How to be autism friendly at school (guest post)
Crystal Hart has kindly provided this guest blog for Axcis and our partners at the National Autistic Society. Crystal is currently working for Axcis London in a primary school with SEN/D students. She has worked with these students for around four years now. She studied an undergraduate degree in special educational needs and is currently studying a masters in the same subject. Crystal has been around people who have special needs all her life. This has made her passionate to learn about the subject as much as possible and support children with SEN/D. In her spare time, Crystal really loves to sew and enjoys taking her two dogs on long walks. In this guest blog, she talks about the importance of being autism friendly in school settings.
Being autism friendly
Working in an autism provision can be very rewarding. No two days are ever the same! Some days will be great, with the children learning well and behaviour is good. Conversely, some days will be noisy and children may struggle to stay on task. But every day is busy. When a child finally achieves something you have both been working on for a while, it is a big YES feeling and so perseverance is a very important skill. It also takes a person with kindness, patience, empathy, and resilience to work with autistic children, as well as a lot of energy!
Being able to bounce back quickly from situations that arise is a big must. You will experience situations that are not the ‘norm’ daily as no two children are the same. Having resilience as stated above is key to managing these situations.
There are many skills you will need to work with autistic children. Patience is one. Some children learn through repetition and so being patient while they process the information given is important. You may have to wait 10 or even 20 seconds or possibly up to a minute for a child to process what has been said to them and give an answer back.
Positivity is also an important skill, you may not think it is, but it is! Sometimes being positive is hard especially when you are having a bad day. However, the children will sense your feelings and feed off them. This is counter productive to their learning, so try to stay positive!
Emotional intelligence is needed when supporting autistic children. They will need emotional support as well as learning support each day. Coming to school may be scary for some children – transitioning between classrooms, or even just using the toilet! I once worked with a child who would only use one toilet in school and when lockdown came that toilet was changed. The child was upset and could not understand why he couldn’t use his normal toilet. I took him to the new toilet and just stood outside it with him for 5 minutes each day for 4 days. Then the fifth day we stepped inside. By the tenth day he was sitting on the toilet! So being sensitive to their emotions, even if we do not understand why is important.
One size does not fit all
A key mistake to avoid is thinking that all autistic children are the same. They are not! Some children are low on the spectrum and so are social partner children, who need extra emotional support to express themselves and teaching support to access the curriculum. And some children are high on the spectrum and may possibly need less educational support and more emotional support for socialising. Each child will have different needs, some have more needs than others.
Autistic children may also have different sensory needs. This needs to be remembered when making your space autism friendly. Some children on the spectrum get distracted easily by bright colours and so when making displays, try using muted tones such as light grey and silver. Space may also be an issue. Try to have space between each desk/workstation so the child does not feel ‘closed in’.
Visuals can be used for timetables and for talking. This helps the children understand what they are doing during the day, such strategies might include using a now and next board, communication boards and sign language such as Makaton or SignAlong.
Creating a means of communication within the school environment is crucial, and this will tie in with any visual work you are doing. Having a quiet area in the provision so that children can go for quiet time if they need it is also helpful in managing potential meltdown situations. Some autistic children like quiet, so ear defenders are also handy to have available.
At our school, to make the provision more autism friendly, we also have a ‘Regulation Station’, where children can go if they feel dysregulated. There are ‘Zones of Regulation’ which are essentially little boxes in traffic light colours so the child can place their name in the box they feel shows how they are feeling and can sit for a while to calm and until the are ready to go back to ‘green’ again. This is especially helpful for children who struggle to express themselves verbally, as is so often the case with autism.
There are many ways to support autistic children, but the most important thing to remember is that they are all different, so do not assume that one strategy will suit all!