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More than meets the eye

Work with autistic pupils means scratching beneath the surface, writes James Allen

A few years ago, many special needs pupils were taught in separate classes or special schools. Now, we are expected to educate pupils who find it difficult to communicate, those who are not yet on the curriculum scales (on the P-levels) and pupils with autism who have little or no extra support in class.

There's no easy solution to teaching an autistic child who is climbing the walls, but a couple of simple strategies can make a real difference. Start with pictures or symbols. Autistic children need the security of knowing what's going to happen and when. For those who find reading difficult, visual aids are crucial. Display your daily timetable in class and include pictures (laminators and Velcro are useful). The severely autistic will appreciate having their own to refer to. As they finish each activity, they can go to their timetable, remove what has just happened and take the next one. This strategy can be highly effective in combating tough behaviour, especially at stressful change-over times in the day.

With autistic pupils, we often see behaviour that we perceive to be odd.

Here, the trigger might be any one of a thousand factors - the way the sun is reflecting off the floor, or the colour of your jumper, or the fact that the door is open and people are making a draught as they walk by.

Autistic children need to develop coping strategies, but we have to strike a balance. If Daniel insists on closing the door every time it's left open, does it matter? If the answer is "no" and it isn't causing harm or distress, then maybe let him do what he needs to do to manage.

Do you get annoyed if a child doesn't look at you when you're talking to him or her? I do. In the case of the autistic child, though, there may be a good reason for avoiding eye contact.

One of the three main difficulties (known as the triad of impairments) for autistic people is communication, making sense of the plethora of information coming from another person - all the words, the speed of the instructions, all the confusing and distracting hand gestures, the way the mouth moves and that funny thing he does with his eyebrows while he's talking to me. When you consider all the signals the child is trying to make sense of, you begin to see why he or she looks away - it's easier to concentrate without all those confusing signs. Of course, the child might also be looking away out of downright rudeness. It's a judgement you have to make.

These simple strategies can really help a class teacher. But you should try to see them as having an impact on all your pupils - not just as extra things to do for one child.

James Allen is an advanced skills teacher at Watergate special school, south London. He supports teachers of autistic children in mainstream primary and secondary schools and has been teaching for 10 years

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