The General Teaching Council for Scotland

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Frances Young, Support for Learning

Helping pupils with compliant autism in your classroom

Here I sit, at 4:45pm to write this. My son is currently crying underneath the table and there is no consoling him. School finished at 2:30pm today because of the holidays. In these last two and a bit hours, he has run away, he has dropped to the ground in tears unable to walk, he has been sick and, now that we are finally home, he is in his “safe place”, crying his heart out. When we left school, the teacher’s words were: “He’s been great today. No problems.”

He is great every day. There are no problems at school. He is the model child – hardworking, quiet, well-behaved, and follows all the rules. And he plays this part so well. But it is not him. He is, of course all of those things, but he is also autistic. It is not what he is but who he is. Autism is an amazing gift to this world. Autism brings great joy, skills and has allowed humanity to take huge leaps forward. Despite all that autism has given to the world, there is still little understanding of it.

I am a Support for Learning Teacher and I work mainly with children with autism. I have supported and worked with many children and families over the years, have done countless courses and training on autism and have spent more hours than I care to admit researching autism. I am not an expert in autism and would never claim to be. Every person with autism is different, just as every neurotypical person is different.

I am, however, an expert in my son. He needs to move. He needs to have brain breaks and movement breaks throughout the day. He needs to be asked if he wants to do some things and told to do other things. When he is anxious, he will chew the side of his mouth, wring his fingers, look out the corners of his eyes or play with his nails. These are things the school doesn’t know or notice. Perhaps because he behaves differently there. I remember going to the school for a meeting and hearing him speak to a teacher. His voice was slightly deeper. It wasn’t his voice! And yet, it was. It was his school voice.

When I go to the school and explain how he can be at home, there is always shock and statements of: “He’s never like that at school.” This is a statement I have used in the past as a teacher and I never understood there was a problem with it until I heard it directed at me, as a parent, for the first time.

I am sure when teachers say this it is not meant as a negative statement – I certainly never intended it that way when I said it. However, it is a negative statement for parents to hear.

Parents of autistic children are publicly judged by everyone. Everyone thinks they have a right to comment on your child, because he is moving, or making noises or is too big to be watching Noddy or too big to be in a buggy. Everyone thinks they can tell you how to do it because they know someone with autism or they once met someone who has autism or they watched a programme about it. Family tell you that they think you should try this and that. Friends tell you that you worry too much and need to relax and let him play. Teachers tell you that you are doing a great job because he is well mannered and a lovely boy. Strangers tell you that you can’t take him on a bus if he is going to cry like that. Shop assistants tell you that he is too big to be lifted. Carpet fitters tell you to put a rug down as he is wearing out the carpet too fast due to his pacing! Not all of these statements are negative, but they are judgements that let you know everyone notices and is watching.

One small thing from you as a teacher can change the lives of our children who have compliant autism

What none of these people truly understand is that you are trying. You are trying to be consistent. You are trying to translate the world to your child and translate your child to the world. You are trying to read everything you can get your hands on to help you understand and access your child’s world. You are trying to do everything – often with little to no sleep – and every day, you are failing. Every day, something happens that you cannot explain or fix for your child.

I am asking schools to do more. I know so much is already being asked of teachers and schools and this may seem like a step too far, especially as I have already stated that everyone with autism is different. However, there are ways that you can support our pupils.

There are so many different ways that our children will show they are anxious: some will cry or find it difficult to go to sleep; some will appear angry or agitated; some will appear obtuse or controlling; some will not do something unless they can do it perfectly; some will struggle to pay attention or will have frequent tummy aches or headaches.

For children like my son – children who are compliant and will do things because they were told to, even though they feel uncomfortable or cause them pain – there is an easy step that is very little work for a teacher and a school, but makes all the difference. Introduce work breaks throughout the day. For example, times tables work can be followed by matching coloured buttons to the colours inside an egg box. Reading can be followed by mindfulness colouring. Each work task is followed by an activity that is much less challenging to allow the brain time to relax before moving on to the next activity.

Check for comfort before making an assumption. For example, ask him if he wants to go to the school disco before telling him you look forward to seeing him there. Children with compliant autism will feel as though they are going to let you down or hurt your feelings if they don’t go. They will put themselves through physical pain or suffering to go because you are looking forward to seeing them.

Allow him the freedom to move. He can’t sit still, so don’t ask him to. Let him stand or give him a wobble cushion. If you allow him this, perhaps I won’t have to call the carpet fitter so often because maybe, just maybe, he won’t need to pace as much at home if he has been given the chance throughout that day.

Give him a break away from his peers. Give him a job that takes him out of the classroom. For example, he could be the Cloakroom Tidier every day or after each transition. This will allow his brain to have a break from processing so much sensory and social information.

Try to use his name when you are speaking to him. He may not look at you, but rather than saying “Look
at me,” tell him “I need to hear ‘okay’ so that I know you have understood me.”

Allow him the chance to observe his peers after you have given an instruction because sometimes his brain is processing too much so cannot understand the verbal instruction.

Use visuals. Don’t just have visuals up on your wall so they become like wallpaper. Use them every day. Refer to them. Put them on their tables.

If there is a fire alarm or something happens that hasn’t been planned for, check in a few times afterwards. He may seem fine, but he may not be. Add in a few more opportunities for motivator activities or movement breaks when these things do happen.

Lastly, in the lead up to holidays and immediately after holidays, he will struggle to keep up his mask. Keep the timetable going. Give him work followed by motivator activities as you would normally do because when he is stressed he needs this consistency even more. You are not making his life easier by giving him a “relaxed” day.

I am writing this out of desperation. I have held off for a long time because I want to support teachers in their roles, especially as there is a presumption of mainstreaming. I now realise that by holding off, I have made my son’s life more difficult than it needs to be.

So, if when talking to parents you think: “He’s not like that here,” think about what is being described. If it is a child who is having meltdowns at home but not in school, choose at least one thing mentioned above and speak to the parents a week later to gauge impact. If you have chosen the correct intervention, the impact will be life-changing and quick. One small thing from you as a teacher and a school can change the lives of our children who have compliant autism.