Lynn McCann

Our Blog will include contributions from a number of autism specialists. Lynn, Matt and Emma work for Reachout ASC, plus occasional guest bloggers.
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Lynn McCann

When behaviour of autistic children challenges us, some tips and advice

Autism is a different way of experiencing and thinking about the world.  Communicating in a non-autistic world (and classroom) can be difficult because it is fast, ambiguous and shifts between different people seemingly all at once.  There are many social and communication rules that everyone else seems to know but the autistic child hasn't learned, and people are unpredictable and can't always be trusted to do what they say.  Sensory messages can be overwhelming to an autistic child and some are sensory seeking because their sensory systems need the extra stimulation.  Autistic children are also able to achieve many things and are capable of learning in our classrooms – if we provide the right understanding and support for them.

Sometimes all children's behaviour is confusing, unpredictable and challenging to us.  All human beings have 'behaviour'.  It's what we do.  It's how we react, show how we feel and how we keep ourselves safe.  Behaviour is also communication when we cannot find or use words.  

All behaviour is open to interpretation and can be seen as positive or negative, conformist, active or reactive.  It can challenge us when we don't get the reaction to our instructions that we were expecting, or a child asks a question that we can't answer.  We feel challenged when a child may be disrupting the smooth running of our lesson and how we wanted it all to go. (Especially when we are under so much scrutiny.)  We can be challenged when a child doesn't want to do something or doesn't understand what we want them to do.  Even more so we are challenged by a distressed, scared or angry child who could be throwing things, screaming, hurting themselves or others.  It is then we don't feel safe and we too become distressed.

Much of the time our reactions are based on how the behaviour makes US feel. There is so much pressure on teachers to get through a lesson, so much pressure to prove what the children are learning.  We are often already highly stressed.  So, any behaviour that disrupts a lesson or is something we are unsure about how to deal with, makes US feel scared of judgement, discipline and being thought of as a useless teacher.  I'm writing this from personal experience, honestly and because many of my teacher friends agree.

But acknowledging this is the start of finding a new way to support your autistic (and other) pupils and yourself as a teacher.  It is building a better relationship where you both feel confident and safe.  When things happen that are difficult for your autistic pupil, you are better prepared to support them. 

Knowing their autism

When we have a child who is autistic it is good to learn about autism and how in particular they are autistic.  Some children seem to be 'mildly autistic' but be careful, they could be masking a lot of what they find difficult and internalising the stress that causes. They develop many strategies to cover up what they don't understand and this article about girls (and boys) who are like that might be useful.  Some children seem more 'severe' and may have difficulty with using spoken language and learning in school.  Be careful you do not have too low expectations.  Speaking ability does not necessarily correlate with intellectual ability.  Here are some good places to start…

All these tips can make a huge difference to behaviour.  You are providing the right environment for you to read and understand the reactions and behaviours of an autistic child so that together you can communicate and engage in learning.  I will be writing some blogs on specific learning support in English and maths in the next few months.

Our Arousal Level impacts on our responses

Reacting to behaviour starts with acknowledging our emotional responses.  Working to lower our own arousal level can enable us to manage the situation more calmly and effectively.  When a behaviour doesn't conform to our expectations, a child doesn't do what we want them to do or reacts with a highly volatile emotion it is our own emotional reaction that can make things worse.  For example, if a child picks up a chair and threatens to throw it, or runs out of the room we have a 'danger' reaction which releases adrenalin into our system so WE are in stress mode, trying to make sure everyone in our care is safe.  This emotional and chemical response does not allow us to use our full reasoning and logical part of our brain well, because 'fight or flight' has kicked in and we are on high alert.

Here are some tips on lowering your arousal level when confronted by a challenging behaviour in your classroom.

  • Pause – this allows you to appraise the whole situation and the risks through actual assessment rather than imagination.
  • Take a deep breath – helps oxygen get to your brain and connect with your logical problem solving faculties.
  • Lower your tone of voice and speak slowly. Again, this enables calm breathing and lessens the conflict / challenge / demand to the child who is in a greater stress and danger mode than you are.
  • Check your body language isn't domineering or threatening to the child.  Sometimes just taking a step back or kneeling down to a small child takes away that extra threatening challenge.  
  • Check the sensory environment – take things away, turn things off, offer headphones, fiddle or comfort objects, time out of a sensory overloading experience.Watch this for information about sensory overload and behaviour

Then find a way forward that is active and positive

  • Change your demand to something the child can do at that moment.  Change the activity or break it into smaller chunks.  Add extra visuals (a whiteboard for diagrams, drawings, lists etc can be really useful to have by the child).
  • Help the child calm down before trying to redirect or investigate the situation.
  • Acknowledge how you think they are feeling "It seems that you are angry, can I help you feel okay?"
  • Talk to the child about the situation, rather than get into 'verbal combat' about their behaviour.  They may need clear structure or choices (some may need this visually with symbol cards) .Eg. "After you've put the chair down do you want to go for a sensory break or have 5 minutes outside?"
  • If the child needs help, is shouting out, refusing to do some work and you are busy with other children, make a mini 'appointment' with them.  Eg. I will come and help you sort out the problem after…"  And keep to your promise!
  • Make a plan about how you can avoid the situation happening again or how it might be supported if it does.  Involve the child and communicate visually to them how the support will work.  An example of this is difficulties at playtimes  

I have so much more to tell you and help you with understanding and supporting your autistic pupils.  There isn't much space in a blog post but if you have got this far then do consider reading more of my blog posts and perhaps one of my books for classroom teachers with lots of practical advice for real classroom situations.

Primary teacher's book

Secondary teacher's book

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