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Autism - Approaches and Strategies

Supporting Children and Young People with Autism in Your School

General advice for SENCos to share with school staff

Children and young people with an autism spectrum condition have been and can be successfully included within mainstream schools.

This has been most successful where schools have been given the opportunities to understand the implications of autism and have had the opportunity to explore strategies and interventions.

There will need to be flexibility and recognition that these children and young people may need approaches different to those used for others.

Close working with parents is essential to ensure consistency and mutual support.

Classroom practice will need to take into account the following issues: 

  • The student's lack of generalisation of learning - every situation can appear different to the student.
  • The lack of incidental learning - everything needs to be directly taught.
  • The literalness of understanding.
  • Difficulties in becoming involved in group activities including play and games.
  • Possible unexpected reactions to over-stimulation, and the fact that this can occur in settings that other children and young people cope with well.
  • Behaviours which present as naughtiness or non- compliance may in fact have a range of other meanings.  These might include: indicating the need for help or attention; indicating the need to escape from stressful situations; the desire to obtain specific objects; demonstrating a lack of understanding; protesting against unwanted events; seeking sensory stimulation.

The SEND code of Practice (2015) states that staff in schools must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure that children and young people with autism are not disadvantaged when compared with their peers.

It is important to remember that each child and young person with autism is unique, and, as such, different strategies will work for different individuals.  Key to the success of any of the strategies will be the development of a trusted working relationship between student, teacher, support staff and parents - one in which the child’s differences are acknowledged, understood and catered for within the learning environment.

The strategies below may prove useful in assisting the school setting in making ‘reasonable adjustments’ and ensuring that the needs of children with autism spectrum conditions are both considered and met. 

The below strategies should be considered and applied (with impact reviewed) before schools seek external advice and support through the Early Help process.

Emotion and behaviour

Anxiety, Emotional Regulation and Behaviour which Challenges

Many children and young people with autism experience high levels of anxiety. They can also find it very difficult to regulate their emotions, meaning that extremes of anger, frustration, sadness or excitement may be more evident than in peers. It is not always easy to tell how a student with autism is feeling – for example, laughing may be a sign of anxiety, as opposed to happiness. These differences in emotional processing can lead to behaviour which challenges in the classroom. Considering the following strategies may help when dealing with behaviour which challenges.

  • Provide a discrete method for the student to communicate with the teacher when they are feeling anxious. For example: red/green wristband; traffic lights scale or numbered scale in planner; thumbs up or down signals; time-out card.
  • Be aware that a student may have coping strategies which they need to employ when feeling anxious. For example, reading a book, colouring or exiting the classroom (either for a short period, or to go to a pre-arranged place).
  • If a student’s mood appears heightened, or they are becoming more agitated, offer the option of taking ‘time out’ to a designated safe space. Some students may need to be explicitly advised to take ‘time out’.
  • Students who are in a highly anxious state may find it difficult to follow instructions. This apparent ‘defiance’ may well be the student’s only way of coping with the situation. Limit verbal input at this point, and give the student the space and time they need to calm down and re-focus.
  • Take time to get to know students and build relationships with them; this is likely to have a positive impact on behaviour.
  • Use praise regularly and specifically. (PLEASE NOTE: some students with autism find praise very difficult to accept. In this situation, praise may need to be very discrete or not communicated verbally. Stickers, written praise, or concrete rewards may be more effective).
  • Consider carefully where in the class students will sit – liaising with Learning Support, or students themselves may well be useful.
  • Use knowledge of students’ interests where possible to support motivation and engage them in the learning.
  • Students with autism may arrive at the lesson still dealing with events which have taken place beforehand/which are due to take place. They may need time/space/support to process this information. Be sensitive to this. It may be helpful to allow them to draw/talk about it/ have a time-limited method which allows processing.
  • Choices may make students feel very anxious. Reassure and offer guidance if needed. Choices, when offered, should be ‘low-stakes’, and allow for positive outcomes. Conversely, other students benefit from being given choices as they help them to feel in control.
  • If a student is behaving inappropriately in class:
    • Remind them clearly what they should be doing (the positive behaviour).
    • Consider distraction/humour to move them on.
    • Do not assume that they understand that what they are doing is inappropriate.
    • Consider giving a job to do which allows movement – this can be a sensory need.
    • Guide them to take ‘time out’ outside the classroom if the issue continues. The ‘time out’ should be for a short period of time, and be followed up by a restorative, positive conversation before the student re-enters the room.
  • Keep the classroom environment calm and structured; students with autism may copy/mimic the behaviour of their peers without understanding it. If antagonised by their peers, students with autism often don’t have the skills to deal with it appropriately.
  • Wherever possible, pre-warn students with autism of changes to routine.
  • Recognise that the emotional control of students with autism may well be less developed than that of their peers (even if academic development is not).
  • When consequences are used, ensure the purpose of the consequence is to alter the undesirable behaviour. For example, liaising with Learning Support staff to help a student consider alternative, more appropriate behaviours may well be more effective than giving a detention.
  • Liaise closely with Learning Support /the student’s other teachers/pastoral team to share good practice– consistency of approach will help.
  • If a student’s anxiety levels appear to be rising, reduce demands. Direct demands may increase anxiety. ‘I wonder how we might…’ or ‘I can’t quite see how to do…’ may be more effective than ‘Now let’s get on with your work’. Sometimes, a student simply needs time and space, and should be given this.
  • Recognise that a student’s difficulties with communication/social understanding may mean they appear rude/inappropriate without intent. In this situation, consider how they could learn the desired behaviour/language. Liaise with Learning Support on this.
  • Be flexible – remember that the goal is for the student to be calm and comfortable in the classroom so that they can learn. Any adaptations which are feasible, and that encourage this are worth making.
  • Don’t take it personally – the behaviour may be due to issues outside of your control!
  • Positive communication with home is often really appreciated – some parents/carers find that negative communications from school are more frequent than positive, which can be difficult.
  • Make implicit school rules explicit as they may not be obvious to a child with communication difficulties.

General strategies

There are many common differentiation strategies used in the classroom which are beneficial to children and young people on the autism spectrum as well as their peers.
General strategies

  • Keep instructions clear, unambiguous and concise – avoid talking for too long!
  • Keep language simple and literal; avoid use of idiomatic language; avoid sarcasm.
  • Keep activities varied.
  • Back up verbal instructions with visuals - instructions with more than 2 steps may not be retained.
  • Use knowledge of students’ interests where possible to support motivation and engage them in the learning.
  • Regularly check understanding verbally.
  • Model activities prior to students starting work.
  • Use simple checklists, so that completed work can be ticked off one section at a time.
  • Provide scaffolding for work. The use of writing frames, word banks, visual supports, graphic organisers etc. may mean students are more likely to achieve success.
  • Plan carefully for group work. Make explicit the role for each group member, give specific examples of language to be used and provide ‘rules for group-work’.
  • Use students’ names to draw their attention to verbal input.
  • Ensure consistency of approach amongst staff, sharing information amongst all staff who work with any particular student.
  • Support students’ understanding of others’ views and perspectives.
  • Model expected outcomes whenever possible/appropriate.
  • Have a flexible approach to homework: students may need opportunities to complete this in school, or differentiate homework to suit individual needs and interests.
  • Recognise that students with autism may be processing information at a significantly slower rate than their peers. They will need additional time for work and structured support to assist them in their learning.
  • It may be necessary to modify school rules and sanctions/rewards to accommodate the needs of students with autism.

Maintaining attention and focus

Some children and young people may find it difficult to maintain attention and focus. Some may find it difficult to sit still and remain on task for sustained periods of time.

  • Whenever possible sit the student away from any distractions, preferably near you at the front of the classroom.
  • Create situations to allow the student to move around in the classroom and/or plan ‘hands on’ activities.
  • Recognise that a student who is actually unable to complete a task may present as “non-compliant”.
  • Focus on telling students what it is you want them to do rather than what you don’t want them to do.
  • Try and give rewards that are both visual and immediate. Individual students respond to different motivations.

Motor skills

A high percentage of children and young people with autism also experience Development Co-ordination Difficulties. The impact that this may have on completing everyday tasks and its impact upon self-esteem should be given careful consideration.  Many children and young people with autism also suffer from low muscle tone and weak proprioception (feedback received from muscles and joints to indicate body positioning) which can make it difficult to maintain sustained periods of physical movement.

Ideas for classroom strategies can be found on: https://www.cumbriapartnership.nhs.uk/our-services/children-families/our-children-and-families-services/childrens-therapy/childrens-therapy-toolkit

  • A highly differentiated broad and balanced physical education curriculum will allow for the development of fine and gross motor skills at a rate which is appropriate to the individual.
  • Additional movement/activity sessions with older peers/teaching assistants could be planned into a pupil’s day (i.e. form time).
  • Encourage involvement in inclusive extra-curricular sporting clubs.
  • Providing regular movement opportunities within the classroom is beneficial for attention and focus in many students – not just those with autism.

Rigidity of thoughts and behaviours

  • Children and young people with autism can be easily overwhelmed by minimal change or difference.  They can be anxious, and tend to worry obsessively when they do not know what to expect.
  • Students with autism can be easily overwhelmed by minimal change or difference. They can be anxious, and tend to worry obsessively when they do not know what to expect.
  • Provide a predictable and safe environment.
  • Pre-warn students of any changes to routine, regardless of how minimal. Students should be warned if they are due to have a supply teacher (where possible).
  • Lessons should have a clear structure.
  • Counting down to transitions in lessons may help students move from one activity to the next. Transitions between places may cause anxiety – students may need time to prepare for change and time to adjust to the new environment.
  • Visual timetables can reduce anxiety because they provide predictability (even if a student has a good level of literacy).
  • Ensure start and finish points are clear, and that the volume of work expected is defined.
  • Allow students to spend time focused on their special interests.
  • Use timers to support understanding of passage of time, and when activities will finish.

Sensory challenges

Sensory Differences

Many children and young people on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing everyday sensory information. Any of the senses may be over- or under-sensitive, or both, at different times. These sensory differences can affect behaviour, and can have a profound effect on a person’s life.  Sometimes a child or young person with autism may behave in a way that you wouldn't immediately link to sensory sensitivities. A child or young person who struggles to deal with everyday sensory information can experience sensory overload, or information overload. Too much information can cause stress, anxiety, and possibly physical pain. This can result in withdrawal, challenging or difficult to understand behaviours, and in more extreme cases, fragmentation (which some people call ‘Meltdowns’).

Further information on sensory differences can be found on: http://www.autism.org.uk/about/behaviour/sensory-world.aspx 

Sensory Differences: Strategies

Visual

  • Consider the visual stimuli within the classroom – it may affect some students’ ability to focus.
  • Consider the lighting in the room (natural light is better than strip lighting). A student who is hypersensitive to visual input may learn better in a dimly lit part of the classroom.
  • Avoid altering the classroom layout too often; pre-warn the student with autism beforehand.
  • Provide coloured overlays if students find it useful.
  • Altering the colour of the screen being used in the classroom can also be beneficial.
  • Consider the student’s place in the class. It may be best to avoid positions near doors and windows. Consult the student as to where they would prefer to sit.
  • Some students may find it difficult to look at the person speaking and listen at the same time. It is important to take this into consideration and not insist on eye contact.

Auditory

  • Shut doors/windows to reduce external sounds.
  • Allow students to wear ear defenders/noise-cancelling headphones if required.
  • Be aware that excessive noise in the classroom may be detrimental; raised voices can be distressing.
  • Pre-warn students of any loud/unexpected sounds, including planned fire alarm practice.
  • Pre-warn/prepare students before going to noisy or crowded places (including assemblies/drama productions/sports events etc.)

Other Senses

  • Be aware that students with autism may be particularly sensitive to smells. Conversely, they may be far less sensitive to smell than their peers. This can lead to issues with personal hygiene.
  • Due to tactile sensitivity (being sensitive to touch), the feel of certain uniform items may cause undue discomfort for students with autism. Allow adjustments to be made to the uniform so that it can be tolerated.
  • Pre-warn students if you are going to touch them. Approach them from the front.
  • Students may need to leave lessons early/arrive late in order to avoid the busiest time in the corridors.
  • Some students benefit from certain types of sensory feedback, which can aid concentration. Examples include: doodle pads, tangle toys, blu tac, chewellery (items which children can safely chew). Whilst these items should not be distracting for the student or others, they can be a necessary aid to learning.
  • Some students who struggle to maintain concentration and focus would benefit from being seated away from distractions.

Social interaction

  • Be aware that students may find social interaction challenging.
  • Do not assume lack of eye contact means lack of engagement.
  • Recognise that group work may be difficult. Strategies to support group work include: choosing supportive group members (ask the student who they are comfortable with); providing specific roles to each member of the group; providing sentence starters/language for conversation; providing systems to limit the amount of people speaking at once; pre-warn student of the planned group and topic.
  • Set up a ‘Buddy System’ to support students during unstructured times (ie. break and lunchtimes).
  • Ensure students have access to extra-curricular activities, and are encouraged and supported to get involved if they wish.
  • Provide quiet space for students who prefer to avoid interaction during unstructured times.
  • Encourage an inclusive culture amongst peers.
  • Students may need to leave lessons early/arrive late in order to avoid the busiest time in the corridors.
  • Provide opportunities to explicitly teach social skills.
  • Provide structure to play/social experiences if needed.

Writing and reading

The process of writing requires much more than the ability to form letters.  The writing process involves skills in: language, organisation, motor control and planning and sensory processing.  These four areas are problematic for many children with autism.

Further information can be found in ‘I Hate to Write’ by Kathy Oehler.

Writing: Strategies

  • Provide word banks, sentence starters, key vocabulary lists.
  • Graphic organisers/mind-maps, checklists and writing frames can be helpful.
  • Use kinaesthetic or multi-sensory approaches to support students in creating and developing ideas.
  • Give examples of the style of work expected, including the expected final outcome. Model the process of constructing the text.
  • Use visuals, film, or music to aid idea formation.
  • Provide access to technology which will support the writing process. This may include: word processing, dictation software, programmes such as Clicker.
  • If the student is a reluctant writer, ensure every word of written work required is necessary and meaningful (ie. the date, title etc. may not be necessary).
  • Where possible, do not expect students to copy from the board: provide handouts or allow students to take photographs of the board.
  • Ensure students have access to writing tools/accessories which make handwriting as easy as possible. Examples include ergonomically designed pens/pencils, or grips.
  • Writing slopes (or an empty ringbinder to lean on) may be helpful.
  • Use a scribe as appropriate to support students in keeping up with written work.
  • Indicate clearly on the page where to start and finish. Alternatively, limited word counts can be effective.
  • Find ways to make abstract concepts more concrete or accessible.
  • Explicitly teach understanding of intended audience (for example, tone, vocabulary, level of detail, structure).
  • Re-drafting/improving work can be challenging – be sensitive to this. Students are more likely to manage this if they have a relationship of trust with the person giving advice.

 

Reading: Strategies

  • Various aspects within reading may be challenging. These include: inference and deduction; imagining how characters might feel; predicting future events in a story; abstract concepts (for example, Religious Studies). Use of visuals, including photographs, film and objects can be helpful in supporting these skills.
  • Encourage use of supports such as reading rulers and coloured overlays.
  • When writing on the board, separate information through the use of different colours – for example, questions in one colour, and key facts in another.
  • Students with reading ages significantly below that of their peers should not be expected to read independently – read texts aloud to the whole class, or ensure support staff/supportive peers are available to help.
  • When reading, explain others’ perspectives and reasons why they might feel that way.
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