It sometimes seemed to me that from the moment my child was diagnosed with autism, a ‘race’ was on to prepare him to be able to go to school. Of course, developing the ability to communicate, sit at a table, look at people, and the many other areas needing development would be useful for life in general – but going to school always seemed to be the ultimate goal.
Being able to experience going to school, making friends, and even complaining about homework is a rite of passage that we all take for granted for our children. When children have a disability as diverse and complicated as autism that rite of passage can be challenging, and in some situations, out of reach.
So it’s especially important that once children with autism have reached that milestone, there are basic principles in place to offer them a solid opportunity to transition (and ultimately) settle into school life.
Here are 3 ways schools can support children with autism, to assist them on what can be an exciting and important stage in children’s social and academic development.
Predictability is a friend to most children with autism!
Classrooms are busy places, full of distractions and ever-changing activities. For children like my eldest son, there are other distractions that he needs to contend with – distractions that others in his class may never register. Distractions such as the barely audible sound of the air-conditioner, or the movement of people outside the classroom window in the distance. So when classrooms lack clear structure, and things change too much and too often; it makes it difficult for children like my son to tune in quickly and understand what’s going on. For some children, a lack of predictability may lead to overwhelming feelings of anxiety, for others it stirs feelings of restlessness, frustration or even hostility.
Having a predictable plan for the day, with predictable expectations, and predictable outcomes is one way that teachers can support children in the classroom. When programs are predictable it allows children to prepare for, and to practice, adhering to routines.
Creating a predictable classroom culture is easier said than done! It takes planning, time and effort to set up a predictable and recurring agenda for classrooms. However, when schools consider the time and effort that is expended in addressing the fallout from students who are not coping in classrooms – it makes sense (to me) for schools to try to inject a level of predictability for students on the spectrum.
PREPARE FOR CHANGES
If predictability is a ‘friend’ to children with autism – then actively preparing children with autism for changes (however small those changes may be) is ‘king’.
In all the discussions I’ve had with parents and teachers, a common issue that is often raised about children with autism in the classroom is that transitioning from one activity to the next is often associated with some negative behaviours. Negative behaviours are not only those behaviours that disrupt other students, or can see a child being perceived as being “naughty”, it can also include behaviours that indicate that a child is anxious or distressed.
One strategy that is used in classrooms to good effect is to ensure children are prepared for change. That is, children are prepared to change from one academic activity to the next, prepared to move from one environment to the next, prepared for changes to their teacher’s timetables, and prepared for the introduction of guests (such as student teachers) to the classroom.
Preparing for change suggests that children have an understanding of what their schedule for the day or period is. This schedule may be prominently displayed for the whole class to see, or may be a customised itinerary laid out at a child’s table for them to reference throughout their day. Before it’s time for children to transition, it’s helpful for them to be prompted that the change is coming up. As mentioned in the Learning Patch Communication Book, “understanding what will be happening next may ease anxiety and help keep your little learner focused”.
HAVE A PLAN FOR WHEN THINGS DON’T GO WELL
Every teacher has or will experience moments (or whole days) where things won’t go as expected. Yes, despite everyone’s best intentions there will be days when a child with autism will experience more difficulties in coping than usual. It can be overwhelming for the teacher – as it’ll no doubt also be an overwhelming moment for the child.
The third way that teachers can support children with autism in the classroom is – have a PLAN for when things go wrong.
There are numerous of ideas and suggested solutions on the internet, and an even greater amount of free advice that others may have to offer, however as the saying goes: “if you know one person with autism, then you know one person with autism”.
Autism is so varied that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Every child has different triggers and will respond to an individualised strategy. A great thing to do is to consult with experts on the child in question – that is, the child’s parents and professionals who have involvement and an understanding of the child – and to develop a plan that is suited when that child is struggling to cope.
CHALLENGES PRESENT OPPORTUNITIES
Schools can sometimes present challenges for children with autism. But schools are also a microcosm of life, and it can be a great environment for our children to develop skills, including skills on how to gradually manage some of their behaviours.
For this to happen, and possibly the only way this can happen, is for children with autism to have their individual needs recognised and the right support provided.