How can we support learners with autism?
Whilst we may not always have a learner with a diagnosis of autism in our classes, we will definitely have learners with a wide variety of communication and interaction needs as the National Autistic Society states:more than 1 in 100 people have autism in the UK.
Autism is a broad term which includes a variety of different related conditions such as Asperger Syndrome and Pathological Demand Avoidance. Whilst different people present with different characteristics of autism, there are three key areas that are looked for when a diagnosis is being made:
A. Social Communication
A difficulty in understanding language and being able to use it to express their needs; not being able to understand jokes and having a very literal understanding of what people say; not being able to read facial expressions.
B. Social Interaction
A difficulty in understanding how social relationships work; coming across as seeming insensitive; wanting to spend time alone following their own interests; wanting to form friendships but not really getting the ‘rules’.
C. Repetitive Behaviour and Routines
These provide a degree of safety for a person with autism and make the world a less scary place; they may eat only certain types of food or need to walk only one route to the shops; a change to their daily routine can be very challenging for them to accept.
The following strategies are intended to help teachers support a wide a variety of learners (as possible) within a mainstream setting.
1. Keep It Short and Simple (KISS)
Keep any instruction or general classroom communication short, simple and to the point. So often we cloud our communication with jokes, metaphors and disconnected thoughts but we need to strip our language down to the bare bones. One clear instruction at a time.
2. Say what you mean
Whilst linked to strategy 1, it is so important that it deserves its own mention. Our verbal communication is littered with phrases that we churn out without thinking: pull your socks up, use your head, if you go any slower it will be Christmas, away with the fairies…We know what we mean when we say them, but imagine what the world is like if you take them literally as an autistic learner may. They add to the confusion: why do I need to pull my socks up when we are doing long multiplication? How can I use my head when we are playing cricket? Be mindful of when you use them in the classroom.
3. Use the learner’s name first
Address any instruction directly to the learner, “Matthew, get your pen.” Whilst other pupils may pick up on social cues that you are addressing them, a learner with autism may not notice unless they know for certain that you are talking to them. Not following an instruction is therefore not rudeness or bad behaviour: they had no idea that you meant ‘them’ unless you tell them directly.
4. Visual cues
Some learners may benefit from visual cues which reduce the need for spoken communication. This maybe a visual timetable made with Widgit Symbols or using simple Makaton signs. Both websites offer free resources. Your Local Authority may offer training in using both.
Learners with autism need additional time to process information especially verbal communication. Give them additional time to answer questions or to complete an instruction.
6. Understand their world view
As a teacher you need to understand how they view the world and what matters to them so that you can adapt your practice. If you are able to appreciate why the learner may respond in a certain way, such as needing to sit at a specific table or have to eat their lunch in a certain way, then you are in a better place to be able to support them in navigating the school day. A high degree of empathy is needed.
You will get it wrong. You will make mistakes. You will get frustrated with hearing the ins and outs of exactly why Harry Potter is the best character ever or why certain types of fishing rods are better than others. A learner with autism is not trying to annoy you or to deliberately push your buttons. Part of your role is in understanding why these topics are important to them and in helping them understand how they can discuss them in a way which fits in with social conventions.
8. Get support from your school
Your SENCo (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) should have a copy of the SCAT (Social Communication Assessment Team) report which gives details about the learner’s diagnosis. Ask your SENCo for specific guidance in meeting the learner’s needs or ask them to contact you Local Authority Communication and Interaction Team to come and arrange an observation to give you tips in supporting your learner.
9. Take the initiative
If you are struggling to get support from school or have limited information on a learner, you can still find ways to up-skill yourself. The National Autistic Society is a great place to start. For those of you on Twitter I would recommend @SENExchange and @AutismSpeaks.
Young people with autism have a lot to teach you and you can have some fantastic teaching experiences. Don’t be afraid, just enjoy seeing the world in a totally different way!
Please spread the word: this Sunday 18th June is Autistic Pride Day.