How to spot the signs of autism

Darren Jackson explains what to look for and why it may be missed at primary

Darren Jackson

Let me take you back to your primary school days. You may recall that you generally had one designated teacher, one classroom, an allocated seat, maybe even a personal coat peg. I remember that I had a coloured work tray and that there were clearly defined physical structures laid out within the classroom, including the maths corner and the story time area.

For many young people, the transition from primary to secondary school can be full of anxiety and trepidation, and part of that is down to the changes in physical environment, and the changes to structure and routine.

The support mechanisms provided within primary schools should not be taken lightly. Each child is wrapped in a continuity blanket that offers the safety and reassurance of knowing what is expected of them.

This can have an unintended side effect: it can mask the complex difficulties encountered by some young people with an undiagnosed autistic spectrum condition such as Asperger's syndrome.

Many young people do not show signs of having autism until they start secondary education at 11. Here, pupils are expected to process the vast array of demands placed upon them by the rotation of classes, with each teacher having personal expectations and rules that are often not communicated or shared with the young learners. This increases the risk of them experiencing transition anxiety and bereavement reaction due to their limited ability to process the information and to manage change.

Secondary schools should look to bridge the transitional period from the primary phase and seek to identify their pupils' needs through a gradual exposure to the programme of study. By doing so, the learner will not feel isolated and will instead feel confident that any difficulties will be managed and supported by their teachers.

Research shows that all behaviours have meaning. However, due to the lack of specialist training, teachers are rarely equipped with the skills and knowledge required to identify them. So what are the signs to look out for?

No two autistic people are the same, but autism is a social impairment condition, which generally means that a pupil with autism will display impairments in three key areas: social emotional interaction; social language and communication; and social imagination.

When making an assessment of a young person, it is important that we try to formulate a profile of their total development. We must also take into account stereotypical behaviours associated with autism, including:

- a tendency to stare or avoid eye contact;

- difficulties forming relationships;

- fascination with particular subjects or items;

- difficulty coping with change;

- insensitivity to the feelings of others.

For many young people with an autistic spectrum condition, forming or maintaining a relationship can be problematic, especially with their peers. This, coupled with a restricted repertoire of interests, can result in them becoming overpowering or obsessive towards their friends. While many young people with the condition crave social interaction, they lack the necessary skills to maintain an effective relationship.

The most critical aspect when supporting someone with a suspected autistic spectrum condition is continuity. Evidence suggests that a structured learning environment improves not only behaviour but also attendance and comprehension.

Teachers should always make sure that their pupils understand how much and what work they are expected to complete, what they will be expected to do following an activity and, most importantly, what is in it for them.

The important thing to remember is that many young people with a condition such as Asperger's syndrome can, and should be, educated within a mainstream educational service - if that service can meet their personal needs and aspirations.

Inclusion agreements should be based on the capabilities of the learner and their ability to achieve success. This will only be possible if schools possess the relevant skills, knowledge, understanding and commitment. One shoe does not fit all. Creative thinking must be applied if we are to provide meaningful outcomes.

Darren Jackson is the principal of Ludlow Orbis Education, which runs services for young people with autistic spectrum conditions such as Asperger's syndrome, including the residential Beechwood College in Wales.

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Darren Jackson

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