According to the National Autistic Society, around 700,000 people in the UK (more than 1 in 100) are on the autism spectrum. With each person affected needing different levels and types of support, it’s important that schools know where they can turn to for advice and guidance if they have children on the autism spectrum among their community.
Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is described by the NHS as ‘a condition that affects social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour.’ By the time a child receives a diagnosis of autism they may have struggled with certain difficulties for years, despite the fact that children with ASD often present symptoms before the age of three. While there is no cure, there are treatments and interventions that can help.
Follow your hunches
Suzy Yardley, of the organisation Child Autism UK, offers teachers sound advice if we suspect that a child we teach may have ASD: ‘If you are concerned a child in your class may be showing signs of being on the Autism spectrum, follow your hunches, and speak to your SENCo straight away. Early intervention is key, with research showing that the earlier a child gets specialist help, the more progress they will make.’
Any concerns we may have about children being labelled for life too soon in their school careers are clearly addressed by Suzy. She explains that, ‘In the present system, [being labelled] can be the only way the child can access the help they need. So if you feel a child in your class is not socialising in a typical way, or if they have obsessive or ritualistic ways of playing, or if a child is finding it difficult to communicate, or is showing excessive anger when what they choose to do is interrupted- do not delay- ask for a second opinion from your SENCo. There is so much that can be done to help a child with Autism learn the skills they may not have developed so far, however the child may not pick these up without specialist help and a lot of intensive teaching with high levels of reinforcement.’
Mark Lever, Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society, shares these views. He said: ‘Children on the autism spectrum often share certain difficulties, such as struggling to understand unwritten social rules and managing change, but it affects each individual differently. Around 70% go to mainstream schools, so teachers are bound to work with autistic students at various points in their career.’
Offering support… seven ideas from Child Autism UK
Many teachers are already supporting children with ASD and know too well that there is no ‘one size fits all’. As Suzy highlights, ‘every child on the Autism spectrum is an individual, and will have different strengths and weaknesses.’ It is, of course, important to hold that in mind, but there are some generic tips that Suzy offers that may help:
– Use the child’s interest and motivations to reinforce them for engaging in less preferred activities. This can be using a First-Then format e.g. ‘first 3 sums then read a page of your magazine’. This takes into consideration that a child with autism may not be reinforced by the teacher being pleased with them, or by the class token system, and so need something more tailored to them.
– Children with ASD can often have strong visual skills, with weaker listening/language skills – therefore writing instructions down, or using visual aids can help understanding.
– Break complex skills down into bite-sized steps, and only move on once the child has mastered the pre-requisite skill.
– Try to find ways of checking academic skills that do not rely on language skills, which can be weaker. For example, check they know what a kitten is before asking a word problem involving 5 kittens. Or if assessing, use concrete sums where possible. Children on the spectrum often have normal or high IQ but it needs to be demonstrated slightly differently.
– Use simple language so the child has a chance of cueing in to the key information e.g. ‘put your coats on’ rather than ‘it’s nearly time for playtime now, so can you all make sure you put your coats on because it’s raining’.
– If a child is showing challenging behaviour, the key is to determine the function of this behaviour (using a functional assessment) to then draw up a consistent plan based on why the child is behaving this way, which everyone sticks to. Typical classroom strategies often do not work as they rely on the child’s knowledge of social cues such as recognising another person’s emotions.
– Setting up a Buddy system can work well, so the child has someone to play with each day, and can be helped with classroom instructions if they miss them.
Find out more
Child Autism UK offers extensive advice for schools on its website. It runs training courses too as well as behaviour advice and help teaching communication skills. You can also call the helpline for free advice: 01344 882248
The National Autistic Society has a campaign specifically for teachers called MyWorld, which offers free resources. Find it here.
The Resources for Autism website can be found here.
The Autism Toolbox (a resource for Scottish schools) can be found here.
Do you know of any excellent ASD resources for schools? Let us know and we can add the links to this page.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world. Elizabeth has also taught on education courses in HE and presented at national and international conferences.