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 autistic children 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 may be autistic 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 be autistic. 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’m very excited to tell you about the ‘Supporting Autistic Learners in the Early Years’ course I have done on Schudio TV. You can access it as a member and also as a one off course for only £20. I have fantastic interviews with Dulci Norton, an Early Year Teacher in Padiham Lancashire, and Sophie Humphries from https://www.liverpoolspeechtherapy.com/about-us
Find the course at https://www.schudio.tv/courses/autism-in-the-early-years
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.
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