No appetite for dinners that bring sensory overload for autistic pupils

20th March 2009 at 00:00
Barrage of smells and lights may also trigger behavioural problems, experts find, but many teachers are unaware of potential troublespots

Soggy chips have been the butt of jokes for generations of children. However, for autistic pupils the daily trip to the dining hall followed by time in a crowded playground can be acutely distressing, researchers have found.

Lights, colourful displays, noise and the smell of food creates a sensory overload for pupils on the autistic spectrum and this can also trigger difficult behaviour.

The research also shows those with the condition are four times more likely to be expelled from school.

The National Autistic Society (NAS) has long campaigned for better recognition of the condition in schools, and believes life is being made unintentionally difficult for some children because many teachers do not know how to accommodate their needs.

Alice Stobart, the National Autistic Society's outreach teacher and co- ordinator, said countless schools are unaware of "troublespots" which spark difficult situations for autistic pupils, such as school dinner halls.

"Social times in school tend to be noisy and smelly, and from the point of view of the child that's difficult because it's unstructured and chaotic," she said.

Ms Stobart believes teachers should incorporate lessons on social skills in the school day for autistic children as a preventative approach.

"Teachers should also try to make social times more predictable," she said. "They could also do a lot to change the way they speak to autistic children, who often find it easier communicate non-verbally.

"Children with Asperger's syndrome (an autistic spectrum disorder) are able to communicate in a sophisticated verbal way, but teachers still need to use clear language. For example, they shouldn't use phrases like "pull your socks up".

"There is a lot of good practice in schools, but many others are resistant to making these changes because of a lack of understanding of autism."

Marcia Vallely, principal of the NAS-run Broomhayes School in Bideford, Devon will give a workshop on bullying at The Education Show at the NEC in Birmingham next week.

Ms Vallely agrees that sensory overload in schools can be upsetting for autistic pupils.

"In my school we have created a `low arousal' environment: children sit in smaller groups to eat and we've not got a lot of displays," she said.

"Teachers need to be aware even things like the fire alarm and the sound of chairs being moved can be triggers."

An increase in the number of children identified with autism has led to a corresponding rise in schools specialising in the condition. In January, there were 540 maintained state special schools in England approved to make provision for children with autistic spectrum disorders, and 34 non- maintained special schools, run by charities, approved to make similar provision.

The comparable figures for January 2004, the first year they were published, show there were 399 maintained special schools approved for ASD children and 22 non-maintained special schools. l The NAS will be launching information packs on autism and bullying for school staff, parents and children at The Education Show. They can be requested via text on 07903 200 200. l The Education Show, March 26-28, NEC, Birmingham. l For a copy of Alice Stobart's book on bullying and autism, email


Autistic children can find it hard to use or understand facial expressions or tone of voice, jokes and sarcasm and common phrases and sayings.

Some people with autism may not speak, or have fairly limited speech. Others have good verbal skills, but find it hard to conduct a "give and take" conversation, which could mean they just repeat what the other person has just said, or talk at length about their own interests.

Autistic children have trouble understanding unwritten social rules which most people pick up without thinking - for example, they might stand too close to another person or appear insensitive because they cannot recognise others' feelings.

They find it hard to make predictions, understand the concept of danger, use their imagination, plan for the future or cope in new or unfamiliar situations.

Some may experience sensory sensitivity - their experiences of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste could be intensified or under-sensitive. Background sounds most people ignore or block out can cause them anxiety or even physical pain.

People with autism who are hypo-sensitive may not feel pain or extremes of temperature. Some may rock, spin or flap their hands to stimulate sensation, to help with balance and posture, or to deal with stress.

People with sensory sensitivity may also find it harder to use their body awareness system. This system tells us where our bodies are, so for those with reduced body awareness it can be harder to navigate rooms avoiding obstructions, stand at an appropriate distance from other people, and carry out fine motor tasks such as tying shoelaces. Source: National Autistic Society.

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