I have an autistic friend who is a maths teacher (amongst her other talents). She has a great way of explaining what being autistic is like and we often talk about the apparent anomaly between her confidence in speaking to someone 1:1 or to a whole group of students, as opposed to being in a group or party situation with lots of people to interact with. I love how she describes it....
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Yesterday was January 1st 2018 and it was my birthday…well the 4th Birthday of Reachout ASC. This time four years ago I'd only just left my school and started a new business. There wasn't much rest that Christmas holiday, I can tell you! I end 2017 with a team of three people who help Reachout ASC be all it is. Emma Turver is the other specialist teacher, doing the same work as I do and being very good at it. Meriel is our administrator and can do in 3 minutes what would take me 3 hours to do, and Cristina is our newest member of the team, working as our office assistant. She is an Aspie and we will be writing a blog together about employing autistic people later in the year.
Working in and with many different schools has given me the opportunity to see how education, and specifically SEND reforms are working in real life. I deliver training to SENCOs and staff from all over the north of England and here many stories from many people. 2014 wasn't only the birth of Reachout ASC, but also the birth of the new SEND Code of Practice, since revised in 2015. The landscape for children, parents, SENCOs and school provision has changed in many ways, and in other ways hasn't changed at all. I'd certainly recommend reading posts from Special Needs Jungle to keep up to date with the national picture.
There is something I've noticed as I travel around schools supporting pupils with autism and their teachers.
Autistic children are unhappy in school. Very unhappy. Many of them show this in their behaviour, and it's often because of their behaviour that I'm asked to help. I work with PRUs. They are receiving more and more children, younger and younger who are permanently excluded from mainstream schools. They are traumatised at an early age. Older children too are school refusing, being excluded and let down. Too many are not getting the help, support and life chances they need and deserve.
Many autistic children have Sensory Processing Disorders. (And so do children with Down's Syndrome, ADHD and other or no other conditions). Their sensory systems (as above) can be hyper (over) or hypo (under) sensitive and this affects the way that they understand, perceive and interact with the world around them. It also affects their perception of their own bodies and how they function. And I'm often asked whether the sensory responses can be different on different days – yes, they can. Some sensory responses can be hyper and some hypo – in the same person.
As I promised, here are my tips for secondary teachers getting ready for the next school year. There are likely to be a number of students with autism or other SEND needs coming into your classes this year and I want to share some of the tips and advice that I would usually pass on to secondary teachers.
Emma and I work with around ten secondary schools and our support looks very different from the work we do with primaries. The differences in the way a secondary school works brings up additional challenges for the school SENCO and for individual teachers.
Firstly, the movement between lessons, having up to six different teachers each day and the responsibility of being organised, on time for lessons and doing homework are major challenges for autistic / SEND pupils. On top of that is the minefield of social relationships, especially in Year 7 when children are meeting lots of new children from different feeder primaries and everyone is working out new relationships and friendships. I'm not going to go into all the challenges and issues in this blog, but give teachers some tips on how they can make their classrooms and lessons autism/SEND friendly and a little bit of advice for a whole school approach that really makes a huge difference.
"The classroom is each teacher's mini-kingdom and the 'home' of your pupils for most of the school day. Teachers lavish care and attention on how it is set out and how they decorate it, and spend time organising furniture and equipment that they and their pupils will need to access throughout the year. In primary classrooms, hours are spent printing and laminating and setting out displays, and carefully choosing words, pictures and prompts for pupils' writing, maths and topic work. Coat pegs and drawers are labelled, boxes and books are given out and groups of tables are given a name. In the Early Years, parts of the room are often sectioned off into creative, 'small world' or sensory play areas and most classrooms have a common focus area, usually in front of the whiteboard, where pupils will gather to listen to the teacher presenting a lesson. At the beginning of the school year, the classroom is bright, stimulating, labelled, and ready for a new intake of pupils."
Lynn McCann (2017) page 21
If you are getting a child with autism in your class for the first time this September, you may have heard many things about autism which makes you nervous about being able to meet the child needs within your class this year. The first thing to remember is that every child with autism is different, has their own strengths as well as difficulties and with the right support can usually have a successful year in your class.
I've recently worked with some schools to assess and apply for an autism diagnosis for girls. What was interesting was that each school had had some autism training from me and began to realise that these girls showed some of the same characteristics that I had spoken about. For some, the diagnosis was straight forward. However, for at least one, it was not so. (continued below...)
"Did you hear about that four year old that got expelled from school?"
"Gosh, a four year old, that's shocking. What must a four year old be like to get expelled?"
What would you say in answer to this? Would you think hitting other children, running away, refusing to comply, screaming loudly, throwing themselves on the floor, running away and…shock…horror…even hitting the teacher…be grounds enough for expulsion…at four?