Autism - Different not less
Tia Scrimshaw, Psychology Teacher, The Gateway Academy
You are walking through the corridor on the way into the classroom. You can see the dirty marks on the flooring, the airborne dust floating, the posters that are peeling away from the walls at the corner. The lights are so bright that they are hurting your eyes and you are aware of every single sound. The person next to you is breathing too loudly, their friend has a cold and is sniffling and coughing, another student is watching a video loudly on their phone whilst the people next to them are having a loud conversation about how it is raining cats and dogs which concerns you because what if the cats and dogs get hurt falling from the sky? The girl to your right is wearing strong perfume and you can smell the strong scents wafting upstairs from the canteen. Your uniform is itchy, your socks are uncomfortable and your tie feels like it is choking you. Now imagine all of this - and then needing to sit in a classroom prepared and ready to learn. These are day to day occurrences that you might not pay attention to, but for a child with autism, they may struggle with this sensory overload making their day to day lives completely overwhelming. This video shows it better than I could ever explain https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPknwW8mPAM as well as watching Netflix’s ‘Atypical’ and Sky’s ‘The Good Doctor’ which show a fantastic (if not slightly stereotypical) view into the lives of Sam, a student and Shaun, a young doctor and their daily struggles with autism.
Autism is defined as a broad range of conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication. However, using language such as ‘a child with autism does this’ is problematic as autism is a huge spectrum. Some individuals can function almost seemingly ‘normally’ (although this is not a word I like to use as what is normal anyway?), whereas others may have more obvious struggles such as being non-verbal or may show repetitive behaviours such as violently rocking or door slamming. You will find that girls in particular are very good at something called ‘mirroring’ whereby they can mimic the behaviour of those around them in order to fit in and ‘pass’ as neurotypical. This happens so often in fact that autism used to be thought of as a condition only affecting boys, as girls were so good at hiding their
struggles but we now know this to be absolutely untrue.
In our line of work, we come across a multitude of different students, each with their own battles. But the question you may be asking yourself is how can we help? And the first step to answering this question is just by understanding these children and their needs. In terms of methods to help assist children with autism in the classroom, there are a variety of things that you can do. Children with autism need good routines and can become distressed by change so try to ensure that there is as much consistency as possible and, when applicable, pre-warn them of any forthcoming changes. For example, next week we will have a new seating plan; Sam you will be sat at the front in that seat there. Also, on the topic of seating plans, try to consider the learning environment and where you sit that particular child. If there is too much stimuli, for example busy wall displays, then this can lead to sensory overload and become overwhelming; it impacts the child’s capacity to learn.
As well as this, children with autism benefit from having one clear instruction at a time. For example, if you ask them to write the date, title, key words all in one hit, the likelihood is they may only do one of those things. So ensure that you are chunking instructions and breaking them down where necessary. Also, some of us may struggle with this more than others, but also try to avoid sarcasm and humour - some children with autism are very literal so they will not understand this, even statements such as ‘I will be with you in a minute’ can be taken literally so once a minute has passed the student may become very frustrated and confused as to why we aren’t with them yet.
The final way to help is to get to know the child. Most children with autism will have one, strongly vested interest. If you are able to apply this interest to their learning then you may get better results. For example, if the child’s interest in dinosaurs, you may benefit from applying the content that you are trying to teach to dinosaurs. On that note, students with autism sometimes struggle to see things from other people’s perspective, so if they love dinosaurs they will assume you will to! So, if they seem uninterested in talking about anything other than dinosaurs then this is because it is their special interest and they assume that you are just as interested as they are!
If you would like to ensure you are growing in confidence regarding your own knowledge then there are a variety of courses online that are completely free. OpenLearn has a great introductory course here: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/science-maths-technology/understanding-autism/content-section-overview
"We need to understand autistic people better, not try to change who they are,” Chris Packham, CBE