A whole child approach

​ When my son was in Year 4 he went off reading and writing. He is a bright boy who gets bored easily, but he had a massive fall in confidence in producing any written work and in reading out loud in class.  That year he had an unconventional teacher.  She had a wicked sense of humour and used sarcasm a lot.  My son said she always made him laugh and she got his jokes.  She wasn’t a text book teacher, was far too old school and he thrived in her class and so did most of the children that year.  But when my son ‘went off’ reading and writing, she called us in and asked us what he was interested in and what he liked best.  We put a list together, and it was at the end my husband said  “You know, there’s this book I caught him reading last week called Captain Underpants.He was laughing a lot.But I don’t know if that kind of book is allowed at school.”  To her credit, the teacher put a box of books together for our son that included Dav Pilkey (Captain Underpants), Jeremey Strong and similar authors.  She let him write about the topics in the books and even though his stories were full of pooping, nappies and toilets (with the occasional fast dog aka Jeremey Strong) he re-engaged with writing and that year produced some of his best work.  At parents evening we and the teacher cried with laughter at some of his written work.  When we asked whether it was ok for him to only be writing about toilets and things like that, she confidently said that he would grow out of it and as predicted, by the end of the year he was confidently writing about lots of different things (although he’s never lost his toilet humour!).

​I read this article on Schools Week today  and these are my thoughts that developed from that.

There is such a difference in every child with autism that teachers can make mistakes when they assume that because they have heard that ASD children are like this or that, then every child with ASD will have the same difficulties.

I have a saying: “support the child’s ASD needs and the academic learning engagement will develop from that” – I haven’t yet experienced when this hasn’t been true.  But we need to have a clear and individualised picture of the child’s personality, strengths, challenges, reactions and aspirations.

Children soon pick up what the adults around them think of them.  It might be their behaviour, their inability to access the curriculum or their lack of understanding of the social interaction going on around them.  They might have understood that teachers and other adults see them as a problem, they might be aware that other kids treat them as different.  They soon get the message – you don’t fit in; you don’t get it; we can’t meet your needs; you’re an inconvenience – you failed.  I wish I could say it differently, but by the time they get to high school the feeling of being a failure is almost universal amongst the young people with ASD that I meet.

We can work with our environments, our teaching approaches, our pupils and our attitudes so that we don’t perpetuate these self-images.  There are many things we can do.  The important thing is not to blame the child for who they are.  I have noticed that there can be this tendency to have a narrow view of the child and their current issue, situation or difficulty.  There can be a tendency to think of a problem as the child’s instead of caused by us and our approaches or attitudes.  We forget that a child with ASD will be an adult with ASD.  We focus on what is bothering them (or more usually us) right now and ignore the bigger picture.  A child in your primary class is there for one year (or at the most for a whole key stage in some smaller schools).  If you ask/read about their whole history it can help you think about how you could support them in getting ready for the next stage or class.  For a secondary teacher, you may only teach a child between 1-4 hours a week.  How do you make sure they are ready for the transition to the next class and subject?  Do you know what works well for other teachers, do you share what works well in your subject?  Transitions are often left to the last minute, so they can be rushed, but also, the needs of a child to learn things that will help them are often ignored.  We need to see the strengths of that child and work towards developing and building on those so that year upon year they develop a core strength or set of skills that they are good and successful at.  We should give them opportunities to contribute to the wider school and community through those strengths and interests. It may take some imagination from us – but it can work.  When we are continually looking at the whole child we are working with parents, the child and together to build a long-term support programme that has high expectations for them and their future.  We know where we are going and what steps it will take to get there and what everyone else’s input is doing to contribute to this.  The child needs to know and parents need to know that this is all working for their best interests and towards success – and what that success will look like for them – and not a generic criteria that may be impossible to attain. 

Let’s be creative and think about the whole child.  Like my son, who wants to be an accountant because maths was his real subject of interest (and does not have ASD btw – any child can benefit from this kind of support), who still left school with a decent GCSE in English… thanks to his primary teacher who worked with his interests and needs, to bring back his confidence.