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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

Lego based therapy courses.

Our Lego Based Therapy Courses are now available online

We have developing an online version of our Lego Based Therapy training which works best be for 2 adults from the same setting.  In the afternoon you would be working with 3 children in your bubble for 45 minutes.   For full details (and you can still take part if you are unable to work with a bubble) please email us.  Look out for course dates on our training page. 

 

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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.

The right way to use Visual Timetables

I bet anyone whose ever had a specialist in to advise them how to support an autistic pupil has been told to use a visual timetable.   I bet it’s written down as a strategy in almost every statement or EHCP for autistic pupils.

You might have a visual timetable on your classroom wall.  You might remember to put up the schedule for the day, every day, and even to take off each picture as you finish each activity.   You might be remembering to do this for a child’s individual visual timetable.  Well done if you have.   However,  if you haven’t had them explained to you properly, it can easily seem as a lot of work for little reason…

Research shows that many autistic people struggle to understand the nuances of verbal language, processing language at the speed of a typical teacher speaking and understanding the inference of language.  Visual support enables the pace of instructions and information to be processed at their own pace and are available to go back to.   One of these is a visual timetable or schedule that sets out the routine and expectations of the day.

I’d like to help you understand the full purpose of a visual timetable.  It’s not just to let the child know what’s going on and in what order but it’s an important teaching tool. Here are some of the main teaching opportunities:

  • Developing memory and recall skills. Seeing the structure of the day can help with memory skills for children who think better in pictures than in verbal language.  The symbols can be retrieved from the ‘finished’ pocket to review the day and put things in time order.
  • Teaching organisation and independence skills.  The child should be managing their own timetable.   That means self-checking what they should be doing and where they should be, managing the taking off of the symbols and putting them in the finished pocket themselves.
  • Developing working memory skills – seeing what is on the timetable can make recalling what has been done in other lessons easier. This can be supported by a lesson schedule or subject diary.
  • Executive functions such as planning, predicting, monitoring and timing can sometimes be difficult for autistic pupils.  A visual timetable scaffolds those skills and most importantly the child can ‘self-check’ where they are up to.  If your memory is poor and your anxiety high, then a visual timetable is THERE and easy to check.  It doesn’t rely on the child having verbal skills or opportunity to ask an adult.
  • Less reliance on an adult prompt.  There can be a learned helplessness when a child gets too used to an adult verbally promoting them all the time.  This is why know how and where to check something for themselves is a good skill to have.  Especially thinking about them growing up and how there is likely to be less attention from an adult at Secondary school.
  • A visual timetable can also let the child know when their sensory breaks are or unexpected events or changes are happening.
  • You can prepare a ‘change’ symbol to support a child learning to cope with changes or unexpected events.

Some useful symbols for changes

Different visual symbols that can be used for changes

I sometimes see visual timetables as wallpaper, and by that I mean, they are pretty pictures on the wall – but then sometimes the pictures are not even that day’s schedule and the child hasn’t been taught to manage the timetable themselves.  I might be told “Oh, we tried a visual timetable but it didn’t work,” Or “They don’t need a visual timetable, they’ve grown out of it,”  but the pupil still has poor independence and organisation skills.

Visual timetables grow with the child.  They should be age and developmentally appropriate.   I have one – It’s a full term calendar on one sheet that I write in all my school visits, INSET sessions and meetings. It’s visual and I’d be very anxious (not to mention, totally lost) without it.  Diaries and lists provide a similar visual aid to my life and how it is organised (or not!).  If we want autistic pupils to be able to develop good organisation skills, a visual timetable can be a great start.  Choose the right format for the child and you will get it right.  We might start with objects of reference, use photos or symbols or colour coded words, and  the format can develop as the child does.  Sometimes teachers thing a child doesn’t need it anymore and take it away.   Then the child’s behaviour and independence can begin to deteriorate.   It is often the case that what they needed was an updated timetable rather than taking it away.  It can surprise us how much the child was relying on their visual timetable.  It is ok to have one all their lives – as they get older we teach them to self-manage their timetable more and develop their own formats if necessary.  Like we do as adults with our diaries and lists.

AND IT DOES NOT MATTER WHETHER IT IS HORIZONTAL OR VERTICAL!   Let’s dispel this myth, once and for all.  Use whatever fits into your space and what the pupil can easily use.   I have known staff who have worried about this so much because one professional said do it one way and another said do it the other way, that they didn’t actually start using the visual timetable for weeks because they were so worried about getting it wrong.

Thank you for this image from www.northstarpaths.com

To share an example.  Over the years I’ve worked with some pupils who were at risk of being excluded for behaviour.  A visual timetable used to show them the lessons, ‘calm or choice times’, sensory breaks and, most importantly, when home time is, has regularly (along with other strategies) made a huge impact in helping the child navigate the day, reduce stress and anxiety and therefore reduce challenging behaviours.   Honestly, it can sometimes be the pivotal strategy that makes all the difference for the child.

If you want to know more, there are lots more advice and examples in my  book ‘How to support pupils with ASC In Primary Schools’ published by LDA.

I have Widgit ‘Communicate in Print’ software which I love for not only making visual timetables but also for supporting a pupil’s writing, reading and curriculum access.  

 

 

Why Whole School Autism Training is Money Well Spent

​ I first heard the term ‘autism’ in 2003.  I was an early years teacher at the time and the class list for the new year informed me that I had three statemented children, two who had autism, one with cerebral palsy and a couple of children who were under investigation for global development delay.  By then I had been teaching for 12 years, been trained in SEN and had always been interested in supporting pupils with SEN.  These children had teaching assistants assigned to them, we considered ourselves a well organised with an inclusive environment and I was really looking forward to getting to know the children and meeting their needs.  But it turned out a little more difficult than we anticipated…

Lynn delivering “Let’s Talk Autism” to a whole Primary School staff

​The first thing we noticed was that the two children with autism were completely different and I need to admit we found them quite a challenge.  The slightest thing would cause one of the children to spend the rest of the day screaming and trying to escape, the other child didn’t like anything to change and was very good at explaining to us what he didn’t like and all about his particular interests….but very loudly…all the time!   He too would often get upset and find it difficult to join in activities with other children.   Both children were very active and their teaching assistants were often exhausted by the end of the day.

I admit that I fell into the mistake that many teachers make;  it was just easier to let the teaching assistants (who were in fact brilliant, well experienced and very capable people) get on with it, while I concentrated on the other 25+ children in the class.  However, I could see that my staff were struggling.   The screams and behaviours of the two children with autism were disrupting the rest of the class and the strategies we were trying to use were just not working.

Salvation came in the form of a couple of twilight sessions from the local child development centre.   We were taught what autism was and some amazing communication strategies based on Hanen’s ‘More Than Words’ which made something click with me and began a long fascination with autism that has led on to all kinds of wonderful things (more of that later!)

Being inclusive minded, we put the strategies into effect immediately and with all the children.  We were adapted our environment and communication, were consistent, used visual teaching methods and traffic lights for behaviour (as communication not punishment) and slowed down to give the children processing time.   We were amazed by the effects.   Within two weeks the whole class was calmer, the staff were energised and able to deal quickly with incidents and most importantly the children with autism began to get involved in learning activities and with the rest of the class.   The children themselves seemed to take our lead and began to approach the children with autism more confidently (especially as there was less risk of being hurt) and friendships began to be built.

All these years later I’ve kept in touch with those two autistic children.  One of them moved to a special school after the year with us and it was maybe 5 years later that a member of staff there shared with me how he’d started to talk and how proud they were of him.  The other child has gone through his mainstream education and is now in Y11.  His teachers and parents agree with me, the element that has been very effective in making school successful for him is that teachers who have worked with him understand autism and are prepared to get to know how it affects him.

Me…I was still inspired and fascinated by autism.   I sought a new job in a special school for children with autism, became trained and experienced in teaching children with autism, set up an outreach service from the school and began supporting pupils with autism in mainstream schools.   One aspect of my job was to write and deliver training courses about autism.  

Then I began to visit schools whose staff had been on my courses or who had had whole school INSET and began to notice a few things…

​Strategies
that I had recommended were being used consistently and were making a positive impact on the child and their access to learning.

Teachers
and teaching assistants were working more as a team and felt more empowered to help the child, even with challenging behaviour.

Where
whole school training had taken place, the child with autism was accepted and supported across the school, teachers and teaching assistants felt more supported and the child was generally accessing school activities
(such as playtimes, assemblies and the dinner hall) more successfully.

Parents
felt that their child was supported better and that staff knowledge was making a positive impact on their child’s education. Staff communicated better and more positively to parents.

When
whole school training had taken place, staff could see how the strategies could be applied to many other children with and without autism because they were mainly about good, clear communication.

Some
staff became much more inclusive and used some of the strategies for their whole class. Whole class visual timetables were particularly effective.

Teachers
were now more confident in adapting and differentiating their teaching for the child with autism.

Staff
were more confident in explaining to the other children in their class how to be friends, work alongside and support their classmate with autism.

Classroom
and school environments were changed. Some became less cluttered and calmer, sensory areas were created, social skills groups set up and one school even had visual signs all around school.

Whole
school training that paid teaching assistants and welfare assistants to attend was the most successful of all.

Our main course can be focussed on Early Years, Primary or Secondary

​ It is clear that the real beneficiaries of this training are the children themselves.   I loved it and autism is still my passion and favourite subject.   I now work as an independent autism support teacher/consultant as “Reachout ASC” and have Matt and Emma working with me.  We are continuing to build up our training courses to support and equip staff to make school successful for their autistic pupils. We regularly work in schools, teaching and implementing advice and strategies and have worked with hundreds of children;  every one of them different.   We work in EYS settings, Primary Schools and Secondary Schools and have adapted all our courses to reflect each setting.   It has to be relevant!   We pride ourselves on equipping staff with the knowledge, skills and resources they need and in making school successful for pupils with ASC. 

For the pupils – staff understanding of autism has been the most effective strategy of all. 

To find out more look at the training tab on my webpage www.reachoutasc.com/training