How can I help a child with autism at my school?
Please note that the term autism is used to refer to all conditions on the autism spectrum, including Asperger syndrome.
There are various approaches and strategies that teachers and support staff can use to help develop the behaviour, language and communication skills of children with autism. They include:
Many children with autism find it easier to understand the world about them through visual aids. Teachers may use a visual timetable showing times and simple drawings of the activities, so that the pupil knows exactly what they will be doing and when. Many schools use computer software packages to write out stories, descriptions and instructions in both words and symbols simultaneously. Other visual supports include written lists, objects and calendars to help children understand sequence and predict what is happening.
Comic Strip Conversations
Comic Strip Conversations assist children with autism to develop greater social understanding, by providing visual representations of the different levels of communication that take place in a conversation, using symbols, stick figure drawings and colour. By seeing the different elements of a conversation visually presented, some of the abstract aspects of social communication (eg recognising the feelings and intentions of others) are made more concrete and are therefore easier for the child to understand.
Children with autism who can read may be taught how to cope with different situations using the technique of Social StoriesTM. Stories are written for the individual child, explaining in words and pictures, step by step, what will happen in situations where they may feel anxious and how they should cope with situations they find difficult. For instance, a Social StoryTM might be used to explain what a child should do on a bus journey or when they hear a fire alarm.
Some children with autism respond well to drama and role play activities to help them learn social skills such as greetings, turn taking in conversation and watching for cues in social skills groups. A Circle of Friends or buddy system can also help a child with autism understand the social world of the classroom and the playground.
Circle of Friends
Circle of Friends encourages the development of a support network for a child in a structured setting, which can also extend to outside of this setting. It is not an approach to provide instant friendship, but over the course of meetings and evaluation of set targets, it is hoped that the child will be able to build closer and better relationships with other children. Six to eight children are recruited as volunteers to form the Circle of Friends. Through a series of meeting they help the focus child to express his or her feelings and decrease anxiety levels. This can lead to improved social integration and higher levels of peer contact.
The Picture Communication Exchange System (PECS)
PECS is a commonly used approach to teach children who have limited language. Teachers use pictures as symbols to teach children the names of different objects. Gradually the child is taught to exchange a picture for the object he or she wants, to construct simple sentences using the pictures, and indicate choices between various objects.
TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped Children)
This approach is widely used within special schools and can be adapted for use within a mainstream setting. It focuses on altering the environment and using visual supports, such as timetable and schedules, to help provide structure, reduce stress and improve understanding. Children are given clear instructions for every stage of an activity, usually presented in a visual way.
The SPELL framework has been developed by The National Autistic Society's schools and services to understand and respond to the needs of children and adults with autism. It recognises the unique needs of each child and emphasises that all planning and intervention should be organised on this basis. SPELL stands for Structure, Positive, Empathy, Low arousal, Links.
- Structure makes the world a more predictable, accessible and safer place and can aid personal autonomy and independence.
- Positive approaches and expectations seek to establish and reinforce self-confidence and self-esteem by building on natural strengths, interest and abilities.
- Empathy is essential to underpin any approach designed to develop communication and reduce anxiety.
- The approaches and environment need to be low arousal: calm and ordered in such a way as to reduce anxiety and aid concentration.
- Strong links between the various components of the person's life or therapeutic programme will promote and sustain essential consistency.
The behaviour of some children with autism can be very difficult to deal with. It may not always be immediately obvious why the child is behaving in a particular way, and it can be hard to control the situation without knowing more about what lies behind it and what kinds of strategies to use. With limited verbal communication, a child with autism may, for example, not be able to express their feelings of anxiety, discomfort, or frustration except in an outburst of unwanted behaviour. They may have learnt from experience that such behaviour generally achieved their desired object. Therefore the teacher needs to analyse what had been going on before the outburst that might have upset the child, and teach them some other way of communicating what they want.
You can find out more about the latest research and good practice, and collaborate with other professionals, at Network Autism.
Our Autism Helpline provides impartial, confidential information, advice and support for people with autism spectrum disorders and their families and carers.
Tel: 0808 800 4104 (open 10am-4pm, Monday-Friday)
Minicom: 0845 070 4003
Online enquiry: www.autism.org.uk/enquiry