DfE statistics have shown that 70% of children with Autism are educated in mainstream schools with the rest in specialist provision. Despite this, NASUWT have reported that 60% of teachers in England do not feel that they have had adequate training to teach children with autism. Mainstream schooling, as opposed to specialised schools, can often be extremely beneficial for children with SEN, although it can come with many challenges. Working with students who have autism in the classroom can present new and difficult challenges for even the most experienced teachers.
60% OF TEACHERS FEEL THEY ARE NOT ADEQUATELY TRAINED TO TEACH CHILDREN WITH AUTISM
The difficulties with social communication typically presented by ASD means that school can naturally be a challenging environment for young people with autism. Pupils with Autism, and within SEN as a whole, are sadly more likely to experience bullying and can find relationships with peers their own age difficult. This, combined with sensory sensitivities to bright lights, loud voices and crowded corridors, can make school an overwhelming place. Although each child with ASD will differ enormously, there are a number things you can do that could prove helpful when teaching autistic students in your class.
Go to Your SEN Department
Your school’s SEN department should of course be your first port of call when learning how to provide support for pupils in your school with special educational needs or learning difficulties. Your SEN team will usually be happy to talk about developing useful techniques personalised to the particular student’s needs; it shows that you care, and don’t just see a particular child as a nuisance in your class. Your SENCO may even be able to provide you with background info on the child and a more detailed run down of their condition as well as personalised techniques that have been shown to work with that student in the past.
Some students with ASD may also have a support worker or LSA who works extensively 1:1 with them and could give you some life-saver tips on ways to calm them down or ideas about how to keep them engaged, for example. If the LSA supports the pupil in your classroom, then it’s a great idea to try and maintain a strong relationship with them, even if it’s just a quick catch-up after the lesson to check how they are doing and anything you might need to know.
SCHOOL CAN NATURALLY BE A CHALLENGING ENVIRONMENT FOR YOUNG PEOPLE WITH AUTISM
Routines and Change
Routines are essential in any classroom, but they are especially important when it comes to children with ASD who can find change and uncertainty very hard to cope with. I worked with one teenage boy with ASD who was reduced to tears because of a small change to the seating plan. Simple routines that are consistently enforced can make an enormous difference in putting the pupil at ease and are also effective for getting the entire class engaged as they understand exactly what is expected of them every lesson. You will find that many SEN-friendly teaching strategies can actually benefit the whole class.
Despite this, many would be right to argue that children with ASD need to learn how to get used to change as it is simply a part of adult life that they will have to cope with. So, keeping this in mind, rather than avoiding change completely, advance warnings can be a big help as they can prepare for the planned change ahead of time. This can also help them to learn how to deal with changes in the future that they will inevitably face from time to time.
When supporting students with Autism in the classroom, try and keep instructions as clear and concise as possible. Pupils with ASD can become easily overwhelmed when they are faced with too much information at one time and will often struggle to order and prioritise tasks. Simple ways of overcoming this include printing them a personal copy of clear step-by-step instructions for more complex tasks. If they struggle to keep up with note taking, then you could make them a short copy of the PowerPoint presentation reduced to the main bullet points. It could also be beneficial to allow them more time to complete tasks if they should need to.
Engage their Interests
People with ASD often fixate on particular topics of interest that become almost like obsessions, similar to the compulsive routine-forming in the mind. These fixations may be something they will talk about for hours on end, with no recognition that the person they are talking to is not interested. Teachers and support staff can use this to their advantage when attempting to engage the student in their class. For example, I worked with an autistic child who refused to do handwriting tasks and one way I finally got him to bring pen to paper was by creating handwriting tasks that were themed around his love of Pokémon. You may have to be creative, especially when trying to engage older students.
Sometimes when things get too overwhelming for the student, it can result in a meltdown situation which can include shouting, tears, aggression or simply refusing to co-operate. This can be hard to react sensitively to and even harder to prevent, especially when you have 30 other pupils to teach at the same time. If the child has a support assistant in class, then they will be able to anticipate potential issues so having communication with the assistant is key in preventing a difficult situation. Otherwise, the best thing to do is to allow them time and space to calm down. Use of a red card can be useful when they would like to let you know they need a break to calm down.
A lot of the time, they are not having a tantrum but are simply unable to properly communicate their anxiety in a situation they don’t understand or don’t have control over. Rather than reacting explosively, it is best to calmly give them space, such as in your school’s SEN department, talking calmly with them and then allowing them to return to the classroom when they are ready. Remember that what comes across as stubborn, tantrum-like behaviour may in fact be a response to anxiety and uncertainty. As you get to know the student, you will become more familiar with what triggers their anxieties.
WHAT COMES ACROSS AS STUBBORN, TANTRUM-LIKE BEHAVIOUR MAY IN FACT BE A RESPONSE TO ANXIETY AND UNCERTAINTY
Knowing how to react appropriately is one thing, but it is proactive support that is the most effective; once you are able to identify their personal behaviour triggers, you can begin to anticipate where problems may arise and be prepared ahead of time. A sensitive, patient and proactive approach is key when learning how to support a child with ASD.