SPELL is The National Autistic Society’s framework for understanding and responding to the needs of children and adults on the autism spectrum. It focuses on five principles that have been identified as vital elements of best practice in autism, and emphasises ways to change the environment and our approaches to meet the specific needs of each person.

The SPELL framework recognises the individual and unique needs of each child and adult and emphasises that planning and intervention be organised on this basis. The SPELL framework can be applied across the autism spectrum, including Asperger syndrome. It provides a context for and is complementary to other approaches, notably TEACCH.

What is the SPELL framework?

SPELL stands for Structure, Positive approaches and expectations, Empathy, Low arousal, Links.

Structure

Structure makes the world a more predictable, accessible and safer place. We can support people on the autism spectrum in creating structured environments using visual information. Structure can aid personal autonomy and independence by reducing dependence (eg prompting) on others. Environments and processes can be modified to ensure each person knows what is going to happen and what is expected of them, reducing anxiety.

Positive (approaches and expectations)

We must seek to establish and reinforce self-confidence and self-esteem by building on natural strengths, interest and abilities.

Expectations should be high but realistic and based on careful assessment. Assessments should be made from as wide a perspective as possible and should include a view of the barriers in accessing opportunity. For example, many people on the autism spectrum may have difficulty with verbal communication, leading to an underestimation of their ability and potential. Conversely some may have a good grasp of speech but this may mask other needs.

Many autistic people may avoid new or potentially aversive experiences, but through the medium of structure and positive, sensitive, supportive rehearsal can reduce their level of anxiety, learn to tolerate and accept such experiences and develop new horizons and skills.

Empathy

We must try to see the world from the standpoint of the autistic child or adult, knowing what it is that motivates or interests them but importantly what may also frighten, preoccupy or otherwise distress them. This is a key ingredient in the 'craft' of working with people on the autism spectrum.

Making efforts to understand, respect and relate to the experience of the autistic person must underpin our attempts to develop communication and reduce anxiety. The quality of the relationship between the person and supporter is of vital importance. Effective supporters are calm, predictable, good humoured, empathetic and analytical.

Low arousal

Approaches and the environment need to be calm and ordered in such a way so as to reduce anxiety and aid concentration. There should be as few distractions as possible, paying attention to noise levels, colour schemes, odours, lighting and clutter, for example. Some people may need more time to process information, especially speech. Clear information should be given in the medium best suited to the individual with care taken not to overload or bombard.

Some people may seek out sensory experiences. This is best achieved with an approach where the input can be regulated.

Low arousal should not be confused with 'no arousal'. It is of course desirable that people are exposed to a wide range of experiences but that this is done in a planned and sensitive way. It is recognised that for the most part the individual may benefit most in a setting where sensory and other stimulation can be reduced or controlled. Supplementary relaxation and arousal reduction therapies, multi-sensory rooms, music and massage, sensory diet etc may be helpful in promoting calm and general well-being and in reducing anxiety.

Links

Autistic people, their parents or advocates should be seen as partners. Recognise the benefits of sharing information and working alongside the individual, their families and other professionals. Open links and communication will reduce the risk of misunderstanding, confusion or the adoption of fragmented, piecemeal approaches. Create and maintain links between the individual, their wider support networks and the community.

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SPELL framework training

Last reviewed 22 November 2016