Last weekend marked the tenth World Autism Awareness Day. Last week and for the rest of this month, people and organisations all over the world #LightUpBlue for fund-raising events and initiatives, to raise awareness, show solidarity and, importantly, to celebrate.
As a teacher who specialises in specific learning difficulties, with a masters in what is still controversially called by many ‘special educational needs’, and as a parent to a (neurodiverse) brilliant, beautiful and challenging teen, I find myself all to often falling into the trap of complacency. I have spent the past decade or so immersed in education, child development and learning differences, privileged to have met and learnt from many individual students as well as their families and professionals who worked with them. Because this experience shapes my day, it’s all to easy to take it for granted that ‘most people’ share my experiences (and views). That is usually my first mistake.
Prior to beginning teaching, my awareness of autism was limited to headline grabbing snippets in the popular press, the “Rain Man” stereotype and now debunked claims around vaccination. What I have to keep reminding myself, as I connect daily with other parents, teachers and specialists who are both interested and experienced, is that the rest of the world does not share all of the experiences that have shaped us, and that many people today are still as unaware as I once was.
Before I became a parent or a teacher, I knew nothing about learning difficulties. When I was at school, there were kids who weren’t expected to follow the academic route. My mind may be playing tricks, as it is prone to do, but I have a clear memory of a few grey portakabins between the main school building and the playground, where some small number of students spent their days, rather than moving from form room to science lab. I remember feeling vaguely jealous that there was a guitar in one corner, and that their teacher would play the piano. What was learnt there remains a mystery to me.
As an undergraduate I was oblivious to any learning needs other students might have had. Years later, in PGCE teacher training, the umbrella term ‘Special Needs’ was introduced, along with a whirlwind introduction to the changes that had happened to make education more inclusive during the second half of the twentieth century. We were told that some children in our future classes may have dyslexia, or autism, and that we should undertake further training if needed and seek the advice of our schools’ special needs co-ordinators (SENCo’s). This did not prepare me for my first class, or any subsequent class, in fact. Neither did any of my three teaching practices, although in one of them my class teacher was the school SENCo. The most practical learning support experience I had prior to taking on the first class of my own was in the shape of a learning support session observed prior to beginning my PGCE, at the school I where went on to spend 9 years.
It was in my first class that I taught a student with (at that time undiagnosed) autism for the first time. Soon after, a pupil in another class received a diagnosis. As newly qualified teacher, I was fortunate that there were very experienced specialist practitioners at a nearby school, and we were able to benefit hugely from shared practice, specialist training and other support. One of the pupils was non-verbal, with significant learning difficulties and did not engage with others, the other was academically able but at the mercy of emotional and sensory overload. If I learnt nothing else that year, it was that, as Dr Steven Shore said: “If you’ve met one person with autism… you’ve met one person with autism.” Other than being able-bodied humans, those two pupils appeared to share no other common characteristics.
In the ensuing dozen years of teaching, I have yet to meet any two interchangeable pupils, whatever their sporting, academic or social skills may have been. Why then, would I argue for a teacher’s toolkit of techniques and resources that might benefit particular pupils in certain circumstances? How could such a toolkit be standardised? The answer is not in the toolkit itself, but in our selection, combination and implementation of resources and strategies to suit individuals in a range of situations. We cannot be sure to always get everything right, but we, as teachers, can try, and we can learn and adapt.
Here’s a handful of ideas that have worked for me, and not exclusively with children who have a diagnosis of autism:
- Social Stories These can be used to help pupils cope with particular events, or to build good habits. Example I have used have included books to help with transition to a new class, supporting toilet routines, classroom routines, playground situations and jokes.
- Circle of Friends I’ve used this to support pupils for whom English is a second language and children who find it difficult to make or keep friends for any reason.
- Pre-teaching This can come in many forms, from planned sharing of concepts and resources with parents ahead of beginning a topic and explicitly teaching vocabulary needed, to walking an individual student through activities that aren’t part of the normal routine ahead of time.
- Safe Place/Person Agree with the pupil (and the member of staff!) on a place and member of staff they can go to if things get too much. You might introduce a feelings chart such as the example below for this. This might entail the pretext of delivering a stack of books to the next door classroom or a learning support space and then being given a comforting task, talking things through or continuing their classwork.
- Fidget Objects It can be really hard to explain to teachers and family members that the sensory feedback from fidgeting can enable pupils to focus on the task in hand and reduce anxiety. There is so much to choose from, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. For some, a piece of blu-tac or a scrap of silky or furry fabric in their pocket will suffice. Wobble cushions and Thera Bands can be pricey – look out for these in the discount supermarkets.
So, now that Autism Awareness Week, is over for this year, and as we pass through Autism Awareness Month, I’d like to hope that we are raising awareness and developing autism-friendly environments. I also hope that we are able to recognise that today’s uninformed can become tomorrow’s campaigners.