Supporting autistic students

Written by: HTU | Published:

A recent survey from the National Autistic Society revealed some of the problems pupils with autism encounter in education. Here we look at the best ways of helping autistic pupils get the most from their school life

It is estimated that around one in 100 school children in the UK has autism. Education is a fundamental part of every child’s life, but far too many children with autism are not getting the education they need and deserve.

A recent survey from the National Autistic Society (NAS) found that just half of parents (52 per cent) who have a child with autism feel they are making good educational progress. The research also revealed that seven out of 10 parents found it difficult to get the educational support their child needs, and while they waited and fought for the right support, their child’s educational progress (70 per cent), mental health (60 per cent), behaviour (68 per cent) and self esteem (68 per cent) all suffered enormously.

Parents and young people both agree that a good knowledge of autism helps meet children’s needs. However, 43 per cent of young people with autism felt their teachers do not know enough about the condition.

What is autism?

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability affecting the way a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and how they make sense of the world around them. It is a spectrum condition meaning that while all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways. Asperger syndrome is a form of autism. People with Asperger syndrome are often of average or above average intelligence, having fewer problems with speech, but often still facing difficulties with understanding and processing language.

How do these difficulties affect children at school?

Every pupil with a diagnosis of autism will be different. Some will be very quiet, others will be noisy and boisterous. But because all children with autism experience some difficulty with social interaction and communication they can find it hard to learn how to play and get on with others.

They may not fully understand gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice, and can find it hard to “fit in”, often having problems in the classroom and playground. Because of this lack of understanding, children with autism can be very vulnerable to bullying at school.

Children with autism can find the world around them very overwhelming and unpredictable and therefore can be adverse to any changes in their routine. This can make it hard for them to cope with transitions at school such as new teaching staff or different class timetables.

People with autism think and learn differently meaning that they require a different approach and potentially a different application of discipline.

Pupils with autism or Asperger syndrome can find it difficult to express their emotions when anxious and this can lead to other emotions such as anger and frustration in an outburst of unwanted behaviour. It is often helpful to look very carefully at what has triggered the reaction of the pupil in the first place, to work at ways of avoiding such situations and of increasing their understanding of similar circumstances.

Challenging acts are more often related to anxiety because of an inability to understand the behaviour and motives of other people around them. Attention seeking behaviour is often about feeling left out as they have not been able to follow the subtleties of everyday social interaction and jokes going on around them.

While not excusing poor behaviour, it is important to understand that punishing a pupil with autism is often counter-productive since their behaviour difficulties usually stem from their lack of real understanding.

How can I help children with autism at my school?

Teachers, parents and carers all need to ensure there is a system of knowledge, advice and training put in place in order to effectively support the child throughout their education.

A range of strategies can be used by teachers to support a pupil with autism, and one of the most important things to get right is learning how to communicate with them appropriately.

In order to try and help children with autism understand verbal communication, teachers should speak as clearly possible, using direct language and saying exactly what they mean. It is also useful to slow communication down, giving them extra time to process the information they are receiving. Making sure that the pupil understands exactly what they have to do is vital – just because they can repeat back an instruction given to them, does not necessarily mean they know what it means.

Visual aids are also an excellent tool for the classroom. Something like a visual timetable showing times and simple drawings of the activities, so that the pupil knows exactly what they will be doing and when, has been shown to work well and can be applied to other sequential processes such as getting changed for PE. Other visual supports include written lists, objects and calendars which can help children understand a sequence and predict what comes next.

Children with autism have also been found to benefit from working in a distraction-free environment. Allocating an area of the classroom which can be kept free from anything which may distract the pupil from their tasks, but where they may see their visual timetable, has been known to reap great rewards.

Buddying schemes can also help to build confidence at school. Having someone to turn to if they have difficulties understanding what is going on around them socially, in the classroom or playground, can be really useful and also helps them to develop relationships with others.

Children with autism can often become extremely anxious for reasons that may not be obvious to the rest of the class or the teacher, so it can be a good idea to have a strategy in place to deal with this. Special cards can be used for the pupil to indicate when their anxieties become too great, allowing them to exit the classroom without having to explain in detail what is wrong. Being able to go to a “safe place” like a library or a time out area when they cannot manage in either the classroom activity or at break and lunchtimes can be extremely beneficial for the child and also helps to avoid major class disruptions.

Autism Education Roadshow

Throughout 2011 and 2012, the NAS will be hosting a series of five conferences across the country providing education, health and social care professionals with an opportunity to learn new strategies and share good practice.

Featuring a range of expert speakers, workshops, a panel debate and plenty of networking opportunities, the events will provide an opportunity for professionals to gain crucial knowledge about how best to support children with autism effectively.

Jane Green is senior education consultant for the education support service of the NAS and will be speaking at the roadshow. She is a firm believer that with the right support, children with autism can flourish in school: “Pupils with autism need support in their education skills as well as meeting their needs with their social curriculum throughout the school day. Enabling them to achieve in schools will help them to become more positive about their prospects and be more independent.

Providing advice, strategies, action plans and support for teaching staff can help them feel more confident when teaching pupils with autism in their schools.”The series of conferences began on October 11 in Liverpool. The roadshow is now continuing to Newcastle, Birmingham, Exeter and London, finishing in March 2012. For a full list of events, details and key topics please visit: www.autism.org.uk/conferences/roadshow2011

• For more information about teaching children with autism visit the National Autistic Society website: www.autism.org.uk


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