Preparing an autism friendly secondary classroom

Photo from Ann Memmott www.annsautismblog.com showing what visual hyper-sensitivity can be like in a classroom.

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.

“Daily Transitions

“I was really scared of the corridors.  All the noise and so many people made my brain scream.  I couldn’t focus on where I was going and so I hid until everyone had gone.  I was always late for lessons.”  Girl with ASC, Year 7.

Once a student with ASC has started at a secondary school it is common for them to take longer than most students to be able to settle into the routines of changing rooms between lessons and coping with the different teachers that they meet throughout the day.  Some students will need escorting (by teaching assistant or other students) to each class for some time.  Others may benefit from being allowed to leave each class early to avoid the sensory overload of the corridors and travel to their next class in the quieter corridors.  In Year 7 a buddy system may be set up so that students with ASC are not left behind when a class moves on.

Teachers should be aware that it can take some time for the student to adjust to their voice, subject matter and style when they have just come from another teacher who may be very different.  Subject teachers can support this by

  • Having a seating plan and allowing the student with ASC to choose where they sit (where they are comfortable, with a friend, can see the main focus of the lesson, get to the door easily).
  • Giving the student time to settle, longer than other students, speaking to them kindly to remind them where they are and which subject they are now doing.
  • Get to know the student, talk to them about their interests and use this as a basis for your relationship.  They will appreciate you for it.”

This is an excerpt from my book “How to Support students with Autism Spectrum Condition in Secondary School” page 23 published by LDA 

The Classroom environment

  1. Each subject teacher will want to make their classroom welcoming and most of all, functional for a classes of different year groups coming into their room each day.   Displays tend to be less of an issue for secondary rooms but clutter can be as much a problem for children who are visually distracted and find it hard to focus as in any classroom.
  2. Have a clear space around your whiteboard.   Enables students to focus solely on the screen / board.   You could put key vocabulary words for the topic on the wall at the side of the whiteboard for those whose attention may wander slightly.  You’d have to change this for each year group but if you have them on Velcro they can be easily changed.
  3. Display visual pictures with key vocabulary.  This helps students remember and understand if they miss or don’t understand verbal information.
  4. Keep class rules simple.   Most rules can be summed up in 2 points:  Be safe.  Be kind.
  5. Have a seating plan and keep to it.  It really is worth allowing autistic/SEND pupils have some say in where they sit.  For example, having to look over the tops of other people’s heads can mean accessing what is on the board more difficult for them.
  6. Suggest disorganised students colour code their timetable with the colour of the subject exercise books.  It might help them bring the right book to your lesson.
  7. It is likely a student with autism or SEND will struggle to have the right equipment.  If that’s going to be likely in your class, have a spare set for them, kept in class and that they can access without making a fuss at the beginning of the lesson.

Accessing lessons

  1. Copying off the board takes a lot of switching attention which can be so difficult for Autistic/SEND students.  Plan to give out printed copies of the text and ask students to highlight key words or important points, it is much more effective.
  2. For those who find writing difficult; find other ways of recording what they know, so they can vary how they record their work.   For example, most computers have speech to text (they can try this for homework first), or typing it on a laptop or even dictating to a recording device.   Diagrams, mind maps, power point, photos and other visual recording can help some pupils.
  3. Printing off homework on sticky labels and giving these out means homework is always accurately recorded in their planners.  If you have an online homework system, make sure the autistic/SEND student (and their parents) know how it works and can access it.
  4. A pupil passport is a great way to give every subject teacher the key information about each student; read it and plan the strategies into your whole class teaching.
  5. Use TAs wisely.   The hardest thing is finding time to talk to them but if you can make time you will reap the benefits.   (This is easier when a TA is based in a department,  make sure they are part of departmental meetings).   Have a look at @MaximisingTAs for tips on using TAs better.
  6. Group work is a common complaint from my autistic students,  they hate it!  I suggest subject teachers plan structured paired work to help all students work collaboratively, and build up to group work.   A structure, with well-defined roles works best.

Parents

  1. Set up an email link with parents.   Some secondaries have good parent communication systems in place, others have yet to get there.   But as a subject leader try to communicate directly with parents about their child in the first half term.   They will want to know how they are settling in.  You could send a postcard.  Ask them if there is anything they can share that will help you teach their child in your subject.  It maybe having a spare PE kit in school will be vital for them actually having PE kit.  It may be that you need to email the ingredients for cooking directly to the parents to ensure that the student will have what they need.  English teachers might use a book they really like.
  2. Pass on any information (especially good things) to the SENCO or pastoral leader whoever is the person who might speak to parents the most.   Having up to date information to hand will make their job much easier.
  3. Talk to other subject teachers and the SENCO before you contact parents about a behaviour or other problem.   It will be important to know if there is a similar problem in other subjects and if there are any particular links.   For example, it could be a playground issue that impacts on your lesson just after break and other subjects find the same on the other days.

Behaviour

  1. School is often overwhelming for autistic/SEND students.  Be aware of sensory sensitivities and needs.   The student may need a break occasionally.   A time-out card can help them do this without fuss.  They can be taught how to use this to calm down and return to the class.
  2. Low level disruptions are often attempts to communicate.   Students who find it hard to follow or join in conversation often act loudly or silly because that gets feedback and acceptance from their peers.   Structured paired work and teaching conversation / public speaking skills can help the whole class.
  3. Other low level disruption occurs when a student doesn’t understand what they have to do or feel they can’t do it.  They might be unable to ask for help, or try to distract you from asking them what they have done.  Don’t just explain using the same words – a task may need breaking into smaller chunks and explaining more clearly.
  4. Be aware of those who find being the centre of attention too much to cope with.  Give them chance to answer questions through writing answers down on a whiteboard, talk to them individually and don’t point out anything they are doing in front of the whole class.
  5. Talk to your autistic/ SEND students about what they are interested in.   Especially if they have a topic they like to talk about a lot.   They will really appreciate you taking a few minutes every now and again to chat to them about it.   Get to know them and what makes them tick.   All children work well for the teachers they know like them.
  6. Students with autism can be very honest.   I was once told I stank because I’d put perfume on that day.   Don’t take anything personally.   If they are shouting obscenities at you they are VERY stressed and you should use your skill to help them not get into verbal combat with them.
  7. Know who you can call for help.   Prevention is better than reaction but if you are in a position where the student can’t cope with your lesson and has become angry or upset, know what the plan is and follow it carefully.   It works best when every teacher has a visual card with the plan on it that they can show the student and so reduce verbal language which causes more stress.
  8. Have high expectations of behaviour – but know that autistic / SEND students often need support to achieve those standards.   Writing a clear explanation down of what you want, rather than telling off for what they are doing wrong works much better than lots of nagging.  Believe me!

 

​There’s lots and lots of other advice I could give but not much space in this blog.   Here is the link to the ten top tips sheet that can be printed and given to secondary teachers. (see photo).  In my Secondary book I have put a lot more about transitions, accessing the curriculum (more subject specific information), behaviour support, social support, puberty and SRE as well as exam support.   It is aimed at non-ASC-specialist teachers but SENCOs will find it really useful too.  It’s a handbook to dip in and out of.  (Get the sticky tabs ready.)   Hope you might think of buying it! 

Preparing an autism friendly primary classroom.

Photo from Ann Memmott www.annsautismblog.com showing what visual hyper-sensitivity can be like in a classroom.

“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

Now imagine you are in a busy foreign railway station.  You know you have to get somewhere but you’re not quite sure how to read the strange symbols that indicate the destination on your ticket.  The signs are in a script that you don’t recognise, the trains are loud, noisy and smell strongly of diesel.  The buzzing crowd is pushing and jostling you in a direction you’re not even sure you want to go.  Some people come towards you making attempts to grab your bag, and you feel scared and threatened.  Other people gesticulate with signs and mouth strange words, but you don’t understand and they soon go away.  You spot what looks like an official and make your way to them, but they are just shouting random words in a language you don’t understand through a megaphone. Your head hurts, you are sick with anxiety and frustration and you have no idea how to cope.

School can feel like this for pupils with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC).”

Lynn McCann (2017) page 21

Had this photo so long I’ve lost the source – sorry!

This is an excerpt from my book “How to support Children with ASC in Primary School” and there’s lots of advice and information about how to do just that in there.You can find it on LDA Learning Publishers website if you’re interested.

But in this blog I’m going to share some advice about how to get ready for an autistic child who might be coming into your class this September, starting with some key tips that can make a classroom autism friendly and yet suitable for all children. Then I will give you some tips on how to make yourself ready.

Environment

  1. Have a visual timetable and use it.  Here you can read about why this can help children learn independence.
  2. Have clear spaces between display boards and keep displays simple.
  3. Leave clear space around whiteboards.  Less chance of being distracted.
  4. Make sure where child is to sit is accessible for them, without having to navigate obstacles or pass lots of other children closely.
  5. Check light levels, noise from other rooms, smells and cut down on things hanging from the ceiling.
  6. It’s always best to start minimalist and let the child tell you what they can cope with on top of that.  As they settle in you can involve the autistic child in what could go on the walls.
  7. Use table top vocabulary/maths reminders rather than word or number walls.  Then you just get them out as needed and they are not there all the time.
  8. Keep clutter on top of cupboards and tables to the minimum.

Welcome

  1. Make a booklet reminding the pupil about their new classroom, with a picture of the class staff and an outline of what will happen on the first day back.  Send it to the child’s home with a welcome note.
  2. Read the notes from the last teacher and highlight all the positive things about the child.   Have a box of toys, magazines etc of their favourite things ready for them on the first day.
  3. Know their sensory profile.  If they use headphones, have a storage place for them near their seat.   If they have a wobble cushion, make sure it is ready for them on the first day back.
  4. Have whatever visuals they used in the last class, ready for them to use again (or a similar set if they need renewing).  This is not the time to say they don’t need them anymore.

Inclusion

  1. Make plans to support the child and their peers to be able to interact well with them.  This could be by setting up a games group, buddy system for playtimes or supporting partner work in class.
  2. Support the children to access classroom routines by having visual supports such as a schedule, or writing a ‘story’ for them about how things work in your classroom.  Pictures and written instructions are easier to refer to and remember than verbal instructions. Make them positive and encouraging.
  3. Plan how the autistic child might access class lessons.  They may need a whiteboard, visuals, a copy of the story book for themselves, a fiddle toy or a TA supporting them.  Spend time with the TA beforehand to plan how this might work.
  4. Plan to teach the child yourself.  Timetable this in, so that you are their teacher, not the TA.  Be a team where you both know the child well.

Parents

  1. Find out the first names of the parents.
  2. Arrange a date to meet and listen to their story as soon as you are able to in the first couple of weeks.  Just listen and get to know what their hopes for their child are.  They will have some really helpful tips and information for you to support their child. 
  3. Suggest a way to keep in touch regularly with them.  A home-school diary works well.

Yourself

  1. Don’t feel overwhelmed by what you might not know.  Ask for advice/help earlier rather than later.
  2. Plan time to plan regularly with your TA.
  3. Get to know the professional working with the child and make friends with them.  They might do a lot extra for you (we do!)
  4. Read about autism by all means but don’t assume the child in your class will be just like the children you read about.  Get to know them and their strengths as well as understand their frustrations.
  5. Be positive and calm in all circumstances.  It is a child and behaviour is communication.  That can help you ‘read’ what they are trying to tell you.

There is so much more I could tell you but then this blog would be too long.  Please do look at my other blogs if you want to know more, and of course, as I’ve written the thing,  I’d love you to buy my book as there’s loads of helpful stuff in there.  

Enjoy your class this year. 

Next time getting ready to teach children with autism for a secondary teacher. 

prepare visual resources that are familiar to the child.

What is a sensory diet and how do I implement one in my busy classroom?

Image from: Supporting Autistic Learners course by Lynn McCann

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.

Knowing each child’s profile has to be important in order that we can support them and help them understand how to manage their sensory difficulties.   These difficulties won’t magically disappear, but what we can do is help a child understand their sensory systems and how they and others can help ‘regulate’ the sensory input so that they can feel calm, alert and manage the stress that it causes.

Sensory Assessments

A sensory assessment should be done by a Sensory-trained Occupational Therapist.   If you can get an assessment on the NHS then, congratulations!   In many areas, these are as rare as Hen’s teeth.   Some CAMHS services do sensory assessments and may have OT input for this and that is great too.  Many parents find they have to pay privately for an assessment and there are some excellent OT Sensory Therapists out there.  Sometimes assessments are done by people who are not OTs.   These might give general guidelines and would certainly not be linked to any specific therapy,  but more to environmental accommodations and practical activities at home and school.

For you as a teacher, you may notice that your pupil has sensory avoiding or sensory seeking behaviours.  You might have been asked to fill in a questionnaire and you might have had an OT visit your school to observe the child.  You might not have noticed anything at school because some children mask their difficulties and the meltdown happens at home.  You’ve probably had conversations about sensory processing concerns with parents.

But it is likely that after an assessment you will receive a copy of a report.  This report should identify the child’s “Sensory Profile” (their sensory differences and difficulties) and will include a list of suggestions for you to implement in the school day.  Often these will start with environmental adaptations.  These might be to sit the child in a certain place, make the classroom less overwhelming for the child and add things like a sensory area to your classroom. There will be suggestions for activities,  and these lists can be very long!

But…

And therein lies the problem.  Some sensory profile reports I have seen have been long, detailed and overwhelming for teachers and teaching assistants (there are some wonderful exceptions with reports that are so easy to work with). The question is always; ‘how do we do all this in our busy classroom and where do we start?”

This is what you can do…

Think of it like this.  A sensory diet is like when we eat meals.  We have a main meal three times a day, and in between we have snacks.  At school, there is one of those main meals and times for snacks between.  Sensory activities can be organised, available and monitored with this in mind.

A Sensory Diet

A. The Sensory main meal is a main activity that helps the child regulate their sensory systems so that they feel calm and alert enough to engage with the rest of the school day demands.  This could be activities like:  (these are examples, there are tons of ideas that might be suggested).

  • a break somewhere quiet
  • a walk around the schools grounds
  • some oral-motor activities
  • physical activities such as a sensory circuit
  • time wearing a weighted jacket

This may mean that a teaching assistant takes the child out of class for anything between 5 minutes and 1/2 hour whilst the activity takes place.  The aim is for the child to have the sensory input or sensory break their system needs so that they have the energy, focus and calmness to continue with the demands of the day.

B. Sensory snacks can happen through the day and should be available or the child to use at any time.  These can be –  (again, just a few examples)

  • headphones to shut out noise overload
  • fiddle toys
  • knobbly cushions on their chair
  • “Chewelry” and oral motor toys
  • calming smells
  • weighted cushions

(I’d include fidget spinners but they’re mostly banned!! – there are alternatives!)

When choosing what activities to put in place then look at the list you have been given in the report.  Speak to parents and the child to gather which activities might already be familiar and working well with the child.   Then choose one or two at a time and experiment to see what helps the child and what doesn’t.  If it doesn’t, cross it off the list and use another of the ideas.  Involve the child and get them to say what they’d like to try (give visual choice boards if needed) and have the child comment on whether the activity makes them feel okay, better and able to join in class learning activities.  Try and record what works and what response the child gives so you have evidence for any follow up or review.

 

Widgit symbols (C)

​If you timetable the ‘main meals’ in to the child’s visual timetable (see picture) then the child knows it is happening and can build that into their expectations of the day.  I have known children who can wait more patiently because they know when the activity is coming.  They also need to know that it’s okay to have their ‘snack’ activities WHENEVER they need it.  If a child is struggling with noise, then telling them to wait for their headphones isn’t going to help them.  They will need to know it is okay to use them whenever they need them.    Don’t be worried that some children might use these activities to ‘opt out’ regularly.   If the sensory diet is doing its job, then they will feel calmer more often and naturally will join in learning activities.   At first it is usual that children use their ‘snack’ activities often.  That is good.

The aim of all sensory diets is to help the child learn to “self-regulate”.  They should be taught about their sensory systems and how the environment and maybe other people (noise, touch etc) does upset their sensory systems, and that it isn’t their fault.  We need to help children know what helps them feel safe, calm and able to engage with the environment, learning activities, and with people.  This takes a long-term approach.  They are likely to need support throughout their school lives.   As a class teacher you are not expected to be an Occupational Therapist.  That’s okay.  These tips are here to help you implement the advice of a sensory assessment in ways that you as a teacher can organise and manage.

Here are some further reading resources that you might find helpful.

Chapter 6 of my book “How to support children with Autism Spectrum Condition in primary school. (LDA)

The Out of Sync Child by Carol Stock-Kranowictz

How to support children with sensory processing needs by Lois Addy (LDA)

And to explain sensory processing to children this book is excellent:

Max and Me by Ines Lawlor

Why I’m changing my language about Autism

Over the years I have been working with autistic children, I have been listening to and learning from the children themselves and also from autistic adults who I’ve got to know along the way.  So many autistic adults have become my friends in person, and others are those I follow and interact with on social media.  The debate about what language we use has been going on for some time.  I started out as choosing “autism spectrum condition” as the word ‘disorder’ never seemed respectful to autistic people.   I also used to write ‘with autism’, and again, trying to be respectful at the time.  But now I  have been challenged to change my language as I listen and learn. 

The problem with ‘having autism’ or ‘person with autism’ is that it separates a person from autism and can easily lead to the autism as being something seen as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’.  There are whole charities and industries based on autism being ‘wrong’ and some of the treatments and so called cures are inhumane.  Anyone heard of forcing autistic children to drink bleach?  Then there are those like the charity Autism Speaks, which spends the majority of its funding on finding a cure for autism. That’s why many autistic people don’t like their ‘Light it up Blue’ campaignin April as its supporting the fact that they are the ‘wrong’ type of people. Autism is not a burden, a disease or a curse.

In education, it is the fashion to talk in person-first language.   We say ‘a child with dyslexia’, ‘a child with ADHD’, ‘a child with Down’s Syndrome’ or ‘a child with autism’.   On the face of it, it may seem we are being respectful.   I am sure most teachers only want to reinforce that we put children first, that we want to see the whole child and not just their label.   I have gone along with this for some time too.  Whilst this is right, what we are doing is possibly not having the desired effect.  Particularly in autism, ADHD and Down’s Syndrome.  Autism is what a child is.  Down’s Syndrome is what a child is.  ADHD is what a child is.  We have different ways that our brains work and all have strengths and weaknesses, just as neurotypical children have.

When I have met parents who want schools to use person-first language, it has been because the professionals have not really understood their child and used the label to make sweeping assumptions leading to misconceptions and far too low expectations.    Seeing the child as a label is just as wrong as not seeing them for who they are in that label.   It’s so tricky.

Part of the solution will always be better training and understanding for teachers.  In their defence the SEND training many of them get is woefully inadequate and it rarely becomes a priority for schools once they are in their jobs.   So, we have teachers who want to help, but don’t know how, who are given bits of advice but little support, trying to implement support for the child without consistency or success.   In my experience, when those supports are in place,  the teachers do a great job.    Some will seek out their own training and research but so many are already under so much pressure to do so many other things. They ask for training or support and it doesn’t happen in time to help that child.

Children who need support are not ‘wrong’. We should instead see the wonderful diversity and potential of autistic people. Yes, some have so many difficulties to overcome and these are only some of the reasons:

  • It could be that the promised support isn’t being delivered or is not being allocated in the first place (sometimes this is because of LAs refusing to do an assessment).
  • It could be because others don’t understand how they are communicating,
  • It could be because the environment is sensory overwhelming or the demands and pace of the school day is too fast and complicated.
  • It could be that their peers don’t understand them and so leave them out or bully them.
  • It could be that teachers talk too much or expect them to understand their ambiguous language.
  • It could just be that the pace and content of our curriculum is made inaccessible for the autistic child and the pressure on the teacher to get through the curriculum leaves them no time to breathe, never mind the children!
  • It could be that their abilities are not being recognised because everyone is focussing on difficulties and not giving them the right opportunities. 
  • It could be that they are seemingly doing okay but trying to cope with anxieties and difficulties that they are trying to hide. 

I can understand why some people use person-first language but from now on, I am going to use ‘autistic’ to describe the people I work with, am friends with and seek to support because that is mostly their preferred term. I like it because it celebrates the diversity and value of people for who they are,  not what someone else or society or the education is trying to make them be.  I want to thank autistic friends for their education and campaigning on this.

There is also the issue of ‘disorder’ versus ‘condition’.   Our service choose ‘condition’ over disorder because we thought it was more respectful.   Disorder seems to be borrowed heavily from American language where to get support in education and social services through the private medical insurance schemes, a person needs to be diagnosed with a ‘disorder’.   Definitely this is a medical model that makes me very uncomfortable. I am not totally happy with the term ‘condition’ as I reflect on this more and more, so maybe I will have to reconsider our name in the near future.

Of course, wouldn’t it be just best if we didn’t need to label people at all and be able to have the diversity in our education system to allow for the diversity of children that actually exist, (and always have done.)   I will continue to ask each individual what term, if any, they would prefer and explore their lives and identity with them in the driving seat (or leading the way).   There are so many more issues about identity, I am aware, but that’s another post.

I know people who are deaf who want to be known as a deaf person and those who want to be known as a person with hearing impairment.  I know people with autism who aren’t at all bothered which term is used as long as it is said with respect and those who want to be known as autistic.  Respect is the key. In the end – we are all part of the wonderful diversity of humanness.

And finally, I am sorry to anyone who has been offended by any term or phrase I have used in the past. Please forgive me.  I hope we are all learning together for a better future for autistic people. I’ve already changed the terms I use in my training and work in schools. I’m happy to chat to anyone that I meet about this.  Maybe we’ll have tea and cake 🙂

Please respect others in any comments that you are welcome to make.

*My books for LDA are titled ‘How to support children with Autism Spectrum Condition in Primary School’ and ‘How to support students with Autism Spectrum Condition in Secondary school’. These are following the agreed educational language of the date and the alternative term of ‘autistic’ is described at the beginning of the book. This is by no means meant to be separating the diagnosis from the person and throughout the books the focus is on understanding the individual person and how best to support them in schools with practical strategies that have been tried and tested in our practice.

8 ways to help Autistic pupils manage anxiety

I was born worrying, so my mum said.  I don’t really know what it is like not to have a million worries running through my head all at once.  Every conceivable disaster is imagined once my brain focusses on a particular thought – There’s a downside to having a wild imagination.

But over the years I have learned a lot about anxiety and have many strategies that work for me in coping with it.  I can manage it.  I can recognise when it comes, what it is and fight it off.   Sometimes it goes quietly, sometimes I’m exhausted after the battle.   But I usually win these days.  Anxiety doesn’t control me like it used to.

There’s an upside to having a wild imagination too.  I can write stories and get really involved in a fantasy world in books and films.  I love craft and sewing.   And I can empathise when others tell me they are anxious all the time too. Anxiety’s energy can be harnessed for good.

When I work with children and young people who are autistic, they often seem anxious and many will tell me that they are…

www.emotionworks.org.uk

I do a lot of 1:1 and small group work with children and teenagers and whenever I bring up the topic of emotions, anxiety is what they all feel, often all the time.

When anxiety is there all the time, your brain is connected to the stress hormones and adrenalin that it creates. It is easy to develop an ‘I’m either high or low’ persona and crave the extremes of emotion because you don’t know how to ‘be’ without it.

You can also access our new Autism and Anxiety Course with Schudio TV for just £20.

Tony Attwood said that people with Asperger’s don’t know what ‘calm’ is (at a conference I was attending). This is what the children I work with tell me. It makes us telling them to ‘calm down’ useless. How can they do something they don’t recognise?

This is some of the support we use and I hope by sharing them,  you might find something to help your anxious autistic child.

1. One

Make sure first and foremost that it isn’t something that you are doing or others are that is causing the anxiety. This includes poor support, poor communication and not recognising their autism needs. It includes looking out for bullying and social isolation. Anxiety is not always the child’s issue but can be the result of other’s poor understanding and support.   It can be hard to accept that we are talking too much, nagging, dismissing the anxiety (“Don’t worry about that” etc) or causing sensory anxiety.  But it really is okay.  Son’t be hard on yourself but examine what you and others do, the autistic child, young person or adult’s responses and work to reduce the demands that cause anxiety from yourself, others and the environment.

2. Two

Check out their sensory sensitivities.This is the first port of call for me as sensory issues can be the source of most of an autistic person’s anxiety. Then you can help them find ways to manage the sensory overload or under-responsiveness, change the environmental factors that are contributing and introduce sensory activities.  Remember it can take time for an autistic child, young person or adult to recognise their own sensory differences and process the sensory information coming into their brains.  Some may be highly sensitive and anxious about going anywhere in case their senses may be assaulted, or not knowing what the sensory demands are causes anxiety. Others may take days or weeks to register the sensory demands and have a delayed reaction.  And some may need extra sensory input to be able to process their environment and the demands that are put on them.  It is so important to understand, support and work with the sensory needs of autistic people.

3. Three

I always explain and teach the child about their sensory systems and about self-regulation. A really good book I use as a reference is “Max and Me”. It is written with primary examples but I have used the story theme to talk to secondary pupils really successfully.  Mostly they will learn from experience and supportive people who understand and explain things to them.  It takes a long time to learn to recognise and self-regulate. We mustn’t expect the child to be in control of their emotions, but teach them how emotions affect us and explore what they are like inside, the physical responses as well as the thoughts and feelings.  “The incredible 5 point Scale” is a good visual resource for some autistic children and young people.  There is something else that they should be taught too, that we can seek out trusted others to help us regulate (feel better).

4. Four
I have been using Emotion Works (see my blog about this here) to get the pupils identifying and noticing that they are anxious and where or what triggers it. The visuals and components of emotions in the cogs are brilliant and I have used these with primary and secondary children,  just adjust the communication accordingly. We use symbols that come with the pack, pictures and talk, depending on the child’s communication strengths. It has been good to look at other emotion words that go with anxiety so that we can explore a greater range of situations and give words to the feelings they have. But the essence is this – we often only look at the behaviour and try to figure out what the trigger was.  We can work out the child is anxious, but it is really helpful to connect these elements  trigger = body sensations = intensity = behaviour.  From this we can look at what could make them feel better by addressing the body sensations and intensity rather than just the trigger.

5. Five
Naming an emotion helps. Recognising that this feeling is anxiety, worry, frustration and what the difference is does take time. Some autistic people have a difficult time recognising emotions. We just take it at the child’s pace. We might work with just 2-3 words or (in one particular child) 20-30 words.  Start to build your own word list of emotions and we find it useful to work with the 5 point scale.  We also use visuals from www.do2learn.com and group emotion words into sad, happy, angry and worried columns.  We make sure that at the start of the scale is one of the words – calm, okay or fine as our baseline.  Because, let’s be honest, we are not usually just happy or sad. You can help by making talking about emotions part of your everyday like and have a commentary on your emotions.  Simply say things like “I’m tired and it’s making me a bit grumpy.  I’m going to have a rest to make me feel better.”  See below for a way we have put a word list together with some of our pupils.  This took a long time, we didn’t rush it and let the pupils contribute at every point. We did work about what each work meant and felt like to each person.  With younger children it can take years to get to that point.

6. Six
Introduce positive emotion words. Living with anxiety 24/7 often means that the person doesn’t really focus on positive emotions and times that they might be happy or content are rare. Anxiety can be in the background all the time and so to bring positive emotions to the fore needs some training. Mindfulness techniques are really useful but make sure they make sense to the person and aren’t too abstract.

7. Seven
Teach the science of anxiety. My pupils love this booklet from GoZen. http://www.gozen.com/understand-your-childs-anxiety-infographic/ I use it with mainstream pupils, sometimes upper KS2 but mainly in secondary. It’s there to help the children understand what worry/anxiety is and how it affects us physically and our responses.

8. Eight
The last part is generally the longest and hardest. Finding ways that help us manage anxiety and change it into ‘calm’ or just ‘okay’ is okay. There are lots of things to try on the GoZen site but I know this is an individual pursuit. Coming alongside the child and trying things out, maybe recording what experiences help them feel better does take time. Often autistic children will use escapism to hide away from the anxious feelings. This is often in video games, books or You Tube videos. (which can be really helpful too.)  I try to help them find things that don’t just stop the anxiety being at the front of their mind for a while (because if that is your only strategy then there is a higher risk of turning to drugs, alcohol and other substances to mask the feelings later in their lives). Tony Attwood again, recommends ‘fixing the feeling’ by putting together a toolkit of strategies that work for them. I put together a booklet with the following headings and together we explore what tools the pupil has.

  • Physical Activity tools (Quick release of emotional energy)
  • Relaxation tools (Slow release of emotional energy)
  • Social tools (People and social activities that make me feel better.)
  • Thinking Tools (Thoughts, problem solving ideas, my favourite things, gratitude)
  • Special Interest Tools (Being an expert in my interest)
  • Sensory Tools (slowing down the messages to my brain)

These are not failsafe strategies and not all these things will help all autistic children. They are just some ideas and strategies I have developed with and for the children I support. It is important that the child ‘owns’ what they are learning and knows it’s about their own self-regulation. Anxiety is a huge part of life and for some, it is the environment that is the issue, not their self-awareness.  We work with children individually and in small groups to work out how it is for them and then work with them to help them navigate and manage the anxiety they feel.  It has to be with them, for them and at their pace. 

 

Please do share your tips and ideas too. Thank you. 

The Other Side of Autism.

 

By now you might have heard the story about a dad putting out an appeal for a blue Tommee Tippee cup for his autistic son, Ben,  who won’t drink from any other cup.  The cup his son has used since he was 2 years old is wearing out and there is nothing at all they can persuade him to take a drink from. Hundreds of identical cups have now been sent to the family. Tommee Tippee have made a special batch from an old mould so he’ll have a life time supply of identical cups.

Doesn’t that make you feel good? Does it make you say aaahhh, and restore your faith in humanity?

But have you read on? Have you read that the boys family can still not persuade their son to drink out of any of the new cups, even ones that are battered and old too? It still has to be the same old cup. They have all these identical cups, but to Ben, they are not.  He is not being awkward or naughty.   Ben is autistic. 

I spent a good few years working in a special school with children with this type of autism. Children who found the world completely confusing and overwhelming. Children who could not speak at all or who could speak but not communicate what they were finding difficult. These were children who were interested in many different things, who had a sense of humour and could explore and interact with those that they felt safe with. They were also children who made progress. But the progress we wanted to measure was not the progress demanded by the National Curriculum. 

There are children with autism who will grow up into adults who need lifelong care. They will never be able to live independently and many will never learn to talk.  They will communicate and show their feelings through behaviour. That behaviour might be happy, excited, withdrawn, violent, self-harming, repetitive or self-stimulating. Their families must care for them and must fight to get the support and services that they are entitled to, but are rare to find working well. Many will need to be supported in social care services, supported living accommodation and forever be at the mercy of politicians and dwindling resources. They will have to rely on staff who are poorly paid, work long hours and shifts. They may be lucky and find a place that is well run, trains it’s staff, understands their personal needs and abilities and provides a life for the people who it cares for.  These places do exist and families whose children go to these as adults are profoundly grateful that they do. You probably don’t want to think about the alternative, but people with this kind of autism are vulnerable to bullying, abuse, neglect and not having any of the dignity they deserve from those who are paid to look after them.  It is no wonder families with children with all kinds of autism are worried about their child’s future.

This kind of autism seems a world away from most mainstream classrooms.   Autism is truly a wide spectrum.

In the TES this Friday, Uta Frith wrote about how she thinks that only special schools can really teach children with autism well. She made the point that all children on the autistic spectrum need a bespoke education programme because our education system is not set up for them at all. After working in both the mainstream and the special school sector I would have to agree with much of what she says. Yes, children with autism need their own bespoke education plans. (It’s what we do in our role as a specialist teachers, even in mainstream schools). They need well trained staff who ‘get it’ and know many different ways to provide good communication, education, life skills and social interaction. Every child with autism is different. There are many who can cope with and survive our mainstream education system, on the surface. With a good support system and understanding of their condition, many can thrive and achieve in mainstream schools. (There really are those that do, but it is often at the expense of having to work much harder than anyone else and experiences of bullying, social exclusion and anxiety far beyond what most children go through. )

But those with the kind of autism that means they can’t even pretend to cope in a mainstream school – they need the specialist schools, staff and systems that work for their needs, not the league tables or government incentives. The National Curriculum means nothing to them. A safe, secure, predictable learning environment with staff who know how to teach them, with therapists, equipment and opportunities to learn in the community can be better found in a special school.

I’m a fan of inclusion. I believe in it with my whole heart. But not at the expense of failing children whose needs are profound and very different from the way we do things in mainstream schools. Mainstream schools as they are cannot meet the needs of all autistic children. Especially the ones like Ben with the Tommee Tippee cup. We need to recognise the amazing specialist work the teachers and staff in a specialist school do, we need to recognise that the curriculum for many children with these needs will work best if it is matched to their needs. 

My only worry (and it’s a big one) is that by seeing special schools and children with these profound needs as separate, then we encourage social exclusion. My greatest desire is that all children grow up seeing disability as part of being human. That they don’t think it is clever to call people with learning disabilities names in the street and that they want to make a society that cares for those who need caring for all their lives within a fair and competent system. I hope that they fight for the society that makes it so. But if they never meet or interact with people with that kind of disability as children, they maybe they won’t even know they are there when they are adults.

 

 

Autism in the Early Years

Children can be diagnosed with autism before they are 5, but there will also be a significant number of autistic children that are not diagnosed until later.  It is therefore important that early years staff are aware of what autism is, how to recognise the signs in young children and what they can do about it.  Training is important, as is good observation skills and awareness of other SEND conditions, as it may not necessarily be autism.

Whether or not a child has a diagnosis, if they have characteristics that seem like autism and they are finding it difficult to access play and learning in the early years setting, then generally the strategies that would be suggested for autistic children, can also be used with any child.  That is because they are about accepting the child’s individual needs and strengths, communicating well to them and providing a structure to and visual support for learning.

Language delay and echolalia (repeating words, phrases or scripts) are often features of autistic children, but some have amazingly advanced language and vocabulary.  Some will find reading easy and some will find it difficult.  They may have special interests, they may have limited and repetitive play.  They may find other pupils confusing and avoid them, or they may be always in the middle of the group, sometimes trying to dominate what everyone else will do. They may find eye contact difficult but have amazing memory.

Many children with autism struggle most with sensory overload in a busy early years environment.  Focus and attention are difficult when you are trying so hard to stop the noise, light, smell, movement, colours and textures overwhelming you. Or they may be finding it hard to work out where their body is in the space around them.  (There are many other features that may give us cause to believe a child has autism but not enough room in a blog to say them all.)

It is obviously necessary to work with parents and the school SENCO if staff believe a child may have autism. If a child has a diagnosis already, then it is important to make sure that their needs are being accommodated for and met.

The best way to include and support an autistic child is to get on their level, work from where they are and allow them to lead the way.  Provide structure, visual support and time for them to process what you ask them to do.  Play can be developed by first entering their world and Intensive Interaction is a good way to do this. ( http://www.intensiveinteraction.co.uk/about/ ) If a child is anxious to control what is happening or easily upset when there is change or unexpected outcomes, then support them in learning to understand that different things can happen through interesting toys and activities.  Don’t overwhelm them with demands and instructions but do break tasks into steps they can achieve.

There is so much more I could write.  Emma and I love working with early years children because there are so many things that can be done to build up their strengths and skills.  We look at making the environment sensory friendly for them and find the strategies to help them play and learn.

I have written a lot more about autism in the early years, much of which is in my book “How to Support Pupils with Autism Spectrum Condition in Primary School” published by LDA.   I also recommend http://www.amazon.co.uk/Playing-Laughing-Learning-Children-Spectrum/dp/1843106086

This book is good too Autism in the Early Years

I also run courses specifically for nurseries, early years settings and childminder groups.   Contact us for information.

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 CYP 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 CYP 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.  Just click on the tabs above…

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 

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.

@Mr_ALNCo

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