Sue Goldman is an autism education specialist offering support, advice and teaching to autistic children, their families and educational settings (check out her website here). She has kindly written us this guest post which gives advice to those who are new to working with individuals on the autism spectrum.
New to Autism?
So – this is your first professional foray into the world of autism and you’re intrigued but unsure what to expect…? If this sounds familiar, welcome!
You’re about to experience the privilege of getting to know children or young people who perceive and understand life in a different way and, in doing so, your eyes will be opened to a wealth of human experience that you may not have imagined. But much of this will be hidden from you when you begin. You are setting out on a lifelong journey of listening (with all of your senses and intuition), learning, wishing that you could just get into a pupil’s head for a moment, and connecting dots to build a picture of each individual’s world so that you can understand and support them to the best of your ability.
Unique yet connected
Each autistic pupil is unique and will teach you something new, so this is a world in which – however long we have been part of it – we can never say that we know it all. Nevertheless there are ways of being that connect all autistic people, which are best expressed, I think, in this quote by Ashlea McKay, an autistic adult, who describes autism as “experiencing the world at a heightened level of intensity and not instinctively knowing and understanding the intricacies of human interaction.”
Understanding sensory differences
So – experiencing the world at a heightened level of intensity – what does that mean? It’s about your senses behaving differently and sometimes unpredictably. Most – or maybe all – autistic people have unusual sensory systems which affect the way they see, hear, taste, smell and feel the world. So sensory input may not feel stable, either in the same person or across time. This can lead to processing delays, difficulties with maintaining and shifting attention, sensory overload and dysregulation. Some autistic people talk about having ‘sensory days’ on which their sensory issues are more pronounced and they feel ‘more autistic’ on those days. I can only begin to imagine how this must feel, but it is likely that our pupils are experiencing the world in a way that’s sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes extraordinarily beautiful, often unpredictable and distracting. We need to be aware of this, pick up the clues, adjust the environment, adapt our expectations and offer appropriate accommodations in order to support them.
Adapting our communication
How about “not instinctively knowing and understanding the intricacies of human interaction”? That is to do – essentially – with difficulties in communicating and interacting in conventional ways. As non-autistics, our communication is often too fast, too noisy, too confusing, too full of unspoken rules. We need to adapt by slowing down, giving processing time, supporting our spoken language with visuals (which are often much easier for an autistic child to interpret), using positive language (tell pupils what you do want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do) and offering structured, supportive opportunities to practice interacting successfully with others. Remember that – contrary to popular opinion – autistic people do experience empathy, often very deeply, but their ways of perceiving and expressing that might be unconventional. Some autistic children begin speaking late, may never speak, or have limited or unreliable speech. That does not mean that they have nothing to say. So look into the many and varied methods of supporting communication with objects, photos, symbols, signs and technology, and do your best to find out what works for your pupil.
Creating a safe space
It’s not hard to see how experiencing the world in such a different way can lead to high levels of stress in our pupils. This is often when we see behaviour that concerns us and that we may feel unsure how to manage. Meltdowns, shutdowns, burnouts and regressions are often described by autistic people as being part of their experience of life. Living in a world that is not designed for the way their brains are wired means that just being with us can take a huge amount of energy and courage on a daily basis. We need to acknowledge that and work hard to make their experience of school – at least – one that is comfortable, safe, stimulating, meaningful, and which allows them to play to their strengths.
Listening to autistic voices
Those of us who are not autistic will always be at a disadvantage when it comes to really understanding how it feels. Therefore I would urge you to listen to autistic voices. There is now a passionate and vibrant autistic community out there on social media, speaking loud and clear. They want non-autistics – especially parents and professionals – to listen. They want us to try to understand their perspective. Follow the #actuallyautistic hashtag on Twitter and it will lead you to a rich seam of lived experience. Be respectful, be open to having your thinking challenged and you will become a precious ally for both your pupils and the wider autistic community.
*Note: I deliberately use identity-first language (‘autistic child’ rather than ‘child with autism’) as the autistic community expresses a clear and strong preference for this.
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