Seven tried and tested strategies for working with autistic students

Written by: Kate Goodwin | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The autism resource provision led by Kate Goodwin and her team achieved national recognition at the Nasen Awards 2020. Here, she discusses their approaches and offers seven strategies that mainstream schools might adopt to support autistic learners

According to the National Autistic Society, around one in every 100 people have autism. Some would put that number far higher, but either way, the figure suggests that you are likely to come into contact with many young people with autism in your career.

School is, for some autistic people, a very difficult experience. There are tremendous demands that are placed upon autistic people, that would not even be considered by a “neurotypical” person.

Uniform is a prime example. This can be excruciatingly uncomfortable to someone with autism: scratchy labels, stiff shirts and ties, blazers and school shoes. Understand this and you understand why someone with autism could be an agitated state before even arriving at school.

I am head of an autism resource provision within a large school. I have an outstanding team of incredibly committed and knowledgeable staff and a proactively inclusive head and senior leadership team.

This, combined with the fact that the provision brings a higher level of funding, means I have the luxury to provide a bespoke level of support to each of my students.

However, I have also been a “mainstream” SENCO in a primary school, where I haven’t had all of these luxuries, but where students have still had successful placements. This was due to proactive, not reactive, strategic leadership.

Here follows seven pieces of advice or strategies for working with children with autism in mainstream schools.


Identifying triggers

The best lesson I learned, was to understand that an autistic brain literally does not think in the same way that my brain does. This doesn’t mean that the autistic brain is in anyway inferior to mine – in many ways it is the complete opposite – it is just that my brain works in a more “socially expected” way.

After an incident you may often hear the words: “There was no trigger.” There is always a trigger. It just might not be apparent to a “neurotypical” brain.

What makes you a good practitioner is recognising and removing the barriers that prevent our young people from being as independent as they can be. This does not mean wrapping them in cotton wool – the real world is not like that and such an approach would be doing them a disservice. Instead we need to teach and equip our students to use learned strategies to cope in difficult situations.


Teaching assistant support

Teaching assistants are an incredible resource. However, having the same teaching assistant working with a student is not always the best use of this resource. Reliance can easily be built up, on both sides.

People with autism are renowned for not being keen on change, but change is part of life and we need to introduce change in a structured, secure and well-prepared way, enabling that young person to build coping strategies – and using different teaching assistants helps with that.

We operate a “helicopter” style approach. Our teaching assistants focus on areas of need, get the student going and then move off to help someone else, going back to “check-in” later on.

This means other students can “piggy back” on the support. It also means that it is easier for the teacher to then work with the student in question as the teaching assistant is not constantly by their side. As our students progress through the school, we aim to reduce the level of support.


Autism awareness

When we have new students we start our Autism Awareness sessions and put aside time to investigate their likes and dislikes as well as things they may find tricky.

We cannot assume that the student understands that they have autism or knows what it means to them; they won’t necessarily realise that what they think and/or feel is different to other people. By using these sessions, along with sensory check-lists, you can build-up a better idea of how best to support the student. More importantly, that student begins to better understand their own thoughts and behaviours, so strategies can be introduced and implemented.

The use of tools like the 1-5 Emotion Scale (see online) is a great way of teaching a student to recognise how they are feeling, put it into perspective and then apply a strategy.


Education and re-education is key

There are times when you need a very thick skin when working closely with autistic people. I have at times received a comment which would be deemed hurtful and “inappropriate”, albeit factual (new hairstyles never go down well!).

What we need to remember is that the student is not (always) meaning to be rude. Social complexities are often difficult for an autistic person. In many ways, this honesty is an admirable quality, but it isn’t always offered at the right time or place.

As a teacher, your first response in these situations would be to reprimand the student for being rude/disrespectful. This will not help the autistic person, as they will not necessarily understand why they are in trouble.

The same applies when something more significant happens. Raising your voice and issuing consequences does not directly or explicitly address the issue, therefore not solving the presented behaviour.

Ensure that you use instructional language and not form an instruction as a question. If you don’t use instructional language, the student will not know the subtle difference and it can lead to quick escalation. Whatever needs to be said, use as little language as possible and then move away while it is being processed. Writing it down also allows the student to fully process what you say. I was once advised to “Think Dog!” – give instructions in the way that you would a dog: in short, simple language.

To have the desired effect, conduct post-incident learning conversations hours, days or even weeks later. I am not saying that negative and/or inappropriate behaviours should not be addressed, but you need to time your moment well and make reasonable adjustments in how you do it. For an autistic person, missing break to sit in a silent detention will possibly be seen as a reward; a five-minute exchange, where you talk it through, would have a bigger impact.


Safe place

Having a safe place is incredibly important – somewhere the student can default to if there is an issue. Students will find their own safe places, and not necessarily somewhere ideal (toilets, student services, home!), so if you can provide a more appropriate place to go when things get too much, you are much more likely to keep your students calm (and in school).

It needs to be a place where they can be on their own and not be disturbed until some time has passed. And when they go to their safe space, do not try and speak to them immediately – if you push too early, this may result in further escalation. When you do open a dialogue, ask a question about basic needs, e.g. “would you like some water?”. This exchange will tell you where the student is at, emotionally, without asking them anything about their feelings.

If there is a positive response, it means that they have started to reset and process things again. If the response is negative – shouting, swearing, ignoring – you know that the student needs more time. By having a safe space and dealing with the situation correctly, you will find that less learning will be lost.


Use visuals!

This is something I definitely underestimated in my early days as a professional. The autistic brain finds processing language difficult, even when calm. If you present something visually, either in pictorial form or simply writing it down, it is much easier for people with autism to be able to deal with.

Visuals can be used for all sorts of things, including timetables or signalling appropriate and inappropriate behaviour.

My team and I forever carry mini-whiteboards and pens, as you never know when they might be useful: task sheets, instructions, preparing for change, drawings/words to show that a student is doing well, as well as comic strip conversations and social stories…


Communication: A positive relationship with parents/carers

This is essential. Taking the time to keep parents informed will put their mind at ease and help build your relationships. If you have a good line of communication, it will work both ways. Parents and carers know their children and you can utilise this. Ask them to contribute to the one-page profile and ask their advice about handling more difficult situations.

If you work as a team, they will be your biggest ally. Likewise, if parents and carers report about difficulties/meltdowns at home, please listen to them. If the child is masking, you may not see these difficulties at school initially, but it will eventually spill into school and, by that time, things will escalate to crisis point quickly – so being proactive and having a heads-up is crucial.


Conclusion

Nothing I have said above is revolutionary. In fact, it is best practice across the board for students who are neurotypical as well as those who have autism. This is why these are the strategies that can most easily be adapted to mainstream schools. The trick is to embed them and have autism training as standard within the school, for everyone.

If schools can create an autistic-friendly setting, they will be facilitating all of their young people to be the best that they can and supporting them to achieve great things!


  • Kate Goodwin is head of the Autism Resource Provision at Wilmslow High School in Cheshire. For more information, follow them on Twitter @whs_asc and @whsforestschool

Further information & resources

Nasen is a charity that supports and champions those working with children and young people with SEND and learning differences. The Nasen Awards celebrate innovative work and excellent practice taking place across the country. Visit www.nasen.org.uk/nasen-awards2020


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