently find the relevant equipment/worksheet then they’re well on the way to being successful in life, as well as their potential academically.

Workstation + work schedule

For the ultimate combo, use the two strategies together. You could laminate the work schedule and stick it up on one of the workstation walls. Alternatively, cut the work schedule into strips and put each strip in an envelope for children to open. You could use a magazine folder or tray to put the “to-do” work in so it’s clear what still needs to be done. Make sure you have a finished tray or folder. This helps children to stay organised, gives a focus/purpose to the task and also helps them feel a sense of accomplishment as that tray fills up throughout the lesson or day.

child reading a book with a timer showing 10 minutes.

For some children, it may be helpful to use these strategies alongside a timer. Instead of saying “task one: complete maths question one” it might be more helpful to say “task one: work on maths for 2mins”. This gives children something to aim for, especially if you know that they’re going to really struggle to complete maths question one without any support from you. After their 2mins of trying independently, then you can go and help them – but we’re still building resilience through encouraging them to have a go on their own first. Timers can also be helpful to ensure that rewards don’t go on forever! Again, explain to the child that the aim here is to get work down so we can proud of ourselves/learn more etc etc. Be honest with them – “I know you could just turn the timer over again and tell me you didn’t but I’m going to leave it with you and trust that you’ll make the right decision”. It can be a little scary to put the power in their hands but let’s give them the chance to surprise us and make a BIG deal if/when they make the right choice. Note: Give them more than one chance to make the right decision here. Don’t be afraid to call them out if you spot them giving themselves extra reward time, but talk to them about how these strategies are to help teach them life skills and let them know that you’ll give them another chance. How often do we get second chances in life when we mess up? Let’s talk to our kids about that too so they know that we’re on their side, cheering them on and willing them to succeed!

4. Quick ideas

Just before I finish, here are 8 ideas for quick, motivational rewards. It doesn’t need to be rocket science – just find something that your child really gets on board with. Ask them, give them options, and encourage them to take ownership of it. Note: If your child doesn’t use speech you can still ask them what they would like.   Use visuals to support communication and still seek to include them in these decisions.

  1. Pop up toy (as mentioned before – a winner with several of the children I work with)
  2. Sensory items (helpful for those kids who have sensory needs anyway – this helps keep their body alert in between work periods. Note: Be careful that you don’t withhold these from children that need them to stay regulated during the day! They are more necessary for some children than others.)
  3. iPad (simple yet effective. Decide rules together about what games they can play, whether they need to use headphones, where they need to use it etc)
  4. Book (some kids will love retreating to the book corner for 5 mins – rewards can be educational too!)
  5. Music (this can be a really lovely way for kids to de-stress if they can listen to a soothing piece of music or their favourite song in between tasks)
  6. Drink of water (yes – it can be this simple! This may be good for those kids who want/need to stretch their legs or have a wriggle – let them walk to the water fountain in between tasks.)
  7. Lego (if children are only allowed to build for 1 or 2 mins in between tasks why not challenge them to see how much they can build by the end of the day? This can be a very satisfying and motivational way to get work done.)
  8. Drawing/colouring (lots of children find the mindfulness colouring sheets very therapeutic and relaxing which can be especially useful if they’re finding the work stressful and difficult)

It will probably take time for both you and your autistic child to get used to these strategies. Give it a couple of weeks minimum before giving up, and keep explaining to the child what you’re hoping to get out of it. If they’re not on board then it’s not to going to work – but it might take some time to process how it works.  Building independence is best done through cooperation with the child so they can enjoy their progress. Knowing when to ask for help and knowing that they can help others is part of that too. So keep going! You’ve got this.

You can find out many more ways of supporting autistic children in primary schools with our CPD accredited courses at Schudio TV.  This is a great one to start with https://www.schudio.tv/courses/supporting-autistic-learners-primary    (only £20 individually or get all our courses for only £10 a month as a Getting It Right member)

How did an Autism Specialist get diagnosed as ADHD?

a pink background with repeating pattern of the word ADHD and fish blowing bubbles.

This is what my brain feels like – lots of bubbles (thoughts, ideas and distractions) going up through my head!

Just to jump right in…The autism specialist is me, Lynn McCann, and I was diagnosed with ADHD in July.

As with most events like this there is a back story.  I have been an autism specialist for 16 years now and in that time have studied and researched autism, ADHD, PDA Profile and other conditions.  I have listened intently to the experiences of the autistic young people we work with and of autistic adults who work with us and who are my friends.

I started studying ADHD a few years ago when more and more of our pupils were receiving diagnosis of autism and ADHD together.  As usual, we wanted to know as much as possible so we could support our pupils and educate teachers to understand their pupils. At the same time, we as a team were also studying autism and girls and developing our understanding of the reasons why autistic girls were being misunderstood, misdiagnosed and in some cases, missed all together.  I started to come across articles and testimonies from ADHD girls and women, realising that they too had been missed or misdiagnosed.

It started years ago

In 2017 I went to the ADHD Foundation ADHD conference in Liverpool.  It was there that a few light bulb moments happened, and I realised that:

  1. The ADHD community were promoting the links between ADHD and autism and embracing dual diagnosis so that they could help and support those children who had both diagnosis.
  2. More and more adults were being diagnosed, contrary to the past belief that children grew out of ADHD, we were beginning to understand that they didn’t. It was just that adults seemed to learn to adapt and manage ADHD differently.  Or sometimes they were blamed for their difficulties, developed mental ill health or some dropped out of society or ended up in the criminal justice system…undiagnosed.
  3. More and more women were being diagnosed as adults.

I loved listening to Rory Bremner’s story of being diagnosed and how ADHD affected his life. As well as being funny, I loved how ADHD contributed to him to be so creative and intelligent.  Whilst there I took the opportunity to do a Qb test.  This is a computer programme that tests your reactions, focus and attention.  I scored in the top 4% of people likely to have ADHD.

A horse that looks like it is laughing

 

And at that ADHD conference I was told off by another professional for fidgeting during the afternoon talk! 

 

I was becoming more and more convinced that I had ADHD and spent some time investigating my own history, doing online questionnaires for both autism and ADHD and putting together my evidence.  I knew there had always been aspects of autism that I totally understood because it was my experience also.  I have strong hyper-sensitivities which impact on where I go and choices I make and can be very distressing if I can’t escape them.  I thrive on routine and have a lot of anxiety around unpredictability.  As a child I could be withdrawn and seem very shy.  The truth being (and can still be) that I often don’t know what to do or say around others.  These days I can come across as confident because I have worked hard to practice and learn what to do and I genuinely love people, so make all the effort I can to listen and to engage with them.  I have taught myself to do this for many, many years and hope that people who meet me now can see my genuine interest in them.  (And forgive my interrupting, distractions and over-excitement.)  I love doing training and presenting because I have a script and intense interest in my subject, and I love explaining things.  I can move around and if you have ever seen me do a presentation in real life you will see that I don’t stay still at all.

I understand autism so well because I have family members and close friends who I have helped self-identify or become officially diagnosed, as well as working with so many autistic children all these years.  However, I also love novelty and have the boredom threshold of a gnat. (my own phrase there!)  I am impulsive and can be distracted at the tiniest thing.  It was clues like that, that led me to looking more at ADHD.

There’s obviously a lot more to it… but let’s get back to the story…

Three years ago, I had written a four page essay on why I might have ADHD and took it to my doctors.  She agreed to refer me to the assessment team.  I knew it would be a couple of years so tried to settle down to wait.  After a year I hadn’t heard anything, so I rang my surgery.  They were very sorry, they said, they and forgotten to send the referral and did I still want to be referred? (GRRRRR!) So, they did, and a couple of weeks later I was called to an appointment with the mental health team to triage me.  Once I told them I wasn’t there for a mental health assessment but a referral for an ADHD assessment, they finally got the right forms out and after our interview, said they would put the referral forward.  I know ADHD isn’t a mental health condition, but it can affect (and in my past it has done) mental health.  At this time, I was fine and just wanted to get on with the ADHD assessment. (Did I say I was rubbish at waiting for things!)

So, two years and one month later I was contacted by the Lancashire ADHD Assessment Team in Haydock (which isn’t actually in Lancashire but Merseyside) to invite me for a video conference assessment.  I filled in more forms and had a good chat to my family about my history, things they noticed and examples from my childhood.  I have two good friends who recently had an adult ADHD assessment, and they were both so helpful and encouraging.  By this time, I was a nervous wreck. I was fairly convinced that I fit the diagnostic criteria but terrified I might have got it wrong, or the assessor wouldn’t agree with me.  I checked out the service and knew that they had up to date knowledge, were diagnosing adults and knew about adult women and ADHD.

After an hour and a half asking me questions about my whole life, going through each aspect of the diagnostic criteria, the assessor said “YES”.  He was confident that he could diagnose me with ADHD.  That is the point my brain went to mush and I couldn’t focus on anything else for the rest of the day.

What's next? written on a post it note.

What happens next?

According to the NICE guidelines, ADHD can be treated with medication and therapy alongside it.  I am not keen on medication at this point,  but am signing up for the therapy sessions they are offering and seeing what that might do to help.  I am 53 years old (yes, I know you can’t believe it!) and at this time in my life I have a million strategies on the go, and many of them do work.  I look like the most uber-organised person on the outside but on closer examination it is all quite tenuously held together.  However, I run my own business and have people around me who catch what I drop and who look after me.  I have the best team in the world.  We are mostly neurodiverse people and fully empathetic to working with differences in people within our team as well as in those we work with.

It is a huge thing to declare my ADHD diagnosis publicly.  But in my position I have the opportunity to do some good with it.  I can help dispel the misunderstandings about ADHD and encourage those who might be thinking they are ADHD to go for assessment.  I have been a teacher for 30 years and I can reflect on how ADHD has affected my teaching and how some reasonable adjustments could have made a huge difference.  I am an employer and business leader that can help other employers recognise their own neurodiversity as well as understand and help their employees.  I can share my experiences and struggles, my strategies and challenges to help others.  I have already written and deliver a course about how autism and ADHD can interact.  In the future I will be writing more about adult ADHD and also how to support ADHD girls in school.  I will continue with my autism work and developing our team’s expertise so we can be there for our pupils, their families and their teaching staff.  We are still autism specialist first.

And I can be a bit kinder to myself.  Sometimes I will struggle and there is a reason I can understand.  And that is okay.

Finally, I want to thank my family and all those amazing people in the autism and ADHD community who have helped and supported me in this journey.  You know who you are.  Thank you with all my heart.

Here’s some great websites and organisations I have found useful.  I’m sure to be adding to these over time.

https://adhdfoundation.org.uk – Great online information and conferences

https://howtoadhd.com – I love Jessica’s you tube channel too.

https://www.additudemag.com/self-test-adhd-symptoms-women-girls/ – this is what helped me start to collate my evidence.  Great magazine on so many issues.

https://www.additudemag.com/rejection-sensitive-dysphoria-and-adhd/ – this article was illuminating for me.