Why does my autistic child suddenly meltdown “out of nowhere”?

outline of a person with words such as stress, anxiety and pressure written inside.

*”A meltdown (or shutdown) is when a child becomes very distressed and emotionally overwhelmed.  They can be caused by many different factors, such as situations that are unpredictable, sudden changes or things not happening as the child was expecting.  They can also be delayed as the child takes time to process a difficult situation and sometimes are caused by a build up of stressors so not one particular thing has triggered the distress. The child in meltdown does not intend to hurt or harm or indeed cannot often control what is happening to them.  They are often frightened, overloaded and the way we react to them can often make it worse, not that we ever intend that!”   Lynn McCann  

 Understanding some of the triggers and also how to support a child from meltdown to recovery can take some working out – but here, Sarah Loveridge, one of our specialist teachers, gives some advice on where to look first. 

Whether you’re a teacher, TA or parent of an autistic child, we’ve all been there. Everything seems to be going fine and then seemingly “out of nowhere” we’ve got a huge meltdown on our hands. Where did it come from? Was it something we said?

Believing that meltdowns come from nowhere is a dangerous notion. It leads to a sense of helplessness and frustration in us as adults as we scramble to try and figure out what’s caused this outburst of emotion. It also changes our perceptions towards autistic (and non-autistic!) children, painting them as unpredictable, out of control or just plain stroppy.  Behaviour is often a communication that something isn’t right or that some need isn’t being met (whether that’s a toddler “needing” a toy at the supermarket, or a teenager “needing” to feel accepted, loved and supported – both demonstrations of a certain behaviour tell us something).

It might help to picture your autistic child as a bottle of fizzy drink. Every time they get triggered, they’re shaken up a little bit. This keeps happening throughout the day until suddenly the lid comes off and their emotions (sometimes quite literally) go everywhere. This is what we call a meltdown (or shutdown, when they internalise their distress) and it can often appear to come “out of nowhere”. This is because the triggers have been building up gradually until it all becomes too much.

a cola bottle having been shook up and the lift bursts off

The good news is that whilst with autistic children it’s never one-size-fits-all, there are usually some patterns we can look out for to help us support our autistic children before they hit the meltdown stage.

If we can spot these triggers and patterns throughout the day, then we’re one step closer to supporting our children better through the chaos that is daily life. This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are some key areas to look out for:

Often it is the actions of others that can cause the build up of stress and pressure.  If the child isn’t being supported correctly at school, or if they are being picked on, left out or bullied by others.  Check these issues out too.  If a child can’t tell you, you will have to investigate and trust your instincts as parents or as professionals.  

Communication

1. Whether your autistic child is non-verbal, talks a lot and has mature vocabulary, or is somewhere in between, they all have their own ways of communicating. If we push them to communicate constantly in a way that is difficult for them (eg lots of verbal communication with little or no visual support) then this can be very draining and may lead to meltdowns later in the day.

TOP TIP: Use visuals as much as possible rather than just relying on verbal communication, and make it a two way street. Get them to show you how they’re feeling or what they want, rather than trying to explain it. Use visual timetables to plan out the day and prepare them for any changes. Show them pictures of new or unfamiliar places (like the dentist) rather than just telling them. Using visuals can reduce anxiety and therefore hopefully also reduce meltdowns. We also need to give processing time – so pause often and don’t be too quick to repeat or rephrase something.

2. Some autistic children are very keen to chat, and will talk to you for hours about their special interest or ask a hundred questions about why you’re doing something. Although this may sound completely effortless it can actually be very draining, especially if they’re talking to somebody new.

TOP TIP: If you spot a pattern of your child being very talkative in the morning and then having consistent meltdowns in the afternoon, this might mean they need some help spreading their communication energy out throughout the day. Make sure they have access to sensory activities to support their energy levels and if you say you will have a chat later – make that a specific time and keep to it. They might need help recognising that they need some alone time in the afternoon to recharge. It’s all about balance – if they’re able to do a 2 hour presentation to a room full of people, great! Don’t stop them from doing that, but be aware that they will probably need to ensure nothing else is planned in for the rest of the day.

Social Interaction

3. This is heavily linked to communication and can be vastly different from day to day, depending on who your child is interacting with and how that interaction goes. Again, if they are in a new or unfamiliar situation (eg talking to a grandparent they haven’t seen for 3 years) then this will put more pressure and strain on them than if they’re talking to you or someone else they see regularly (and like!)

TOP TIP: Put some structure in place around social interactions. Maybe they could play their favourite card game with the new person and explain the rules carefully at the start. Maybe they can take some pictures of their special interest so they have something familiar to talk about. Keep the interactions short if possible, and you might want to discuss this time limit with your child beforehand. Again, they may need some time to regulate/recharge after a new interaction, so plan this into your day too.

And let’s remember the other side too – it shouldn’t all be up to the autistic child to change their behaviour. Tell the relation or visitor what their role is in this, for example you could encourage them not to keep asking questions or demand hugs. Ask them to give your child space if they want it and time to process. If you manage the time and intensity of new social interactions carefully, this can minimise the risk of a meltdown later on.

4. Social interactions in large groups can be very difficult for autistic children, as they try to focus in on lots of different people talking at once (especially if they have sensory needs – we’ll come back to that). Again, these times are often unstructured (eg playtime at school or playing football with friends) and it can be draining for your child to try and work out all the social rules required for them to “fit in” with those around them. Should they shout “goal!” every time someone scores? Does everyone hi-five or just certain people? How much eye contact does this game require? Why is everyone wearing a coat even though it’s sunny?

TOP TIP: Encourage the other children to explain rules of games very clearly (eg in our running race, where do we start and end? When do we go? etc)  – it shouldn’t all be reliant on the autistic child changing to fit in so teach neurotypical (non-autistic) children how to adapt too. Give your autistic child an “out”, whether this is a space where they can go and sit if it starts to become overwhelming or a “job” they can do to get away for a bit. Again, be aware that after spending time in a group, your child may need some time alone or with one “safe” person to recharge. And also let’s remember, some autistic children might use playtime as a chance to regulate themselves after sitting in a noisy classroom during lessons so sitting alone might be just what they need.

Remember to give all children some specific praise when they interact well with those around them – things like “well done, you made space for each other” or “thanks for allowing everyone to choose a rule in your game” or “well done for giving each other a turn”. By stating specifically what they did well, we can give them some helpful clues about how to understand the social things around them whilst also explaining to others the social communication of your autistic child.

Sensory

5. Sensory needs that aren’t being met can be a constant source of frustration, confusion and sometimes even pain for an autistic child. For example, they may be hypo-sensitive which means their senses are under-stimulated and they fidget because their muscles are not giving the brain strong enough signals. To counteract this feeling, they rock on their chair or get up and walk around to wake their body up. On the other hand, they might be hyper-sensitive which means their senses are over-stimulated and light/sound/textures can become overwhelming. To deal with this, they may sing to themselves to block out other sounds, put their hands over their ears, run away or may hide under tables to get away from the light.

TOP TIP: It can be easy to create a “sensory safe space” at home or in your classroom by using a teepee, pop up tent or even just a blanket draped over a table. Ideally it will be quiet and fairly dimly lit, to minimise the potential for sensory over-stimulation. Create it together so it’s somewhere special and personalised for them. You could put a favourite book in there, or some music they like or a big beanbag to give their muscles some sensory feedback (especially if they’re hyposensitive) — personalise it together. This can then be used as a retreat throughout the day (before they become overwhelmed) to help them regulate, therefore reducing the risk of future meltdowns. It can also be a safe space to access during a meltdown to help them calm.

Remember – if they need movement then make it happen! Let them sit on a peanut or body ball, use a trampet, go for a walk or stretch with a yoga band. Let’s not teach children to suppress these needs but rather give them strategies and space to help them get sensory feedback in appropriate and safe ways.

6. If your autistic child’s senses are being over-stimulated they may live each day in a constant state of high alert. We might think they are anxious and worried all the time.  Ever wonder why your child’s eyes dart around the room whenever someone moves? Or how they know exactly where each fire exit is? Or why they “patrol” the perimeter of your picnic blanket? Things that may seem small to us, like preferring a certain pencil or not liking the consistency of some foods can have a huge impact on how well autistic children are able to function from day to day.

TOP TIP: Don’t assume that a child is just being “fussy” or “picky” if they refuse certain objects or food. If possible, open a conversation with them about why they don’t like it. What in particular is making them squirm or refuse? Make a little note of it and see if you can start to spot any patterns. This will help you to understand your child more and figure out ways how to work around potential triggers that may lead to a meltdown later in the day. Pick your battles – do they have to eat porridge for breakfast or could they have some dry cereal? Is it vital that they wear a coat or can they manage without?

Recommended further reading – The Out-of-Sync child by Carol Stock-Kranovitz.

 There is so much more we could say on this and we know that every child is different so be kind to yourself. It will take time and patience to figure out those specific trigger points but hopefully by starting to spot patterns throughout the day, the links between potential triggers and future meltdowns will become a little bit clearer.  Your child will communicate to you and you can be their advocate.  If they need adjustments, it’s the right thing to do.

Keep going, you’re doing a great job!

Written by Sarah Loveridge –  Reachout ASC Teacher, May 2021

Supporting autistic children through bereavement.

A young girl in a red dress sitting on the right of a long bench with a teddy at the opposite side of the bench.

Written by Kirsten Illingworth Specialist TA with Reachout ASC.

“Autistic children  may react to a bereavement in different ways to neurotypical children. Some of the underlying perceptual and processing difficulties observed in autistic children may affect their understanding of death and their reaction to a bereavement. Autistic children, like any others, need their grief both recognised and understood and will need opportunities to express how they feel” (Katie Koehler DClinPsych 2016).

It is difficult to explain death and bereavement to a child and more so to an autistic child. During the recent Covid-19 epidemic many families have lost a loved one. For families with an autistic child, this is made harder as they struggle to express how they feel or understand their emotions. As well as suffering the loss of the person that has died, autistic children can be further distressed by all the changes that might happen in their day-to-day lives as a result of the bereavement.
In this blog, I will try to give you tips to help you support your autistic child to understand what is happening.

Prepare

Involve your child and try to prepare them. If someone is dying due to illness explain what is happening, keep them informed of any changes. If it is a sudden death this is not possible, but they will pick up and be aware of any changes within the household such as the atmosphere or routines. Talking and explaining about what has/is happening and also reassuring the child that it will not happen to them may relieve some anxiety and stress for that child. You can do this matter-of-factly and simply. Try not to expect that they will feel the same emotions as you. Keeping your own emotions calm as you talk to them can be difficult but having something to read or look at (such as symbols and pictures) can give you both something tangible to focus on.

Behaviour

Autistic children may not respond to the death of someone close to them in the same way as other children, but this does not mean they are not grieving. Processing the emotion and facts of the death can take much more time than you might expect. Don’t go on their immediate response to judge how well they are processing it. Changes in behaviour, increased anxiety, confusion, refusal to do things they normally do as well as talking about death are some of the warning signs that you must watch out for as this could mean your child needs more help and support as they are not coping as well as you thought.

Feelings

Autistic children can find recognising/expressing feelings difficult. To help your child to express/recognise their feelings you can look at different emotions in stories, pictures or, in the people around them so they can try and understand how they feel. We have some emotional literacy ideas on our blog about autism and anxiety.

Talking

When explaining ‘Death’ to an autistic child they may need help with understanding the idea of death as well as opportunities to express their grief.  You can use simple, concrete language and try to avoid using euphemisms such as ‘lost’, ‘passed away’ or ‘gone to sleep’. You may need to explain what dead means in concrete terms – ‘When someone is dead their body is no longer working and their heart has stopped. A dead body cannot move or feel anything, so there is no pain.’

Memory Box

A good way to help your child could be to talk about the person who has died. You could maybe create a memory box of things that belonged to the person who has died or that reminds the child of the person that has died. By making it together with a trusted adult may allow them to open up about their feelings and worries.

Social stories

Social stories are a great way to explain things to autistic children. They can be tailored to your child’s needs and help explain feelings and emotions as well as events, such as funerals and what has happened.  Lynn has created three social stories related to this topic in her book “Stories that Explain” but whatever you do in writing a social story keep it factual, positive and remember you are explaining the concept to them, not how they must feel or react. Give them choices about what they can do and explain the ways other people might feel or react without putting pressure on them to respond in a particular way.

Finally, we must let your autistic child know that it is ‘OK’ to have these feelings of loss and grief, be upset or angry, or even cry or not cry. Everybody is an individual and will deal with death differently. Attached are some resources that can help you and your child.

References
Katie Koehler DClinPsych (2016) Supporting children and young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder through bereavement, Bereavement Care, 35:3, 94-101, DOI: 10.1080/02682621.2016.1254437

Autism Bereavement Resources

(we do not endorse any particular resources, these are here for you to search and find the resources that work for your child).

https://www.autism.org.uk/about/family-life/bereavement.aspx http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/2017/10/helping-autistic-children-understand.html?
https://www.winstonswish.org/bereavement-service-professionals/
https://www.childbereavementuk.org/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stories-that-explain-stories-children/dp/1855036185  – Social Stories Book by Lynn McCann

https://www.andnextcomesl.com/2018/09/free-social-stories-about-death-and-funerals.html   –    Free social stories

http://www.socialworkerstoolbox.com/child-teen-grief-information-parents-caregivers Lots of resources on this site such as the one below:
https://victoriahospice.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/VH-ChildrenTeenGrief.pdf
https://www.elsa-support.co.uk  – small cost resources
http://blog.stageslearning.com/blog/autism-helping-understanding-death  – blog

childbereavementuk.org/supporting-a-bereaved-child-with-autism-spectrum-disorder – you tube video: https://youtu.be/P7EmW29Avx4

Autism and bereavement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzgtdtejQCs
Downloadable book to read with children. https://www.publichealth.hscni.net/sites/default/files/2020-04/Saying%20Goodbye%20children%2004_20.pdf

Supporting SEND pupils during School Covid Testing

Even though we are in Lockdown 3 many secondary schools have vulnerable and SEND children in school and WILL be doing the Covid Testing that the government brought in at the beginning of term. Here is as much information as I could find for you.

I am a child who thrives on routine and familiarity, I need you to understand my sensory sensitivities and make my environment safe for me.  I want to learn, and I want to be understood and included.

But the rules are changing again…

A new huge change in my school…

Covid testing is coming, and I am scared…

Read more

SEND book Review

​Inclusion for Primary School Teachers by Nancy Gedge

Supporting Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities by Cherryl Drabble 

Both published by Bloomsbury (2016)

Reviewing these books was a little daunting.   I know both these ladies well and have great respect for their SEND knowledge and experience.  If you follow either of them on Twitter, you will know that they always talk sense, give great advice and challenge those who don’t consider the SEND children in our schools.  However, I wanted to read and review these books with an open mind and without prejudice and so over the Christmas hols I’ve settled down with a glass of wine (red for each, just to be fair) and jumped into their world of advice for teachers.   Both books are aimed at non-SEND-specialist new or young teachers, SENCOs or teachers wanting a refresher and update on the SEND Code of practice.  Both fulfilled the brief, in my opinion, but I’m going to give you more information about each because they are different books – and in that way they complement each other very well.

Supporting Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities by Cherryl Drabble

This book is in two sections.  The first explains what a teacher needs to know about teaching SEND pupils and gives plenty of practical advice about specific conditions and general SEND teaching.  It is aimed at providing continuous CPD for a teacher and for that it needs to be used as a handbook to dip in and out of.  What’s unusual is the reference to using Twitter as a source of learning, help, advice and support as teacher of SEND children.  It was an honour to be included under the section about Autism/ASD as that is my specialism, and I have since looked up and followed all the other tweeters mentioned. There are some helpful questions as you go along which can help you audit your SEND teaching and identify the gaps in your knowledge or practice.  If a teacher has the time, this would be very useful.  I can see time being a major barrier for some, but the book tries to help in that it works in small stepped sections and so a teacher could easily use it as a CPD and PDR tool as they go along.

This book is unique in the relationship it has with Twitter as a source of good practice examples, good advice and support from a wide range of SEND professionals.  A teacher new to Twitter could easily learn to use it well and get the most out of it from the Twitter Tips throughout the book.

The second section is something that SENCOs could use to deliver SEND training in their schools and I like the fact that Cherryl has provided this section.  It’s not something you find in many books.  This section is ideal for SENCOs and to have a book that teaches you how to run CPD within your school and gives you step by step advice is brilliant.  I’m working through it to use some of the ideas for delivering my courses on ASC and Cherryl is obviously a competent and capable CPD developer in her own setting and beyond.  We can learn a lot from her.  I’m very glad she has written this section and I think it could be of great benefit in helping schools get to grips with developing their SEND CPD. 

Inclusion for Primary School Teachers by Nancy Gedge

Nancy’s book is different. It has one of the best explanations of the SEND Code of Practice, what EHCPs, differentiation and the graduated approach are, that there would be no excuse for any teacher to be ignorant of these things if they read this book. There’s a good chapter on the social model of disability and helps a teacher think about how the expectations they have of their SEND pupils .I liked the chapter on relationships because the best teachers are good at relationships with everyone they are working with whilst understanding that they are the one responsible for making school successful for the child with SEND. As an outside agency, I meet lots of teachers and when we work as a team, the children do benefit and thrive. The chapters on behaviour and assessment are useful to help teachers develop a positive approach with high expectations for the children with SEND. There is a useful chapter on terms and acronyms, there are so many in education these days that a handy dictionary of them all will be very useful. Throughout the book Nancy refers to the ‘inclusive teacher’ and it is a good thing for all teachers to strive to be.

 

Conclusion

I thought that both of these books might be too simplistic for me as I’ve been working in SEND education for many years – but I found both of them informative, easy to read and refreshing.  Their view of the SEND child is positive, inclusive and with high expectations of them being able to succeed in mainstream or special schools.  I have started recommending both books to people on the courses I teach, for SENCOs and for teachers alike.  It is all too easy to think that some children can’t succeed and are not in the right place to be educated, but these books can help teachers be sure that they have tried all the support strategies they can, and more than that – both books insist that the most important approach is to know each child and their strengths as well as their difficulties and expect that they can make progress and achieve.  All teachers would benefit from a good understanding of the SEND system as it currently stands and a time of reflection on their own practice.  It’s great that there are so many good ideas and pointers of where to find out more about so many different SEND conditions.  As they are different in their focus, I would recommend reading Nancy’s first for the solid foundation of knowledge and ideas it gives, and then Cherryl’s to help you assess, develop and review your SEND teaching as an on-going toolkit, as well as combining both of them for the wealth of ideas and tips for practical strategies in the classroom.  They are both good handbooks for your teaching of SEND pupils, let’s face it, every child with SEND is different so you’ll always need to adapt your approaches for each child you teach.

 

5 Ways to support Autistic Students through Exams

It’s that time of year again. Emma and I have been spending some of last sessions with our autistic Y11 students, supporting them and their teachers through these next few weeks as the GCSE exams loom.

We thought it may be a good time share some of the wisdom we have learned along the way.   Here’s 5 top tips to help you if you are a teacher or parent supporting a young person through this time. Whatever it is they may or may not achieve, it’s just one part of education…and after years of doing this, many of them do just fine…

1. Tell the truth

It is often the subtle and not so subtle pressures from what teachers and parents say that causes so much stress.

We do tell young people that these exams are the most important thing in their life.

Parents pick up on this false importance and put pressure on their child. There’s pressure from assemblies, media and young people passing these messages between them. Teachers have been put under so much pressure.  Exam results are what gives the school its status and many are in fear of their jobs if students don’t achieve expected grades. That pressure is naturally put onto young people and they are the ones who are supposed to ‘perform’ under that pressure.

Here are some truths: 

  • You will not die if you don’t do the exams.
  • You will not be a failure in life if the results are not what you or your teachers were aiming for.
  • You may do even better than you thought you might.
  • Colleges reassess their pupils throughout the first few months so if you are put on an unsuitable course you can often change courses.
  • GCSEs are a step onto the next thing.   Most colleges want students to come so will find a course that you can do and are interested in for you.
  • There are different ways to get a job in the area you are interested in. There are more kinds of jobs than you can ever imagine.  Including being self-employed.
  • English and maths are the most useful GCSEs to have.  You can retake them when there is less pressure from so many other subjects.  My autistic employee took her GCSE maths when she was 28 and is taking her GCSE English now she is 30.  I met a young man and his mum today who I used to teach.  He went to a special school and is now at college. He is about to sit his GCSE maths and English because he now is ready…he wasn’t at 16.
  • Some people take longer to get where they are going.  Life is NOT a race.
  • Exam results are NOT a measure of your worth as a person.

Take off pressure, tell the truth. Yes, tests and exams have a place in our education system but they ARE NOT THE END OF THE WORLD. They are helpful to get onto the next step, but there are many routes into the world of work and life so we have to stop putting the pressure on.

2. Find out what they are thinking and really listen

I am a big fan of mapping things out.  I find that autistic young people (and many others) have so much going on in their brain and so many bits of ‘advice’ given to them verbally, that recalling any of it, especially when it is needed can be impossible.  Others recall all of it but are too overwhelmed to use what they need and become very anxious to do EVERYTHING everyone said.  Too much reliance on verbal language means the energy they need to process that is often much greater than it is for non-autistic students.

I sit with students and ask them to tell me what they are thinking, feeling, worried, confident, confused about.  I write all this down on a large piece of paper.   Often things come out that no-one realised they were bothered about such as “one teacher in year 10 said I wouldn’t get to university if I didn’t get an A in French” (this really happened).

The mapping out of what they say does certain things: 

  • Prove that you are listening to them.
  • Gives you insights and information you may not have realised.
  • Enables you both to work together to highlight what is the biggest worry and what possible solutions there could be.

For some students just getting it out and being listened to is enough.  For others, simple solutions present themselves from what you see on your map.  For others, they may need extra support, changes and help to get them where they need to be.   Often, we use the same piece of paper (leave space for this) to add some perspective.  So, if you know they think they are going to fail, then you can remind them that they have attended all their lessons, done okay in previous exams, or whatever facts you can give to help them get that particular worry into perspective.

3. Aim to explain and manage the anxiety

A few nerves can help us be more alert and focussed, but the amount of anxiety many young people feel is way over this point.  Young people are in a state of high alert, their systems so full of anxiety that they are fighting the urge to ‘fight, flight or freeze’ and some do have many meltdowns or shutdowns at this time.  So, we really should be concerned with reducing anxiety so the young person can be calm enough to think clearly and do their best.

Many autistic students we support are very anxious at this time of year, not only because they are going to have to try and remember information for an exam, but they don’t know which information they need to remember, can’t predict or prepare for what the actual questions will be and so many other things are going to change around the exams (and probably already have).

Sensory Needs

There will be sensory differences, a completely different timetable, familiar routines will change.   Prepare the young person for this, and make sure familiar things are highlighted.   This is a good time to write lists, use a calendar, or even return to using a visual timetable.  Show what is familiar and add times of relaxation, sensory comforts and rest.  Talk to your young person, tell them the most important things are that they can get through this, it is temporary and that eating, drinking and resting are the priorities (even over revision if that is a huge stressor as it is in many of our pupils).   Make those sensory adjustments (a quiet room, sitting at the back or whatever will help them and make sure the invigilators know about those adjustments).

Take away the pressure

I often tell parents to take ALL pressure away and even act like they don’t mind how the young person does in the exams.  For many autistic young people, the pressure is from within themselves, and their teachers, so a home which reduces the pressure is so helpful for them.   Be careful to acknowledge your own worries and anxiety.   Much of what you worry about is catastrophising too, banish the negative what ifs from your own mind.   Start to look for opportunities rather than only seeing the barriers.

Affirm them

For some students we will make affirmation key rings to remind ourselves of these truths.  You can make your own depending on what would help, or these from GoZen are good too. https://gozen.com/40-affirmations-to-bust-test-anxiety-rooted-in-science/

 

4. Keep routine, reduce demands

Prepare for the changes of environment, routine and what to talk about after the exam. One of my students was very anxious about having two exams in one day, but the biggest stress was whether he’d have enough time to have his lunch in between.  The hall for exams was at the other end of the school from the dining area, so we found another quiet area, nearer to the hall which would have given him time and space to eat without being worried by more than he needed to worry about.

The biggest thing to help is reminded you young person what has finished.  If necessary, write the exams on post it notes and take them OFF the calendar when they are finished.  Or just put a big green tick through the date.  It is done, finished.

Keep your routines

Keep as much of the regular routine that the young person wants.  Familiarity will help them feel safe.  Also plan some routines for the days they are not in school, don’t make them all revision days, but allow Playstation time and a routine for bedtime if possible (good luck with that!)   Plan in meal routines.

What cones next?

Think of projects they might be interested in for the summer break.   This will depend on your young person and their capacity to engage after the exams.  Give them time to rest too.   One family sat with their autistic young person and put a list of things they’d like to do and put them on post-it notes as a choice board.  The young person could choose one a week, then put it back on the board in case they wanted to do it again.  They ended up doing the same thing every week for the whole summer, but it was really successful in keeping them engaged and structured ready for college in the September.

If they do not want to go over it in any detail, or at all, then let it go.  If they do, listen and then remind them it is finished.  Help them to move on to thinking about the next thing.   Make sure they have assured ‘down time’ or activity time after the exam,  what they have chosen to do.   Some might like to bounce on the trampoline, others need to hide under the duvet.    Let them recover in their own way and if there is no need for them to stay at school, let them go home straight after the exam.

5. For those mainstream autistic students who are unlikely to do well in exams

Keep it in perspective for them.  Give regular and undemanding times of support.  If they have not revised all year it is unlikely they are going to start now.  If they can be persuaded to do a bit, find the thing that will engage them the most,  such as an App or computer based activity.

For some it is about the clear distinction between school and home, full stop, or just that school takes up all their spoons (see spoon theory here) and they just CAN’T.   Putting more pressure on at this time of the year is likely to have the opposite effect you have desired.  Bribery rarely works (although some negotiation for a treat afterwards works for some, I’m not a fan of it, it is often just more pressure to perform, I’d rather give the treat just for being them!)   They may do much better than you think and be able to move on to the next steps.  We have done a lot of work by now with our Y11 autistic students who are not good at exams.   We have made plans, found out what they might do that they are interested in and applied for college, already the transition for college has begun and most of them, despite what the GSCEs will result in, have a Plan A, B, C or whatever they need.  It’s not too late to discuss the possibilities for the future, charities do support young people with disabilities into employment in some areas.   Find out what there is and have it to hand for when your young person is ready to listen.

It’s not the end of the world

Go over the truths at the beginning of this post and remind your student that this is NOT the end of the world.   There are too many autistic young people giving up on education and feeling hopeless about life at this stage because all our systems tell them they are failures. I can’t bear it.

Let them rest and recover over the summer.  Let them do what they like and emotionally recover from the trauma that school may have caused them.  I cannot tell you how to get a 16 year old autistic young person out of their bedroom and into gainful employment, you have to let them recover and work from what they DO like, what they are good at.   Even if all they do is play games online.   Go into their world and start from there.  Have some non-negotiables, like being safe, eating meals or whatever you can manage.   You may be able to get help, you may have to find help and advice yourself, but no autistic young person is a failure and there can be a place for them in this society.

Get help

I wish I could do more about this because it is such a hard time for parents, but my best advice is to get online and start to talk to the autistic community.   Find autistic adults who have worked in advocacy and advice or training and ask what they suggest.   They have probably been through something similar and they are the best people to help and advice you for your young person.

And from now to August when the results come out…remember to allow you and your child to BREATHE!


Here’s a link to the ideas to help the transition to college / FE

Here’s the link to supporting Autistic students in FE

​This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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

Preparing an autism friendly secondary classroom

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

As I promised, here are my tips for secondary teachers getting ready for the next school year.  There are likely to be a number of students with autism or other SEND needs coming into your classes this year and I want to share some of the tips and advice that I would usually pass on to secondary teachers.

Emma and I work with around ten secondary schools and our support looks very different from the work we do with primaries.  The differences in the way a secondary school works brings up additional challenges for the school SENCO and for individual teachers.

Firstly, the movement between lessons, having up to six different teachers each day and the responsibility of being organised, on time for lessons and doing homework are major challenges for autistic / SEND pupils.  On top of that is the minefield of social relationships, especially in Year 7 when children are meeting lots of new children from different feeder primaries and everyone is working out new relationships and friendships.   I’m not going to go into all the challenges and issues in this blog, but give teachers some tips on how they can make their classrooms and lessons autism/SEND friendly and a little bit of advice for a whole school approach that really makes a huge difference.

“Daily Transitions

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

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

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

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

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

The Classroom environment

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

Accessing lessons

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

Parents

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

Behaviour

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

 

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

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.