Autism and Christmas – Teachers are you ready?

Ok teachers this is THE half term when I get so many more emails about autistic pupils in school and their behaviour.   I wanted to warn you all and help you get ready, but not for the challenging behaviour,  no,  it’s supporting your autistic pupils at this time of year that I want to help you with so that the chances of their behaviour changing is lessened.

Of course, the culprit, the trigger for behaviour at this time of year is most likely to be Christmas, not Christmas itself, but the way we DO Christmas.

This is what happens in most primary schools…

When we are talking about behaviour changes please remember that not all autistic pupils will have challenging behaviours when they are overwhelmed – they may just as easily have withdrawn behaviour and become very quiet or unusually tired all the time.  Please watch out for the particular signs of stress in the child you teach. 

THE SCHOOL NATIVITY OR PLAY

Have you started this yet?  In the next few weeks; schools will be starting to introduce and practice for whatever Christmas play or carol service they put on.  The usual routine will begin to change as practices take the place of PE (we’ve got the hall booked anyway)  and other lessons.  Singing, performing, dressing up, CHANGE can all be overwhelming for an autistic child.   But by far the most unsettling thing or many of them is the constant, unpredictable changes to the timetable.  A spontaneous play practice might be exciting for many of the class but for an autistic child it can be a nightmare.

What to do:

  • Write a social story about what the play is about, why you are doing it and what their part in it is.
  • Make sure that you have a ‘play practice’ symbol on their visual timetable.
  • Speak to parents about how they help their child cope with Christmas and what tips they may have for supporting and/or involving their child.
  • If they cannot cope with lots of sitting around and waiting as the play is practiced, then provide a box of activities that are linked to their special interests and let them take it into the hall to play with in a quiet corner.
  • Do what you can to help them be able to take part, then always prepare them for anything new.  Show them costumes beforehand and allow them time to get used to each different thing.
  • Find any way possible for the child to be part of it.  They could have a role they choose themselves, or be in charge of prompting other actors, a role in arranging the music or managing the CD player, be the one who sorts out and gives out costumes, in charge of lighting, or sitting somewhere comfortable, doing something they feel comfortable with, but is included in the performance.  One child who loved dancing was given the role of the star and danced across the stage to her favourite music as the Wise Men followed.
  • Be realistic about evening performances and don’t insist the autistic child should come if it is too much for them.  Try to make sure parents have one successful performance to attend than two or more stressful ones.
A word about parents:

Parents have told me how heartbreaking it is to be told that their child can’t do the Christmas Play.  It’s usually said in a way that makes it sound like it would be too much for the child.  But if we could just make some accommodations, then the majority of autistic children can be included.  I can’t tell you how much this would mean to parents.  And make sure the child is named on the programme and is photographed with the whole class.

And be extra nice in saving the child’s parents a seat at the performance.  Ask them where they’d like to sit and make them feel it’s an honour to have them there.  You will do something so small to you but so huge to parents that they will never forget your kindness.

And please read this from @MrEFinch for some more great ideas about how to make your Christmas play inclusive of all children. 🙂

THE DECORATIONS
You might think it’s exciting for all the children when you stay late at school one Friday night to put up all the hand-made decorations the children have been making for weeks so that you can hear their gasps of amazement when they walk through the doors on the Monday morning.  But for an autistic child, you will have completely and unexpectedly changed their whole environment and that will cause them a great shock and anxiety.  I have known many autistic children flatly refuse to go into school because the decorations were put up suddenly, or there was a Christmas tree by the door they go into school, and others who have had meltdowns because they cannot cope with the sensory overload.

What to do:

  • Write a social story to explain why we make and display decorations at Christmas.
  • Cut down on the amount of decorations you make.  You really don’t have to do all of them.  Try to keep the classroom tidy.
  • Involve the autistic child in deciding where the decorations should go and try to have one or two decoration-free areas they can go to if overwhelmed.
  • Involve the autistic child in decorating the school Christmas tree and have some say in where it should go.

THE CRAFT

We go craft crazy in Primary schools at Christmas.  Glitter comes in huge tubs and boy do we use it liberally!  But glue, glitter, many competing textures, shiny paper can be a big sensory distraction or overload for some autistic children which can send them into sensory overload or meltdown.  (BTW – I love glitter but I’m really aware of the effect it may have on autistic children).

What to do:

  • Slow down!  It’s better to do one or two things well rather than lots of hurried, half-finished projects that get left around the room in a mess.
  • Go with what the autistic child is interested in.  For example, if they like Lego, let them make a Lego Christmas tree, scene or angel.  Take a photo and put that on their Christmas card, calendar and if necessary, even every craft project if that makes it accessible to them.
  • Don’t insist the autistic child must do the craft.  They may need to do something that is connected to their regular routine instead.  For example, if it’s usually a maths lesson, let them do maths if that helps them stay calm.

THE CHRISTMAS PARTY

More sensory overload!   Different clothes, loud music, unstructured event, everything and everybody looking different.   Food, sweets, sometimes an ‘act’ such as a clown.   A party can easily be overwhelming for an autistic child.   However, it might also be an opportunity for them to relax, not have work demands and share some of their favourite music or dance moves!

What to do:

  • Write a social story about what will happen at the party and what they can do to prepare for it.  Explain that they can wear different clothes to school and that’s ok.  Make sure parents have a copy to read at home.
  • Put the party date and how long it will last on a calendar in the classroom and have one at home too.
  • Let them choose some music to play, and if they feel more comfortable, give them the job of being DJ.
  • Make sure there is a quiet space for them to go to if things get too much.
  • Practice dancing!
  • Prepare a ‘buddy group’ of friends before the party to support and help the autistic child on the day.
  • Encourage them to bring a favourite toy to the party as a point of comfort.
  • Have a sensory area in the party or just outside so they can go to it and have time out whenever they need it.  If this means asking a member of staff to keep an eye on them for the party, then arrange that but don’t have them hovering over the child all the time.

FATHER CHRISTMAS/PRESENTS

A strange man, in a strange red suit comes into the room with a big voice calling out “Ho, Ho, Ho!” and then we ask children to go up to him and receive a wrapped up present which they have no idea about what may be inside.  Considering your autistic pupil, this may be a terrifying experience for them.   They may be ok with it, but understanding how your child may react will be important.

What to do:

  • Show the pupil pictures of the actual person who is dressing up as Father Christmas in the outfit they will be wearing.   Add this to a social story to explain that this person will be bringing a present for all the children.
  • Some children with autism will need to know what will be in the present and it is ok to tell them.   Surprises may not be something they can cope with.
  • Read the story of St Nicholas to help older children understand why we have Father Christmas.

THE LACK OF NORMAL LESSONS OR ROUTINES

All the things that happen for Christmas are not what we do normally.  As the last couple of weeks arrive, everyone is tired, the rest of the children are all excited and the usual routines are often abandoned for play practice, craft or sometimes movies or Christmas colouring sessions.  An autistic child may also be tired, overloaded and exhausted through trying to keep up with all the different things that are happening.   They may be anxious or over excited about Christmas and be finding it difficult to regulate their emotions and responses.

What to do:

  • Please don’t abandon their visual timetable.  It will be more important than ever to communicate what is happening and when.
  • Consider having more sensory calming breaks so that the child has chance to ‘chill out’ or regulate the sensory overload.
  • Have a stack of work they can access that they may prefer to do when others are doing something they find uninteresting or overwhelming.
  • Have a box of toys, activities and magazines connected to their special interests that they can access during the less structured times.

THE OUTSIDE WORLD

Just be aware that there is no break from the over stimulation that infects our society in the Christmas season.  We are all bombarded by lights, decorations, shiny things, noise, constant repetitive Christmas songs and the anticipation.  An autistic child that finds this overwhelming is going to show this in their behaviour.   Parents are going to be anxious and will have to try to support their child through this the best they can.   Please do speak to parents and ask them how they are ‘doing’ their Christmas.  Then you won’t assume things when you talk to their child.   For example, if they don’t wrap presents because that will freak out their child, then don’t wrap their class present either.

Here’s a useful link to pass onto parents if they don’t already know about it.

Christmas is really about a little baby that was born to bring hope to the world.  No-one was meant to be excluded from that simple message.  I hope that in our classrooms we can do all we can to include everyone in what should be a simple and hopeful time of light in the darkest part of the year.

Merry Christmas everyone.

 

Shared: http://www.rainbowsaretoobeautiful.com/2016/10/spectrum-and-send-sunday-36.html

Have you noticed? Girls on the Autistic Spectrum.

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…)

The problem can be that not all doctors who do diagnostic assessments are as up to date as they should be.  They don’t realise that the diagnostic assessments themselves are weighted to the male ASC characteristics and that research is only just emerging that looks at the female ASC profile. (Gould and Ashton-Smith, 2011).

Our awareness of this has been helped by female autistic adults, who are themselves seeking diagnosis and then writing about it.  So, authors like Liane Willey-Holliday, Tanya Marshall and Ann Memmott are writing blogs, books and pressing for more research to be done.   We had the recent ITV programme “Girls with Autism” which aired in July and the book released by the Limpsfield Grange school in Surrey.   A quick internet search calls up countless articles and information about girls on the spectrum.

But what do you really need to know.  Here’s a short outline of SOME of the features to look out for in girls, and if you think a girl in your class may be on the autism spectrum, then seek advice from an autism specialist teacher or an Educational Psychologist, who will be able to guide you and parents through the process.

Communication

  • Boys are often identified by their behaviour.   When they cannot find the words to use, they use actions to make their needs known or in reaction to distressing situations.  Whilst girls can also do this, often girls on the autistic spectrum can be more passive.  They may internalize their distress and be more vulnerable to mental health issues.  They may be withdrawn or ‘moody’ or just ignore the demands, rather than challenge them.
  • Girls can often speak in a babyish tone or have no regard for the hierarchy of authority in school so can be seen as cheeky or rude, when they are just stating facts.  Girls, like boys, often take language literally and so misunderstanding and confusion prevents them really ‘getting’ what is going on around them or what the teacher really means.   Girls can also be incredibly articulate and clever in certain subjects.
  • If a girl on the autistic spectrum gets by by imitating the social behaviours of those around her she may not be able to discriminate what are appropriate and what behaviours are not.

Social Communication and Interaction

  • Girls on the autistic spectrum can seem more socially active, but they can want to dominate and be in control of the friendship group or cope by imitating the social behavior of a group.  Often they cannot cope with jokes, teasing and communication breakdowns.  They may be moody, withdrawn, throw a tantrum or withdraw when things are difficult for them.   On the other hand, they may seem the life and soul of the group but struggle to maintain the friendships beyond a basic level.
  • Girls on the autistic spectrum can ‘feel’ intensely.  One thing can be intense shame when they don’t get something right, especially socially.  They cannot often tell the difference between a small social mistake, something that everyone else would just brush off and move on, or a big mistake that marks you out as odd. Consequently, a lot of stress an awkwardness can be felt when they are in any classroom groups or social situations.

Social Imagination / Flexibility of Thought

  • Play can seem very imaginative and girls on the spectrum can lose themselves intensely in books and characters.   The play however, is very strict and controlled.   For example, a doll is called a name, given a character and nothing can change that identity once it has been assigned.   The special interests the girl has can be seemingly usual interests for girls, such as in ponies or celebrities, but they can become very intense and all-consuming and younger interests can still be present in adolescence.
  • Girls on the autistic spectrum can have the same difficulties with lack of organization and planning as boys on the spectrum do.  They may have also become obsessive organisers who need to control everything or they become very distressed.   Change and new situations will also be difficult and girls can be as likely as boys to exhibit characteristics of PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance).
  • Girls on the autistic spectrum can be fun, talented, clever, and have lots of potential to make a great contribution to the world…Just like the boys!

Sensory

  • Sensory issues and dealing with a busy, noisy, smelly, confusing world can be the most stressful thing that a girl or boy on the autistic spectrum has to deal with.If you want to know what it is like, watch this clip:     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcS2VUoe12M

 To encourage you, one girl, in year 5 who received her diagnosis was extremely relieved.   She and her family read all they could about it and she initially began talking about it all the time, often using it as an excuse.   As we spent time with her to help her come to terms with her diagnosis, we looked at lots of positive role models and she asked if she could make a presentation about ASC to show her class,

“because then they might understand me and like me.”

It did indeed help her classmates understand her, and enabled friendships that had previously been disintegrating, start again and rebuild.   that’s not it, not a  ‘happy ever after’ ending and everything is sorted.  This girl is now in Year 6 and likely to be going to a different high school from her friends.  We are working with her and will work with her new school to do the best transition we can but the challenges she will face will be greater than her peers and I only can hope she receives the right support throughout her secondary years.

References

  1. https://senmagazine.co.uk/articles/articles/senarticles/is-autism-different-for-girls
  2. Gould, J. and Ashton-Smith, J. (May 2011) Missed diagnosis or misdiagnosis? Girls and women on the autism spectrum, Good Autism Practice, Vol. 12 No. 1 p 34-41.
  3. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/apr/12/autism-aspergers-girls?utm_content=bufferf7dc8&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer (Doctors failing to spot Asperger’s in Girls)

Twitter: Follow @TaniaAMarshall   @Autism_Women    @curlyhairedalis   @ResearchAutism

Emotion Works _ What is it and how can I use it in my classroom/setting?

Emotion Works was developed by Claire Murray in Edinburgh and about 4 years ago I came across it on the internet.  The first thing that caught my eye was the visual cogs.  Thinking that this would be good for the pupils with autism that we support at Reachout ASC,  we jumped on a train and attended a training day in Glasgow.

We ‘got it’ straight away.  We were working to develop the emotional literacy and problem solving skills of our pupils and here was a resource that would enable us to do this better.  We liked it because it was visual and structured.  It broke down all the issues around emotions into manageable components and this gave us the chance to use it flexibly with pupils of all different ages and abilities.  The pack and licence gave us everything we needed to get us started and we still find there is everything we need in that.  The extras that Claire has developed are great too.

This is from the Emotion Works website, explaining how Emotion Works works.

At the heart of the Emotion Works Approach is a simple and versatile visual resource called ‘The Component Model of Emotion’.  This colour-coded model identifies seven aspects of emotional knowledge and competence that work together to show how ’emotion works’.

Early Years and Primary Pupils

In Primary School there are many opportunities to develop emotional literacy.  I can see how a class teacher could use this in many lessons to explore characters in stories, poetry and topic work such as motives of key players in history.  It would be good to develop many aspects of PSHE and RE.  The literacy aspect works well to develop good writing and speaking.  Children learn to develop their own understanding of what makes them work and how events, emotions, thoughts and behaviours work together. There are some fabulous examples of whole class learning on her website.  Just look at the creative ways that teachers are using Emotion Works in the classroom.

For us as autism specialist teachers, we often work with individuals or 1:1 with pupils. We use Emotion Works as a teaching tool to develop emotional literacy. This involves introducing emotion words (using the visual symbols that come with the pack) and helping the child identify events and ‘triggers’ that prompt these emotions.  With some pupils with autism, this helps their memory and recall as well as connecting events to emotions.  With other children we use Emotion Works to help with problem solving.  We might start by identifying a problem, a situation or an emotion they are struggling with, and then work with a 4, 5 or 6 part model (depending on the child) to work out what the problem is about.  We can work out what things are connected to the problem and then concentrate on the blue cog in trying to work out what the solution or support needed could be.  This blue cog is our favouritie…”What makes me feel better?” is a good question to ask.  What we love is that all this involves the child.   They are listened to, they offer their own viewpoint and they are involved in choosing the strategies for change.  There are plenty of visual resources in the Emotion Works pack to support those with poorer verbal language and the whole structure helps pupils with autism be able to process each part at a time and then see it together as a whole.   Here is an example of one exploring the character of the troll and the Billy goat from Claire’s website.

Secondary Pupils.

To be honest, we actually use Emotion Works more with secondary age pupils than with primary.  That is mainly because we are not class teachers (if I was I’d be using it in many different lessons, as above).  We have found that pupils with autism who have made it to secondary school are coping with many more stressful situations and problems that they ever had to at primary school.  We are fortunate to work regularly with individuals (from weekly to monthly) and have time to work through issues, problems, challenges and emotions with them.  We have used Emotion Works in group work and with individuals and the reason I am writing this post and inviting Claire Murray down to Lancashire to launch Emotion Works here, is because the response we get from nearly every pupil is amazing.  Considering the difficulties pupils with autism often have in communicating and understanding different aspects of an event or emotion, we have seen that the respond to the visual structure of Emotion Works really well and the things they have been able to tell us wouldn’t have happened without this support.  We develop a lot of the ideas into a bigger visual map (such as the one about sleep, below) and the two are then permanent visual supports for the pupil , their teachers and parents to remind them of what we have discussed and what they might like to do about it.

I think I need to give you some examples.

Preparing for a new situation

From moving up to Year 10 when the curriculum changes and GCSE pressure kicks in, to going on a school trip or being invited to a party, Emotion Works has enabled us to explore with the pupil how this might be making them feel, what effect that is having on them, and what they could do to manage the emotion and situation better.  It can lead to a plan being made to help them deal with the new experience or a change in the way they are supported to enable more suitable support (for example changing from a TA in the classroom to a mentor type role to deal with the homework for GCSE).  Mostly, it helps the SENCO, parent and teachers understand what the pupil really is dealing with rather than them assuming they know!

Understanding anxiety and anger

Anger and anxiety are big emotions.  Having autism can make these bigger and more constant than for other pupils and understanding the role puberty can take in having these emotions is also important.  Each pupil has very individual triggers and reactions to these emotions and it has been amazing to be able to explore these with them.  It has worked as a small group (such as in the part example about anxiety with a group of girls with Asperger’s and the example about anger with a group of boys with ASD below).  We have found the grey cog (intensity) particularly useful and sometimes link this to the “Five Point Scale” so that we can explore how they could recognise the earlier stages of the emotion and find regulation strategies.  The purple cog (influences) was particularly good to explore next, as peer pressure and self esteem were other themes that came out of our discussion.

Part of our exploring anxiety with a group of girls with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Part of our exploring anger with a group of boys with ASD.
Working out how a Y10 pupil might sleep better (their request)

Restorative Practice

It happens occasionally that we arrive in school and there has been ‘an incident’.  We sometimes find that exploring what happened, the triggers and the emotions can really help a pupil and their teachers understand the whole story.  It often identifies where the key trigger was and helps us ask the pupil how we could restore relationships or order in a fair way.  Mostly the pupil responds well because they feel they have been listened to, even if they might have been in the wrong.  If someone else was in the wrong, or perceived to be, we can then work with the school and pupil to put things right.  On more than one occasion it has helped us identify the early stages of bullying and deal with that.  It has also helped us work with friends falling out and restore the friendship!

Teaching emotional literacy

We like all our pupils to develop emotional literacy at a level they can understand.  This is an important aspect of our support for their mental health and wellbeing.  Professor Tony Attwood says that most people with Asperger’s (and autism) don’t understand what ‘CALM’ actually is as they live with so much anxiety constantly in their lives.  We have addressed this in all our work with children and young people from the early years to young adults in giving them the chance to explore what calm means and what other emotions drive their thoughts and behaviours.  With many of our pupils we can do this using Emotion Works as our base and then concentrating on the blue cog, “What makes us feel better?”  It is from this we use a variety of other resources to explore what actually does.  It can be anxiety management, social stories, exercise and sports, sensory diets, jokes, special interests, developing friendships and other supportive relationships, ways to feel comfortable in social inclusion, learning about something new or a mixture of all these things.

The Acrylic Set of Cogs were made for us by a college DT department.

Parents and other professionals

I think this resource could really be used by parents and I can see lots of possibilities for families of children with ASC to develop emotional communication.  Starting young, one or two of the cogs can be explored and more introduced as the child gets older or more able to develop those concepts.  Teenagers may not want to talk to their parents but this may give a framework for communication in the teenage years with a no-blame and listening approach.  I’d use it to teach about drugs, alcohol and sexual attraction, consent and other big relationship and life issues.

Professional from CAMHS, hospitals and many others could use this model to explore emotional and physical difficulties.  I like the idea of doctors using this to explore what might be wrong when a person with autism is sick and show them clearly what could make them feel better.

Training enquiries email:   https://www.emotionworks.org.uk/contact/

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

What makes transition work for Autistic pupils?

image from https://tentotwenty.com

Autistic pupils can find everyday transitions difficult, as well as the major transitions that happen. The reasons can include:

  • Not being told what the change will involve,
  • What will be expected of them,
  • How long it’s going to last,
  • Perceived or real sensory challenges,
  • Not being given time enough to process the changes or enough information to do so
  • Being so engrossed and comfortable in what they are doing that they cannot seem to switch attention and move to somewhere else,

Transitions can cause a lot of anxiety.

If you’re involved in supporting children with every day transitions and often a visual timetable used correctly (see my blog post here) can help enormously and give the pupil some interaction and choices when appropriate. Giving them time to process and information about what to expect is important.  An example is a child who hated lining up because he didn’t know where he was going.  He did everything he can to avoid lining up, such as hitting others in the hope he’d be made to stay behind.  For him, we worked with him to ask “Where are we going?”;  So he didn’t have to rely on an adult telling him and he felt less anxious and more in control.

But what about the major transition of moving to the next class or from Primary to Secondary School…

When it goes well.

Transitions to a new class in the same school

The big transitions happen in September as the child moves to a new class in Primary or a new school as in starting secondary school.  For class to class transition, all the following principles apply, and I think it’s really important to help the child see what will be the SAME as well as different.  It’s how our brains cope with change.  We make connections with what is familiar to us, drawing on our past experiences and looking for connections.  We need to support autistic pupils in the same way.  I have written a social story booklet you can use here

Transition to secondary school

I’m pleased to see that many secondary schools are getting better at transition, particularly for their SEND pupils.  I say some, because others have not been so good.  I’ll come to that later.  When it works well, transition:

  • Starts as early as year 4.  Parents and the school should start to have the conversation of what is the next step for the child.  Parents need time to emotionally process the fact that their child is going to be making a major move. They will feel nervous too.  Starting early means they have time to look around, do the research and be ready for a more formal transition meeting in Y5.
  • A transition plan is put in place.  Some good resources for this can be found –  I love the resources below, do take a look.   They are really helpful in supporting parents and schools to work together.  Often the secondary school won’t get involved until the child has been offered a definite place.  DON’T PANIC.  There is still plenty of time for them to do a good transition.
  • The autistic pupil is helped to prepare, gently, positively and with the right support for them.  I often start with a timeline at the start of Y6.  This plots out the whole year and key events, including secondary applications, notifications of places, holidays, trips, open evenings and trips to secondary schools and so on.  We use different coloured pens and are able to add other things that come up.  This works better than a calendar for most, as they can see the whole year and how much time is between each event.
  • The pupil is familiar with their new class / school before they make the move.  This should take as many visits as the child needs, at different times.  For example, the first visit during lesson time when all the classes are in their rooms and the corridors are quiet.  Extra visits might be made to familiarise the pupil with the dining hall, where the lockers and toilets are and where they can go for help, or quiet places to go at break times.
  • The pupil has had the chance to meet key people who will be there to support them on their first day.   Photos may be taken to remind them over the summer holidays.
  • The pupil has someone they can discuss their worries and fears with.  They have the opportunity to chat in a group with peers/friends so that they all know they have similar challenges ahead and so that they can help each other with suggestions.
  • Relevant and up-to-date paper work has been prepared and passed on to the SENCO of the receiving school.  This does not always happen.
  • The Primary school begin to help the pupil learn to work with other adults, especially if they’ve had a long term TA, it is unusual and probably not possible for a pupil to have the same 1:1 all the time at secondary school.
  • The pupil has some input and contribution to their transition.  This may include choosing dates and activities to do on visits, taking their own photos or video around the new school, choosing their new school bag, preparing a place to do home work.(Advice for pupils who are struggling with anxiety or unable to do homework)
  • Parents feel informed, reassured and that they know who to contact when issues or questions arise.
  • The receiving teachers/school has had or is planning Autism training so that staff understand the spectrum and range of strengths and support needs in autism and how to help the pupil(s) that they are welcoming into their school or class.   You can start with my Ten Top Tips for Secondary teachers.

Schools who do good and successful transitions are flexible, involve the children and reassure parents.  One school I work with has a very successful summer school that has help numerous Autistic and SEND pupils to settle in well once they start Y7.  This school also has a dedicated Y7 support teacher, who doesn’t teach and works with all the pupils to deal with issues as soon as they come up right throughout their first year of secondary school.

When it goes badly.

Sometimes the move to a new class or school goes wrong for the child.  Often ending in permanent exclusion or at best, a lot of hard work to claw back the progress that should have been made.  Sometimes this is the time a specialist teacher is called for,  it’s not a good point to start.  We would much rather help at the actual transition stage and avoid some of these mistakes.  In the end, it can destroy a child’s confidence, their education chances and mental health.    Having had to pick up the pieces of failed transitions in the past, it’s always the child who suffers most.  I do a lot of work with our county’s Primary and Secondary PRUs. The PRUs I work with will agree with me. They are getting more and more autistic pupils who have been excluded from mainstream schools and many could have been supported better.

Bad transitions happen when:

  • No one bothers to put a plan in place.
  • The pupil is not given any preparation that is suitable for them.
  • Parents are not consulted and there is poor communication between the schools and home.
  • The pupil is ‘forced’ to move through exclusion or a hurriedly ‘managed move’.
  • Communication between schools is poor or non-existent.
  • Paperwork is not passed on so receiving school know nothing about the child’s needs.
  • A ‘no-excuses’ approach to behaviour is rigidly enforced from day 1 and child learns to fail straight away without any support to achieve good behaviour.
  • Staff don’t have any Autism training and think the pupils are ‘doing it on purpose’ (whatever ‘it’ may be).
  • Staff think that ‘kids like that’ shouldn’t be in their school.

I hate having to write this part.  Thankfully we work with some fantastic schools who get transition right.  It’s the stories we hear from other sources and when children have come to them on ‘managed moves’ or without the right support that we have realised that these things actually happen.  Parents then have a fight to help their son or daughter settle into a secondary school that doesn’t seem to want them.

If you are a parent, SENCO or teacher starting to think about a move to secondary school, or even to the next class then here are some great resources.  Good planning and preparation that involves the pupil will pay off generously in years to come.

http://www.autismspectrumeducation.com/uploads/6/9/9/1/699189/primary_to_secondary_transition_workbook.pdf

National Autistic Society advice on transition

Leicestershire Autism advice booklet on transition to high school

 

 

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. 

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. 

 
resource made by Lynn McCann @ReachoutASC

 

Help! I’ve Got a Child with Autism in My Class

Don’t panic

If you are getting an autistic child 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 autistic child is different, has their own strengths as well as difficulties and with the right support can usually have a successful year in your class.

Here are 4 things you can do to start off your year with this child on the right footing:

1. LISTEN

To the parent who will be eager to tell you all about their child, what works for them, what upsets them and how it is for them at home.  This is important information and at the beginning of term it is quite okay just to listen and respond with a “I’m looking forward to getting to know your child.  Let’s meet again [at agreed date] and see what plans we can make for the rest of the year.”  Planned and structured meetings with parents can alleviate the anxieties they have and give you valuable information about the child.   Don’t forget to ask the parent about the child’s good points, interests and strengths.

2. READ IT

You will more than likely be given some information about the child from their previous teacher or from your SENCO.   There may be anything from one page to a file full of paperwork.  Make it your priority to READ the most up to date document.   Hopefully this will be an Educational Psychologists report and/or an Education, Health and Care Plan.  Read the All About Me section which will give you the views of the parent and child themselves.   If you  are given nothing else but a one-page pupil profile READ THIS.   For all the paperwork I advise you to get a highlighter and highlight the statements that you think will be most useful for you to know as you plan for the child in your lessons.

3. USE IT

Children with ASD need structure and predictability.  If you are advised or given a visual timetable for the child – It isn’t wallpaper,  it needs to be changed every day, the child needs to be able to take off each activity as it finishes and know that the day is going to end and when.   Visual timetables teach the child about order and sequencing, supports them to be able to organise themselves and supports the development of their memory and recall skills.  Imagining what something will be like, or worrying about how long they have, or what is going to happen in the day are really common challenges for children with autism.   A visual timetable and other visual supports can make all the difference to them engaging in the classroom activities and lessons.  See here for more about Visual timetables

4. INCLUDE IT

One of the best ways to motivate a child with autism is to link what they are doing to their special interests.  It can be in a reward chart of a TARDIS, lots of opportunities to write about their favourite topic, space in the day to indulge in a ‘topic box’ of items or toys that relate to their interests. Maths can be done through Lego, Beast Quest writing can cover English writing targets and Space can be linked to and illustrate all kinds of topics in the curriculum.   This works in primary and Secondary.   Be creative, and get the child on your side.  It does mean digressing from your carefully planned lessons, but think carefully about the learning target.  If it is to understand addition or quadratic equations – can it be made relevant to a pupil who finds school a great challenge and who has an area of great expertise that they are always being told they cannot talk about!

Of course, you want the child with Autism to engage in a variety of learning tasks and topics, but include and acknowledging their special interests or obsessions can build upon their strengths and make school that bit more successful for them.

This blog is going to answer questions about supporting pupils with autism, from teachers and support staff.   Ask your questions in the comments on each post, by using the contact form on this website or even just through Twitter or Facebook (@ReachoutASC or https://www.facebook.com/pages/Reachout-ASC-Autism-Support/613767255409671 )

Supporting Children with Autism at Playtimes.

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

Playtimes can be tricky for autistic children ….

  • 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.
It’s also important to understand that autistic children are social beings but often do things differently from others.  But this is okay as long as we can learn to communicate with each other.  Please look at this work by Dr Damian Milton called the Double Empathy Theory for more information on this.

“Whilst it is true that autistic people can struggle to process and understand the intentions of others within social interactions, when one listens to the accounts of autistic people, one could say such problems are in both directions.”     Dr Damian Milton – The Double Empathy Problem

Here are some ways you can help.

  • 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 how to be a social detective –  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 autistic child ‘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.

WE’ve developed a whole set of prepared resources you can buy to help you teach being a Social Detective – see here.

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.