I have been privileged to spend many years of my career working within the primary education sector and early years settings to support staff who work with children on the autism spectrum. It can be one of the most rewarding jobs and yet also one of the most challenging too, as each individual child on the spectrum is unique, and therefore they all have such different needs.
Add to this the fact that many children’s challenges are hidden from the outside world and it becomes easy to see why people can focus on the things children with autism can’t do, their deficits if you like. Instead of us looking at the child behind the behaviour, we can find ourselves stuck in a cycle of negative reaction strategies that actually serve to aggravate the child even further.
Many approaches I have seen over the years tend to ‘treat the behaviour’ and focus on the child’s problems. But we should be taking the time to find out what makes these very special children tick, what their strengths are, how they learn, and how we can make reasonable adjustments to the environment in order to meet their needs.
So often children on the spectrum are treated like round pegs in square holes. Our environment and demands to conform to our view of the world can chip away at them and doesn’t take into account their individual needs.
Or to look at it another way - imagine holding a ruler in your hand. You can bend it this way and that way time after time…but eventually the plastic will become overstretched, worn out and one day it will snap.
Children with autism can quickly become overwhelmed and over stretched with their learning environment if they are constantly having to bend and mould to fit into our world. In the long term this can lead to anxiety creeping in and taking hold of them, which is proven to drastically affect their mental health as they get older.
So over the next few guest blogs for Kathy I will be looking at how we can effectively support children with autism in our pre-schools and classrooms. From early intervention; to liaising with parents, understanding behaviour and sensory needs to language development and communication. I will talk through my experiences, and share with you the things that have worked well for me, and also those things that didn’t work so well! And to be honest, sometimes the things that have taught me the most have been times when I have got it wrong!
So to start with I will look at what to do if you have concerns about a child in your setting -the key behaviours to look out for, and then how to broach any concerns you may have with parents.
The National Autistic society state that young children with autism may exhibit a range of behaviours that could include -
· difficulty relating to others and making friends
- difficulty in communicating (some children may not talk at all)
- being unable to engage in imaginative play.
- a lack of awareness of danger
- ritualistic play and behaviour
- inappropriate eye contact
- hypersensitivity to sound, light
- spinning objects
- hand flapping.
(National Autistic Society May 2016)
However not all children with autism will display all of these behaviours. Often children on the spectrum can mask their difficulties for fear of standing out. This is especially true with girls. They can often blend in very well and follow the lead of others to get through the day and can be very sociable with their friends too.
Many young children on the spectrum will have some form of communication and language difficulty. Some children may never use spoken words or they can develop language later than the rest of their peers. Other children could use echolalia to communicate (where they repeat words and phrases they have heard, sometimes in an accent). And some children who have Asperger’s can have what appears to be good level of language, yet they may not necessarily understand everything that is being said. They can take things literally, out of context, or not always see why your joke is so funny.
There are loads of things we can do to help children on the spectrum ‘find their voice’, and this is vital whatever level of language they have. As just because a child doesn’t speak, it doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to say. I will look at possible strategies another time.
Lots of children with autism may also have difficulty with ‘sensory processing’. Simply put this means they can smell, hear, and feel things in a different way than we do which can lead to them being overwhelmed by their environment, or even leave them seeking sensory input. This can make them appear hyperactive or they can’t sit still. But young children won’t always even realise what is happening to their body, so it’s our job to watch what their behaviour is telling us instead of labelling them as a naughty child.
Working with young children everyday means you are in a unique position to be able to make a difference to children whether they have a diagnosis or not. As early intervention and support is vital. I have found that over the years I have always followed my gut instinct. Sometimes we just know, if a child isn’t hitting their milestones and there is something just niggling at you. Speak to your line manager/ SENCO or class teacher.
And then it’s vital to open the lines of communication with the child’s parents. Here are some tips…
· Keep calm and friendly -This can be very daunting to have to do and you may worry about what they will say in response. But chances are they may have been worried about their child for a long time already, as no one knows a child better than their parents. They may have also been expecting you to raise concerns at some point.
· If they don’t react well- Keep calm and polite, they may just be in shock and it could be a defence mechanism. Have the support of a co-worker there with you, and give them time.
· Keep it informal -So ask them to come in for a chat, offer them a drink and don’t sit around a desk like your planning on interviewing them. Believe me they will be more nervous than you and probably emotionally drained with worry themselves.
· Keep it private, and positive where you can - Make sure it’s done in private and that you have lots of positive things to say about their child too. There is nothing worse as a parent than sitting around a table with professionals telling you all the things your child can’t do, and how he causes them such a problem. As a parent that is heart-breaking to have to hear.
· Keep an eye on the time and don’t talk about their child if they are in the room with you -Keep it brief, to the point and informative, offer childcare if possible so their child isn’t in the room listening to the conversation. Try not to give too many opinions and stick to the facts as you see them. And most importantly keep it friendly. Parents can easily become defensive if they sense in your tone that you are getting at their child in some way.
· Be prepared -So maybe prepare some notes that include their child’s strengths, and how he overcomes any challenges he seems to face. For every negative try and give them two positives so they don’t come away with a feeling of dread about their child’s future. But be honest with them as the difficulties you have noted about their child do need to be addressed in a sensitive manner.
· 1) Discuss the issue 2) Provide possible causes and 3) Plan strategies that could help-
So for example -1) Discuss the issue- You could say you have noticed that their child can find Storytime a little tricky and can become a little wriggly and distracted
2) Follow that up with what observations you have done- You have observed that it could this be because they are struggling to follow pace of the language, or maybe they may need a firm back to lean on to feel more comfortable whilst sitting, or that maybe 6 OR 7 minutes is enough for them to sit for and any longer than that can cause them to lose focus
3) Finally discuss the strategies you have put in place- So could say you that have you have implemented strategies such as a fiddle toy, provided visual aids or puppets to go with the story which helps their child to engage. You could have tried a chair or cushion to sit on instead of the carpet, and you now ensure the carpet session doesn’t exceed 7 minutes
Then once the lines of communication have been opened, keep those links going with weekly ‘catch ups’. It doesn’t need to be much, but a discreet little thumbs up at pick up time, or a little note in their reading book can make all the difference to anxious parents. Because no matter what the outcome is, the parents will need your support and help in coming to terms with this unplanned reality they find themselves in.
Next time I will look at how we can adapt the early years learning environment to accommodate children on the spectrum. Including how the layout of the classroom can affect a child, how visual displays can aid communication and the use of timers can help children access learning.
This blog was written as a guest post for Kathy Brodie (Early years teaching and coaching) and can be found here on her website