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.
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).
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.
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.
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 outâ€¦remember to allow you and your child to BREATHE!
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…
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.
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. It can then be I am 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.
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.
But here are my favourite websites for free visual timetable symbolsâ€¦
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â€‹ 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 anticipatedâ€¦
â€‹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.
Meâ€¦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…
that I had recommended were being used consistently and were making a positive impact on the child and their access to learning.
and teaching assistants were working more as a team and felt more empowered to help the child, even with challenging behaviour.
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.
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.
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.
staff became much more inclusive and used some of the strategies for their whole class. Whole class visual timetables were particularly effective.
were now more confident in adapting and differentiating their teaching for the child with autism.
were more confident in explaining to the other children in their class how to be friends, work alongside and support their classmate with autism.
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.
school training that paid teaching assistants and welfare assistants to attend was the most successful of all.
â€‹ 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
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