It’s no coincidence, of course, that within a week, two people had asked me questions about children with autistic spectrum perception coping in mainstream schools. It was clearly something I needed to give attention to.
The first was a parent, asking my opinion about her daughter, a ten-year-old I see for a couple of hours a week.
This thoughtful, caring and highly intuitive mum was at her wit’s end, as another ‘expert’, who had spent all of twenty minutes assessing her child, sat her down and talked at her about the girl’s needs, beginning with, “Is there anything in particular that you wanted to say, or are you happy just to let me explain my findings? I’m afraid we don’t have very long.”
The implication – that 20 minutes of advice from an expert was more relevant and worthy of discussion than ten years of maternal care and understanding – was not lost on the parent. She bit her tongue, listened as the standard strategies and suggestions were trotted out, and silently despaired. I’ve seen this happen to families more times than I can count.
Hot on the heels of this was an enquiry from a friend who is working in a school where a young teacher is trying to balance the needs of a class of lively six-year-olds and one little boy on the autistic spectrum. He’s yet to be ‘seen’ by the expert, but the teacher is in need of strategies and ideas to help him cope within the classroom – preferably in such a way that his screaming fits and throwing of anything he can lay his hands on can be reduced.
I’ve never met this child, and was told only that he enjoyed the class forest school sessions, loved nature and since his personal teaching assistant had left was being given round the clock one-to-one attention by a wide range of staff – including teachers giving up their lunch hours – to ensure that he was always supervised. My friend also mentioned that he’d had to be dragged, kicking and screaming to school that Monday.
And this is where the help comes in.
Yes, I came up with a few thoughts, off the top of my head, which I’ll copy below. I have a fair bit of personal experience and have read many books on the subject, but would never call myself an expert. That title I’d reserve for the parents and the people on the spectrum who have lived with this amazing, different and non-typical way of being on a daily basis, year after year.
If any of you reading this and can add further insights and suggestions (bearing in mind, of course, the needs of the rest of the children in the class), please comment and add your ideas. I promise they’ll be passed on.
Here – for what they’re worth, are the thoughts I had, in no particular order:
Familiarity, to a child on the spectrum, is like a life raft in a sea of change, so the current situation with constantly changing minders is the worst possible for him. Given that presumably nothing can be done about that, he needs as many things as possible to stay the same – either the room he’s cared for in, or a folder/box of his own equipment or activities (preferably his favourite colour and/or texture – he’s bound to have very strong preferences – but failing that, a Thomas the Tank Engine cover almost always works!)
If he doesn’t already have one, a visual timetable will help him to make some sense of his days, as long as every adult works through it with him at every change in his day. It needs to be geared to his particular circumstances.
Cash in on his affinity with nature in every way possible – a feely box with bark, leaves, moss etc. to touch and talk about; a set of twigs or pebbles to count, sort or order in various ways; picture books about the natural world to share and perhaps a bird feeder outside the window, which he could fill and watch.
I’ve noticed that these kids often have a link to crystals. It would be worth seeing if a small bag of tumbled stones can be used to calm him when he’s out of control. A lad I taught used to tell me that he could feel certain crystals vibrating in his hand. He had an aventurine that always helped him to feel calmer if something had upset him.
Check with Mum whether there’s a particular object/texture/picture/sound that calms him at home. Maybe school could have something similar to offer when he’s at the throwing stage.
Perhaps a peaceful sunset or polar poster could be put at his eye level for him to lose himself in.
I’d strongly suggest that staff don’t discourage flapping, rocking or repetitive actions. These may not be neuro-typical behaviours, but they are exactly what these children need to get themselves back under control. Screaming and headbanging are less easy to deal with, but cushions help in both cases – to smother the noise (though not the child, of course!) and to protect the head.
The apparently unprovoked Monday morning tantrum could have been a response to the change from the weekend routine or a complaint about the chaos of having this many-carers system at school, but children on the spectrum are invariably very sensitive to the moods and feelings of others – to the point of telepathy, so he could easily be acting out some tension he has sensed in the household.
If outdoors works for him, get him outdoors! I know from bitter experience teaching on the Essex coast, with winds straight from Siberia, how unpleasant that might be for his minder, but it may help him to gain control of himself.
I presume someone has checked whether strip lighting affects him? Some hypersensitive kids get an unbearable strobing effect from them. They can also be strongly affected by smells, sounds, textures and the pattern of light and shadow, which the rest of us would barely notice. So get all his carers to avoid perfume, for example. Again, his mum could probably advise you.
I realise these are only a few ‘first aid’ measures, and don’t even scratch the surface of the deeper needs of a person who perceives in this way.
Maybe they’ll help slightly. Maybe you have something to add…