It is so important that we have CPD around autism awareness and the strategies that can help autistic students in the classroom. This is vital to ensure that our teachers and learners are supported.
However, I was getting tired of reading and listening to information about triads, icebergs, labels and communication skills.
There is a place for the nitty-gritty of what autism means on a basic level; of course there is. But I felt CPD needed to move on to give more concrete solutions and specific, everyday examples, rather than a broad range of views.
The answer, I realised, was to get the students involved.
Last year, I ran a CPD session for newly qualified teachers, sharing advice from my S4 (Year 11) life skills class, who had tried to explain to me what a day at school was like for them. The feedback I received was fantastic – the one negative being that no student was there actually giving their voice.
This year, that changed when Callan, one of my S5 (Year 12) students, co-hosted our CPD.
SEND: What teachers can do to help autistic students
These are the top 10 things Callan would like you to know about school through the eyes of a young autistic person, and what supports would help the most.
1. Be aware of sensory issues
“School can be tough before we even get to class or before we can get on with work. There are lots of sensory issues you probably don’t notice but someone with autism will. I know the lights are flickering before my teacher does and sometimes I can hear the board buzz when no one else can. I need to try to filter these out at the same time as getting my work done.”
2. Remember small details
“Try to remember a little about us – for example, if we said it was our birthday; we’d been on a trip; we were in a competition. It makes me feel great when a teacher asks me about something they remembered I was involved in.”
3. Making links can be difficult
“The biggest struggle I have every day is understanding things and linking facts. For example, I might know lots about Martin Luther King in history, but if he’s mentioned in a close reading passage in English I don’t always remember or realise it is the same person.”
4. Fill in general knowledge blanks
“A lot of the time people with autism have a special subject and focus. This can mean we don’t find out about other things that are happening in the world or in popular culture or have as much general knowledge about what is going on (or went on in the past) as someone in mainstream. You might have to fill in some blanks for us when this happens. On the other hand, sometimes we might know a huge amount about a topic.”
5. Be positive
“If I’m having trouble in your lesson, be really positive. Sometimes people with autism struggle with their self-confidence and feel they will be in bottom sets and not good enough to pass, etc. I can get really worried and anxious if I think I can’t do something so let me know it’s OK!”
6. Give us time
“Sometimes I need longer to answer, so please give me this time. If you ask me a question out loud, don’t automatically think I need you to ask me again. I will most likely have heard it – I just need to think about it. Sometimes if a teacher asks me again, but in a different way, I think it is another question and that I’ve got two to answer. Then I get even more confused.”
7. Make text easy
“Teachers can help by making things accessible to read. Don’t use old-fashioned fonts; don’t use text that is too small; breaking down instructions and adding pictures helps, too."
8. Teach things more than once
"You will probably have to teach me the same thing more than once. Some people with autism can struggle to remember instructions and how to do things. It’s not our fault – it’s just how our brain works. If you teach me how to do the question step by step and one bit at a time, I’ll get better and remember how to do it.”
9. Don’t expect the teaching assistant to do the teaching
“It can be really helpful to let me work with a PSA (TA) but please remember you are my teacher. The PSAs we have are amazing but they are not teachers and they don’t know about your subject. You need to teach me and the PSA is there to help me.”
10. Don’t walk on eggshells
“It is OK to give me a row! Don’t be scared to tell me off if I deserve it. Just make sure I know what I did wrong and why you are annoyed at me.”
Finally, Callan and the rest of the students who helped me put the presentation together would like everyone to remember to never, ever underestimate an autistic person. They will always surprise you. Just because someone is autistic, it does not mean they can’t achieve as much as a mainstream pupil. Sometimes, they can achieve more.
Lorna MacDonald is a pupil support worker in a communication support service