Tips for helping students with autism

This script has been written to raise awareness and hopefully to help school staff support students with autism. It supplements my talks and public speaking.

 

Autism affects everyone in different ways

It is important to understand that once you have met one person with autism, you have quite literally only met one person with autism.  This person might be extremely different to another person with the same diagnosis. Always ask the person how their condition affects them instead of forming assumptions based upon what you might have read or prior experience with another autistic person. Also avoid assuming that a person’s condition affects them in a ‘mild’ way because they are not displaying obvious autistic behaviour. A good point to remember is that ‘’mild autism does not mean that I experience autism mildly. Mild autism means that you experience my autism mildly’’. There can be a huge amount of stress and agitation inside the person with autism that you are not necessarily aware of because it is not always overtly expressed.  Students with autism might try and  avoid ridicule and social  ostracism by masking or concealing their social difficulties. They might spend a lot of time  observing and copying other students, which means that may well have developed an incomplete sense of how to behave around people and what might happen if they behaved in a particular way. They might make eye contact and attempt conversation. However there is always the awareness that they are still quite unsure and uncertain in social situations, and that they might not get things right. This can make people with Asperger’s feel very anxious when they are around people because they are all too aware that they are missing a crucial social sensor that everyone else seems to possess. Nevertheless, Asperger’s is often ‘invisible’ to other people, because the person can appear to be very able and articulate and does not necessarily look disabled. For example, when I was at school I was usually very quiet and compliant, and sat all by myself in lessons because I did not have any friends. I was experiencing severe anxiety but never spoke to anyone about my difficulties because, like many people with autism, I struggle to put my feelings into language. My autism was overlooked because people assumed that I was shy.  Therefore, bear in mind that you will almost certainly, at some point, teach or support people with autism who are not diagnosed, and who are struggling in silence. The same strategies and reasonable adjustments that are used for students with a diagnosis would also apply to these pupils.

Communicate with parents

Students with autism often exhibit very different behaviour at school than they do at home.  They will often release all the frustration that has built up during the school day when they get home, because they feel comfortable in the home environment and know that they are accepted. When I got home from school I would become a very different person because I no longer felt the need to try and follow the social rules. At school I was hiding my true self, and this was very tiring and consumed a lot of energy. At home I stopped acting, and would talk at length about my interests, in a very loud voice, and I would scream and throw tantrums when there were changes to my routine. Because these difficulties were not apparent at school, I did not receive the right support.  For example, teachers  did not know that I spent hours after school pursuing my Kate Winslet obsession, and watching the film Titanic over and over again, because I hid my obsessive behaviour when I was school. It would have helped if the school had taken a more proactive approach by picking up on my social isolation, and then talking to my parents so that the school could have seen the whole picture. My parents also helped me to complete homework and to organise my life in general, and this also meant that my problems were concealed because the school mistakenly assumed that I was coping. Therefore  learning support was withdrawn at the end of year 7, despite the fact that I was still struggling.  A teaching assistant who knows the student very well can facilitate home school communication through the use of email and home school record books that are filled in by both the school and the parents.

Social isolation

Most students with autism will struggle to make and maintain friendships because of their problems with  social interaction. After a few failed friendship attempts when I was in year 7, I was completely alone, and this experience has negatively affected my self esteem and self confidence. Because I did not receive a diagnosis until I was 21 years old, I thought that no one wanted to include me in their group or talk to me because I was weird or inferior. It would have helped me if a teacher had picked up on my social isolation and put me in contact with other students who were also lacking company. A teaching Assistant could pair a socially isolated child up with another pupil, who could spend lunchtime with the student. Alternatively you could identify members of staff that they can talk to in confidence, so that  they feel less alone. It is important that staff familiarise themselves with which members of staff students can talk to and how students can access them.  Schools often focus only on the child’s academic development. The curriculum does not teach children how to make friends because it is assumed that they can work out the unwritten social rules on their own. However, it could be helpful for students with autism for a teaching assistant to provide a list of appropriate and inappropriate topics of conversation, and a list of key opening phrases that could be used to start a conversation.

 

Sensory issues

Most people with autism are either over or under sensitive to noise, light, touch, smell or movement. People with autism often struggle to filter out sensory stimuli, and this means that it can be hard for them to stay focused on their work. The autistic brain can only focus on one stream of information at a time. For example, I feel anxious when I have to talk and walk at the same time, and it is much harder for me to think and be productive when there is any background noise that competes for my attention.

Bear in mind that people with autism can be bothered by noise that does not affect other people, and even relatively quiet or low level noise can be very distracting. For example, the clicking of fingers on key boards, people chatting, lawn mowers and creaking floorboards can all make it very hard for me to concentrate on my work.

Because of my sensory difficulties I found it very hard to focus on my work in the classroom. It is important that you take a proactive approach by carrying out a sensory audit of the classroom. For example, are there any fluorescent lights, could you carpet the floor to minimise noise, does the classroom have a dimmer switch and blinds to reduce the glare of bright light, and could you make sure that part of the classroom is free from wall displays that could be visually distracting.

Find out what sensory issues the student with autism has. For example, if they are sensitive to noise they might benefit from wearing noise cancelling headphones while they work. Some people with autism find it easier to focus on their work if they are allowed to fidget and rock because the movement can take their mind off the sensory distractions. If this behaviour is disruptive give the student a piece of blue tack or a stress ball that they can squeeze unobtrusively in their pocket to relieve stress.

The autistic person might find it easier to concentrate  if they can sit at their own desk, facing a blank wall to minimise distractions.

People with autism can be very sensitive to certain odors. Therefore be mindful of how much perfume you are wearing.

The school corridors can get very busy and noisy during the changeover between lessons. Therefore, a teaching assistant can help the autistic student by allowing them to leave the lesson slightly early so that they can  get to their next lesson without experiencing extreme sensory overload.

Break times can also be very stressful for people with autism. I spent lunchtimes locked away in the toilets because I wanted to be completely alone and to escape the noise and bustle of the playground. You can help people with autism by providing them with a safe and quiet space for them to use at break time or when they are feeling anxious. This space could be an empty classroom or office.

Bear in mind that some students with autism who are undiagnosed, recently diagnosed, or adjusting to their new environment may not know or realise straight away what sensory difficulties they might have. Therefore you might have to experiment with different methods before finding one that works.

Communication

When speaking to someone with autism, it is important to remember that, although many people with autism can be verbally articulate, they can become overwhelmed by a lot of verbal information.   This can result in a processing delay. For example, it can take me some time to work out what someone is trying to explain. This processing delay is more pronounced when I am in a busy and noisy environment. I am far more likely to understand what someone is trying to get across if they write down the instructions or key points from a conversation. I can then refer to what was talked about on my own, at my own pace, when I am less anxious and overwhelmed. It is important however to take account of the person’s learning style. Other people with autism might prefer pictures or diagrams. It can also help if you write up lesson plans, and provide handouts of information and instructions.

It is important not to speak too fast, and to use short sentences. You also might need to repeat instructions many times before the pupil fully understands what they need to do. If a pupil asks many questions, do not get impatient or angry. This could be a coping strategy that the pupil uses to relieve anxiety. Again, supplementing verbal instructions with written notes can be helpful.  Reduce the amount of communication that you use because it can be difficult for people with autism to filter out the less important information. Try not use too much eye contact or hand gestures. People with autism can find it very difficult to make eye contact. There can be awareness that eye contact is expected, and so the student might try their hardest to make eye contact. However making eye contact or even looking at the face can be very distracting because of visual sensory sensitivity. Therefore do not assume that the student has no problems in this area just because they appear to make good eye contact. It can help the student to retain information if they are not expected to look at the eyes or face during conversations.

Also it is important to use exact language, and avoid sarcasm or metaphors which can be taken literally by people with autism.  When I was at school the food technology teacher told the class that it is important not to eat food from dented tins. However, she did not explain that she meant really big dents, and that small dents do not pose a risk to health. She also did not put the risk in perspective because she did not explain that the risk to health from dented tins is very low. Because of her inexact language I spent ages checking tins for dents, and I still struggle with this anxiety today. A teaching assistant can help by checking that the student understands what the teacher is saying, and by clarifying any literal interpretations. This will help to make sure that the student has not developed any misunderstandings  as a result of the lesson.

Many students with autism struggle with comprehension and abstract language, and this can mean that it is hard for them to analyse texts in English or primary source material in History. A teaching assistant could provide the student with a pre-tutoring lesson, where they help the student to identify hidden meanings and symbolism in texts. The TA  can also help the student to write essays by providing a template that very clearly shows the student what information they should include for each section.

Dealing with change

The world is incredibly confusing and overwhelming for people with autism because they can’t make sense of the sights, sounds, and interactions that they have deal with every day. Therefore knowing what will come next provides  structure, purpose and order to the chaotic world.  You can help the student with autism by sticking to the agreed start and finish times for lessons, and you could write down the lesson plan on the board so that the autistic student knows exactly what will happen.   Students with autism can also find it hard to change activities. Therefore, provide a clear warning signal that an activity is about to come to an end. For example, you could say ”in 5 minutes you will need to pack away your books”.

You can also help the student with autism by letting them sit at the same seat each lesson.

When I was at school I was very worried that I would not be able to find my way to new classrooms, and that I would be late and would then get told off.   Therefore, if the lesson has been moved to a new room, a teaching assistant could accompany the student to the new room because this can help to reduce anxiety.

If possible a teaching assistant should let the person with autism know about any changes to the school day, such as a change of teacher or activity, as far in advance as possible, and provide the full details about what will now happen instead.  The teaching assistant could help the person with autism to develop coping strategies for dealing with unexpected change by providing them with a plan B.  For example they could let them know precisely what to do if there is a last minute change of teacher. Make sure that this plan is made visual and concrete, for example they could write a script for the pupil, or use diagrams or pictures. If the lesson has been cancelled a teaching assistant could work with the student in the learning resource centre so that the student still has structure and routine.

Dealing with anxiety and frustration

People with autism are often very anxious. The anxiety of the day can build up, and it might just take an apparently small trigger, or final straw, for the person to reach breaking point. When the stress has got to this point the person will need space to calm down. They might need to leave the school building and go for a walk to get some fresh air, or just sit alone for a while. It is best to leave the person alone and not try and follow them. It is often the stress of being around other people for too long that can cause the outburst in the first place. After the incident you can  talk to the person about what happened, although the person might prefer to explain their feelings via email or a letter. Be aware that people with autism can have problems understanding and communicating emotions. For example, I can be very anxious while not showing obvious signs of anxiety because I am very good at covering up how I feel. So do not assume that someone is okay just because they have a smile on their face and appear to be calm. Many people with autism hold on to their tension and stress when they are in public, only to release this stress when they are in private.  You could help the student to communicate their emotions by providing them with an exit pass when they are feeling stressed. The pupil could simply hold up the  card, and this would be a cue for the teacher to let them leave the room and go to a designated quiet space to calm down. A teaching assistant could let the pupil know how many times a day they are allowed to use the card so that the system is not abused.

Executive dysfunction

It is  important to be aware that many people with autism have an uneven skills profile. This means that they can be extremely skilled in some areas while really struggling with apparently simple tasks.There can be a massive discrepancy between their verbal and non verbal IQ.  For example, in an IQ test that was administered by an educational psychologist, my verbal abilities were  above average, but my non-verbal abilities were exceptionally low. This means that, although I  am very articulate  I  really struggle with abstract spatial reasoning. For example I find it hard to do such practical tasks as loading the boot of a car, so that all the items can fit. It can also take time for me to learn how to operate a photo-copying machine, and I still struggle to fold clothes neatly.

An executive functioning impairment is one of the reasons for these difficulties. The frontal lobes, or control centre of the brain, is responsible for regulating, managing, and organising thoughts and actions into a coherent and meaningful whole, in the same way that a boss or executive would get an overview as to how a company is operating. Nearly everything that we do relies on executive functioning, and people with poor executive functioning are often wrongly labelled as lazy, incompetent, unmotivated or lacking self-discipline. However, they cannot help having these neurological difficulties. It is important not to get angry or punish the student for behaviour that is caused by their disability, because this is counter-productive and can erode their self-esteem. When an autistic person is very anxious their ability to process verbal communication is compromised. Instead, remain calm and keep things simple by using just a few words, and don’t invade the student’s space. You could back  up what you say with visual reminders such as pictures or symbols. I spent many years thinking that I was stupid because I struggled with organising my school work, and needed a lot of parental supervision. However, thanks to my parent’s support, which really should have come from the school, I have achieved a 2:1 History Degree.

It is important to find out why the pupil is behaving in a particular way. For example, I was disruptive in physics because the lesson was very unstructured and the teacher often left the room. The class was expected to work from a textbook, which was boring and uninteresting. In this scenario, a teaching assistant could provide the student with a written break down of the lesson, and help the student to see the relevance and purpose of the work.  I also engaged in attention seeking behaviour by irritating other pupils because this was the only way that I could get the social feedback that I so desperately wanted. I did not understand at this age that other people had feelings. A teaching assistant could spend some time explaining to the student why they are expected to behave in a certain way. All the rules, both written and unwritten, should be made very clear and explicit because people with autism lack the ability to infer information that is not spelled out. It would help the student if they are told, both verbally and in a visual form, how their behaviour can affect another person’s thoughts and feelings.  Problem behaviour can also be reduced if the autistic student is made to feel that they are valued, and make sure that you reward good behaviour with positive attention and praise.

It can be hard for students with autism to accurately record their homework. A teaching assistant can help by giving them the homework instructions on a printed sheet, or they can write down the instructions in the student’s  homework diary.You will need to be very specific about what the student needs to do, and break down big tasks into sections with deadlines for each step. This will help the student to feel less overwhelmed because it can be far harder to plan and organise homework than it is to actually produce the end result. The TA could also write lesson notes for the autistic student because it can be hard for them to write down notes and listen to the teacher at the same time. A teaching assistant might also need to help the autistic student with revision planning. When I revised for exams I did not know how much time I should spend revising, and I neglected other activities. It would have helped me if the school had provided  a revision planner or timetable.

Interests

Many students with autism will be intensely interested in one or two subjects. Pursuing these interests can bring some order or certainty to their world. However, the interest can become obsessive and prevent the student from paying attention to their school work. A teaching assistant  can, however, keep the student motivated and prevent disruptive behaviour by incorporating the interest into their school work. I learnt this coping strategy on my own when I was obsessed with Kate Winslet. The interest was positive because I could relate subjects that I did not find intrinsically interesting to Kate Winslet. For example, when I had  to read Shakespeare for English I imagined that Kate Winslet was performing the play at the Theatre. This helped me to stay focused on the subject.

Co-existing conditions

Finally be aware that other neuro-developmental conditions and mental health problems often go hand in hand with autism. For example, I have dyscalculia, which is a specific learning difficulty that affects maths and numerical skills. Consequently my parents have to look after my finances, and I struggle to understand measurements. I also have OCD health anxiety, which means I worry about contamination and can spend a lot of time washing my hands. This anxiety also affected my concentration when I was at school.

To sum up

Students with autism can succeed and get good grades particularly if they are really interested in the subject. To ensure that they can make the most of their strengths it is important to take into account their difficulties and to provide reasonable adjustments where necessary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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