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Helping autistic pupils when anxiety strikes

For students on the autistic spectrum, the usual stresses of school life can be unbearable. Try these simple techniques to soothe them

For students on the autistic spectrum, the usual stresses of school life can be unbearable. Try these simple techniques to soothe them

We all experience anxiety at certain points in our lives: common causes include speaking in front of a large crowd, going for a job interview or waiting to hear important news. But for young people with autism, anxiety can be an ever-present and all-pervading emotion - one that can have devastating effects.

It is estimated that about 1 per cent of pupils will have a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), with the majority of them attending mainstream schools. It is therefore pretty likely that mainstream class teachers will come across a child with autism who experiences anxiety at school.

Although severe anxiety needs to be assessed and supported by a mental health professional, teachers and other school staff can play a large part in managing the low-level anxieties that young people on the autistic spectrum regularly face. Here's how.

Understand the anxiety

A good starting point for helping a student on the autistic spectrum who is experiencing anxiety is to find the cause. This may sound simple but it will take a lot of investigative skills if your pupil finds it hard to express their feelings clearly.

Observing the student in lessons may provide clues. Behaviours that could indicate anxiety include withdrawing from activities they may usually take part in; becoming less communicative; becoming more fixated on special interests or routines; presenting with more refusing or challenging behaviours than usual; and increasing repetitive movements or self-injurious behaviour.

Parents or carers may report these behaviours at home, or possibly a change in eating or sleeping habits. Family members, friends and other school staff can also be helpful sources of information about key stressors. Once a clearer picture is formed about what is causing the anxiety, you can make a plan to reduce it.

Provide routine and structure

School can be an unpredictable and confusing place for many children on the autistic spectrum. Developing routines that are explained clearly to the child (for example, through the use of visual timetables) can make life more predictable, and therefore less stressful. Changes to routine - such as having a supply teacher, a visitor to the school or the lead-up to Christmas - need to be considered carefully. Preparing the student for these changes can help to reduce anxiety. You can do this by creating a visual timetable to signal when this change will begin and end, or use a storybook to explain what to expect.

Adapt your environment

A school's physical environment can be particularly anxiety-provoking for students with autism, particularly in larger secondary schools. Affected students can be very sensitive to sensory overload and may find noisy, brightly lit or busy places difficult to deal with for any length of time. Schools should make reasonable adjustments to their environments so they are more manageable for students on the autistic spectrum. This could include offering students a calmer alternative to the playground during break- and lunchtimes, or a less distracting area of the classroom to work in.

Teach anxiety-management techniques

Children and young people on the autistic spectrum need to learn techniques to recognise and manage their anxiety. Simple relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, can be taught to children very early on. This will need adult support in the beginning, but as pupils mature they can be taught how to recognise when to use these strategies, as they learn more about their triggers and flash points.

Keep communicating

The most effective approaches in supporting anxiety are ones that are agreed by and shared with all school staff working with a student, in conjunction with the young person and their parents. These strategies can also be used at home if they are helpful. Share successful techniques with next year's teacher, or with the student's new school if they are moving on. This can make all the difference during one of the most anxiety-provoking times for students: transition to a new environment.

Lucy Harding is a specialist senior educational psychologist

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