Autism in the Early Years

​This post is a promised contribution to #childcarehour run by @LyndseyJF @blueybaloo and @earlyyearsideas

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 children with autism, 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 in April 2016.   But until you get hold of my book, I also recommend http://www.amazon.co.uk/Playing-Laughing-Learning-Children-Spectrum/dp/1843106086 

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

Building good relationships with parents of children with autism.

image from http://quotesgram.com/

​“We don’t see that behaviour at school”

“He’s doing it on purpose, he gets away with it at home”

“There’s no structure at home, you know”

These are one or two of the comments I hear regularly.It certainly not from all teachers or teaching staff, and it’s certainly not heard in many schools I work with.  But during training discussions or the occasional, off-the-cuff remark, there is an underlying search to find blame for a child with autism’s behaviour.   Especially when they have meltdowns – in school or at home.   Or if the behaviour is a controlling or manipulating behaviour.   No teacher likes to think a child is trying to manipulate them.  We are human after all.

Don’t get me wrong….

​Don’t get me wrong, parents of children with autism are as human as the rest of us.  Some are so overwhelmed they don’t know what to do, some are given a diagnosis and then dropped into a black hole of nothing – no advice, no courses, no strategies, no support.  Some are dealing with their own difficulties, some families are broken and dealing with issues beyond what we may know.   Some families are trying everything they can, do all the research, attend all the courses and know their child’s needs inside out.

We can safely assume all parents love their child with autism, want the best for them and need support and understanding from the school system to help them travel this journey with a child with special needs.  No matter what their circumstances the very first barrier they come up against is judgement.

Sometimes, as we discuss behaviour on a course I am presenting, the teaching staff want to know how much of a child’s behaviour is because the parent isn’t doing a good job.   It can sound like they want to pass the buck to explain why they are finding the child’s behaviour difficult to control, manage or change.   Obviously I do explain how supporting a child who has high anxiety, sensory overloads, constant need for routines and familiarity, and difficulty with social relationships (including the interactions with family members) as well as trying to develop a safe, loving, constant, predictable and supportive life for their child is just as much a learning journey for the parent as it is for the school.   We only have the child in our class for one year in a primary school or a few lessons a week if at secondary school.   The parent has the child’s whole life to think of and that will be their focus.   They will be worried that their needs will not be met.  They will worry about admitting that they can’t help their child with their meltdown’s or other behaviours.   They will worry about them growing up and needing care when they aren’t there.   They will worry whether they could ever get married, have children, hold down a job.

And school is so often a battleground.  Parents have to fight to get their child’s needs met.  They have to try to understand the complex SEND processes and the tonnes of paperwork, appointments and in-depth questioning of their family life just to get some help for their child at school.  (Some parents know the SEND law far better than schools, because they have had to).  They are well aware that their child with autism is often under great stress just to manage the social, communication and curriculum demands of each day.   As teachers we need to understand this. And yes, occasionally, some parents will be getting it wrong.  But who are we to use that against them?   It’s our job as teachers to do all we can to make school work for a child with autism, and where possible work with parents in a professional and positive way.   Every bit of effort you put into building a positive relationship with parents (even those who start off very defensive or even aggressive) will pay off and can help the child in ways you couldn’t do without it.

So here are my top tips for working with parents.

  • Communicate. Communicate.  Communicate.  Plan this so it is manageable and set an agenda for chats if you need to.  I encourage schools to set a regular time to talk to parents about what their child is doing in school.  For example, every Thursday after school for ½ hour.  Or every 2 weeks for so many minutes.  Whatever time you can make or is available.  Email each other, but put safe boundaries in for you both to understand.  This can help prevent parents and teachers or TAs getting frustrated about when they can meet up and prevent getting into the habit of meeting EVERY afternoon which isn’t sustainable.  Some parents like a list of points they can prepare for, others just want to ‘offload’.  Remember you can’t solve all the problems they are having.  Often all they need is for someone to listen.   If you have agreed the timescale before-hand, make sure you give your full attention to them for that time you have promised.
  • When you talk to parents don’t make it a list of everything the child has done wrong.  Tell them important news about what’s happening in school, what their child has done well and celebrate excellent moments.  Many children with autism do not tell their parents anything about school.  School is school, home is home.   Some are too exhausted to recall what has been for them a stressful day, even when things have gone well.
  • Remember that parents do know their children best.   Ask, listen and learn from them.
  • Consider using a home-school diary.  Share bullet points about the events of the day and a general overview of the child’s positive moments.   If the child is non-verbal you could use a picture based record like the one below…
  • Parents do need to know about serious incidents but these should be spoken about by phone or face to face rather than third hand (from other parents) or via the home-school book.
  • Invite parents to contribute the targets in the child’s IEP.  We used to have ways the parent could (if they wanted) generalise the target at home.  This was particularly useful for communication, social and independence targets.  
  • Find out where they can get extra help / support for issues that are beyond school.  A list of local support groups for a variety of SEND needs can be put on the schools website.

I’m sure there are many more ideas.  Please do share your good practice in the comments.  There’s too many parents of children with SEND /Autism who find school communication frustrating, patronising and difficult.  It doesn’t have to be.  And if it does break down because there is a parent who doesn’t want to work with school, then we stay professional and still do the right thing.  It’s our job. â€‹


resource made by Lynn McCann @ReachoutASC

Supporting Children with Autism at Playtimes.

image from http://clc2.uniservity.com/

​Playtimes can be tricky for children with autism….

  • It’s unstructured time – which some like (no demands) and others hate (don’t know what to do or how to fill the time).
  • It’s a sensory overload – which some love because they are sensory seekers and need the movement and sensory stimulation and others hate because the sights, sounds, smells, noise, weather, movement, touch and space of a playground hurts them.
  • It’s socially demanding – which most don’t like because there’s a lot to take in, children are moving and talking and shouting and playing and coming at them from all directions.They might not know where to start to even ask to play, and possibly no-one asks them to play.
  • The rules keep changing – so when they thought they were playing one game, someone changes it to another,  just like that,  and they can’t keep up and are left behind – or get angry because you changed the rules and that is stressful beyond words.
  • There’s no place to escape – some will wander, trying to find their own bit of space where they can just be on their own for a bit.  Others will invent their own worlds to escape to so the noise and mess around them can be shut out.
  • It’s scary and it’s easy to feel angry – Children are running, screaming and pushing. How do they know when to stop?  Imagine a child with autism who is frightened, because they don’t know how to stop themselves or join in without getting it wrong.  Hitting out at others is just getting them out of the way…or attempting to join in when you can’t communicate so well.
  • It’s exhausting – even though a child with autism may look like they’re doing ok and joining in, the effort is exhausting.  You notice it when they come back into class, especially in the afternoon. Or maybe it’s their parents who find out when they go home and it all comes out.  They’ve used up all their spoons. 

​There are many reasons why playtimes can be difficult for children with autism.  These issues don’t go away when they get to high school – in fact, the child with autism can become more isolated and stressed over break times and no-one may notice.

Here are some ways you can help – feel free to add your ideas to the comments below and join me for the #behaviourchat at 8.00 – 8.30pm on Monday 30th January on Twitter – on this very topic.  Come and join in so we can learn from each other. 

  • Build in some structure – work with the child to find ways of structuring the playtimes.  It could be 3 x 5 minute activities.  It could be a set of game bags that they choose one to play with a friend. (Jenny Mossley’s playtime books have some great ideas about these).
  • Give them some time to be alone – inside if necessary.  Some children need this.  Don’t force them to be sociable and interact with others if it is causing them so much stress.  They might like to just do nothing particular, a sensory calming activity, or to play with some of their favourite toys.  They might like to do certain jobs such as tidying the library or sorting out the Lego.   They might find this helps them cope better with the rest of the day.
  • Assess how anxious playtime is making the child –  This will indicate what you may need to do.  If anxiety is high, don’t ignore it.  Staying in, or letting them have a break from interaction may be the best thing you can do to help them regulate their anxiety.   For others, a TA to support them might be what they need and that makes them feel safer and happier.   For others, supporting them and the other children to play together well might be what they need.
  • Involve Sensory Movement Activities –  Or any sensory activities that the child may use and is part of their sensory diet, if they have one.  Get other children to join in.   For example, a sensory seeking child may love to have a group of children doing a sensory circuit with them on the playground equipment.
  • Think carefully before using a TA to supervise 1:1 at playtimes –  Why are they there?  What is their role?  Is it to help the child learn skills they want to learn, or to prompt them about behaviour?  Is the TA going to be spending the time telling the child off, or modelling to other children how to interact well with the child?
  • Have a buddy group – This works more informally than a Circle of Friends.   It depends on the child and their desire to have people they can play with. Ideally a buddy group is supported through sessions where they work out what they all like to play, discuss what to do if someone doesn’t want to play and how to help each other to have an enjoyable playtime.It can work well with high school students too.
  • Have break time clubs –  Those that cover the particular interests of the children with ASC work well.  In primary schools, I have helped set up dinosaur, Mario and Lego clubs; games clubs and computer clubs.  In high schools, I’ve seen ‘Snack and Chat’ groups; Minecraft, Warhammer, craft and science clubs.
  • Teach social skills –  This helps children learn to understand what is going on, how to join in with what they would like to and learn to interact with their friends.  I do a lot of social skills teaching but it isn’t about trying to make the child with autism ‘fit in’ but is about teaching a group of children how to accept and get along with each other.   We often do this through social stories that explain and games to practice how we work together.  It helps the non-autistic children just as much because all children need to develop the skills and knowledge about how to interact successfully with a wide range of people.  That’s why listening to each other is a big part of that.

Part of the resistance to this level of support at playtimes comes from lack of staffing available to set up and implement/supervise these interventions.   But we also forget that we have staff, especially at lunch times that could be trained up to work with and support children with ASC.   Welfare staff are often the last to be invited to training and meetings about ASC or the children they spend an hour with every day.  Investment in welfare staff training can be very effective. 

I look forward to hearing about all your experiences and shared advice at the #behaviourchat on Monday 8.00 – 8.30pm.