‘The Chase’ star and recent contestant in ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ Anne Hegarty has brought autism back to the forefront of national attention.
What has been especially enlightening about Hegarty’s openness is that, unusually in popular culture, a high functioning autistic person has spoken to the nation about her condition.
Prior to this, many people’s knowledge of autism was limited to ‘The Rainman’ and Mark Haddon’s superb ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’ ( the play version of which is back on in the West End – it is a must see!) Wonderful literature both, but perhaps misleading other than to those who have first hand experience of trying to support a child with autism.
What is Autism?
The National Autistic Society defines the condition as: ‘…a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.’
Anne Hegarty put it more simply, saying that autistic people find it hard to imagine things. Thus, the uncertainty of the new infiltrates nearly every aspect of a sufferer’s life.
Autism is an umbrella term, covering a range of symptoms, and different levels of disability within that spectrum. Thus, with Miss Hegarty, she is able to hold down a job in TV and socialise with fellow quizzers.
She also mixed with her fellow celebrities but the newness of being in the ‘jungle’ presented her with considerable challenges with which, for a couple of days, she struggled to cope. At the other end of the spectrum, some sufferers from autism require constant care.
Therefore, when we look at ways in which we can support children with autism, everything suggested has to be viewed from the position that the levels of disability from which a child suffers can be hugely disparate.
What are the Issues for Children with Autism in Schools?
Communication: Children with autism find it difficult to relate to their peers and their teachers. This can take many forms; it may be that the children simply do not talk to their classmates or it could be that they way to speak to them is extremely literal and lacking in empathy. Other children may become upset about what has been said (or done) to them, but the perpetrator cannot understand why.
As teachers, we use verbal feedback from our students to help us assess their understanding of a task. If that verbal feedback is unforthcoming, we cannot give the support needed to the child, leading to that student failing to progress.
Taking things Literally: Autistic people often see the world two dimensionally, taking what they see, or are told, literally. Autism makes inference difficult.
I once took a school trip away, and there was an autistic child with us. It was a theatre trip – we were performing a production; the boy had a real talent for this. One morning he could not be found. Eventually, after a search, he was discovered waiting in bed. The previous night I had said, at lights out, that the dormitory should not noisy too early, and I would ‘get them up.’ To me, and the other children, that meant I would give them a call when it was time for breakfast, which I did by knocking on the door and shouting ‘breakfast’. But to poor Harry, because I had not specifically told him he should get out of bed, he did not.
The Difficulties of Change: Changes to routine present enormous challenges to an autistic child. As Anne Hegarty says, autistic people cannot imagine matters well. So, for example, a different teacher or extra assembly is taken with barely more than a grumble by most of the class because they can see that this change will have very little impact on their life. For the autistic child, such a change is frightening and disorientating because they cannot perceive of its impact.
Excessive Response to Stimuli: Challenging behaviour from autistic children can be triggered by a host of stimuli, affecting any of the senses. Booker Park is a rather splendid special school in Aylesbury. Enter it, and calmness descends; the colour scheme, the calm – even the telephones ring with a relaxing peal. Unsurprisingly, the school is effective in dealing with often severely autistic children
Associated Conditions: Children with autism suffer with greater frequency than the rest of the population with other illnesses, especially gastro intestinal problems and epilepsy.
Supporting a Child with Autism
So, we know that young Susan is joining our class and that she suffers from autism. It will be a challenge. Quite rightly, many autistic children are educated in mainstream schools; quite wrongly, their one to one support is one of the victims of savage spending cuts which, according to the Government, have not occurred. What do we do?
Have Some Training: A piece of fairly recent research by Powell and Jordan states that autistic children require a counter intuitive approach from teachers. In other words, things we do instinctively and which work with the main part of the class, are counter productive for those with autism.
Only by undergoing some training can we have the knowledge to be able to plan an environment and lessons that are stimulating for the majority of the class, and stress free to the autistic child.
Avoid Sensory Overload: Avoid vibrant colours, keep noise to a minimum; if our classroom is next door to the kitchen and the smell of boiled cabbage comes through at 11.00am every morning, seek to teach in another room when support for your autistic child is required.
Keep Calm: Screaming at Kathy Atkins for not doing her homework yet again is probably counter productive anyway, but when the child with autism in our class loses control because of our outburst at another child, everyone suffers.
Avoid Change: Schools are characterised by change. Take the time to explain any alterations to the timetable, cover teachers and so forth to autistic children. A good tutor is essential for an autistic child, especially if one to one support is limited or absent.
At the same time as making proper moves to accommodate every student, whatever their needs, we should not forget that autistic children are now largely taught in mainstream education and that does mean being exposed to the vagaries of a school. However, if we wish to offer the best support to a child with autism, then mitigating against the anxiety such an environment brings is key to everyone’s success. We can only do that if we understand the condition. Training is key.