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Autism: ‘Dare to see the reasons behind behaviour’

Scottish Autism challenges schools to see problematic behaviour not as intentional, but as a sign of stress and anxiety

Teachers need to look at the reasons behind behaviour, says one autism charity

Scottish Autism challenges schools to see problematic behaviour not as intentional, but as a sign of stress and anxiety

Kaimes School is a school for children with additional support needs, including autism, in Edinburgh. Eleven teachers there have reportedly refused to teach a group of pupils described as behaving “violently”. Despite the school seemingly seeking support, it would appear none that was appropriate was forthcoming and the actions taken were, believed to be, by those involved, a last-resort measure.

The actions of these teachers are unprecedented in Scottish education. As individuals they will be subjected to scrutiny and the events will be debated on social media platforms and in professional circles for some time to come. I have no knowledge of Kaimes or the events leading up to the actions taken. My commentary will, therefore, focus on potential routes to resolution.

It is not known whether the pupils involved are autistic or not. However, the core issues are not unfamiliar. When people are under intolerable stress, they react – this is true of autistic and non-autistic people.

Autistic people are not inherently violent, nor do they display a collection of behaviours that are aberrant or without purpose or meaning. Our beliefs about behaviour determine how we respond and also influence the narrative around autistic people. If we see aspects of behaviour as violent, malicious or intentional, our response might differ compared with how we would respond if we understood it to be the result of cumulative stress and anxiety.

In the context of a classroom, where there are workload issues and pupil behaviour is seen as challenging, the responses of teachers and their pupils are not that dissimilar. If we understand such situations as stress-related, we can recognise that both groups are not feeling understood: their needs are not being met, wellbeing is impacted and relationships break down.

My first consideration is for the pupils and the resulting reputation that will now follow them through their education and, most likely, adult life. This is where the narrative is important. Autism is frequently described as a collection of deficits, which can prime teachers and others to focus on these rather than skills and strengths.

Autism is part of a person's identity

Understanding autism as being part of a person’s identity is crucial. Acceptance of their reality in terms of the social and sensory world is central to any education or support that is going to have meaning and relevance for them. Appreciation of and adaptation to autistic cognition, processing speed and style is fundamental to teaching and learning. However, no matter how well these needs are identified, if we do not attend to wellbeing it is extremely unlikely that an optimal learning environment and relationship can be established and developed.

Teachers may respond in ways that are out of character, and situations can escalate and result in overload. They also need to be understood and supported.

Having delivered countless “What is autism?” training sessions, I have to question if this approach works. It seems this approach does not easily translate into changes in practice.

Training that is autistic-led or autistic-informed teaches us from the lived experience. This seems to me more powerful and valuable than the recitation of a long list of potential deficits.

Approaches that have shaped my own thinking are the Synergy Programme, which shows promising outcomes when the focus is on building local capacity and supporting teachers to understand their own stress and mindsets in how they prevent, plan for and respond to behaviours that challenge. Atlass, meanwhile, promotes “low arousal” and focuses on the transactional nature of stress.

I wholeheartedly believe that the issues at Kaimes and schools with similar issues can be resolved with attitudinal and systemic change – and by daring to be different.

Charlene Tait is deputy chief executive of Scottish Autism

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