Autistic children are not freaks. They just have a particular set of needs. Diana Hinds outlines some simple strategies to help them integrate into the mainstream
Matthew lies on a long piece of paper and smiles as one of his classmates draws round him. His Year 3 class at Bierton C of E combined school, near Aylesbury, are measuring each other, and the other children have drawn a stick person in their maths books to represent themselves. But because seven-year-old Matthew has autism, he would find it hard to understand that a stick person in a book is him, explains teaching assistant Kate Watt. "So we're drawing round him."
This is one of the many accommodations that Matthew's primary school make for pupils with autism, enabling them to learn alongside their mainstream peers.
Little of this would be possible, however, without Angela Cosby, head of the school's language department, who uses her specialist experience to guide and support the staff.
Sarah Reeves, for instance, is in her newly qualified teacher year at Bierton and has already taught two very different children with autism, including Matthew. "I was worried about it at first," she admits. "I didn't know what to expect, because I hadn't really had any special needs training at university."
Bierton's teachers are in the minority when it comes to working with such children. A recent report by the National Autistic Society (NAS) found that more than 70 per cent of schools are dissatisfied with teacher training for the condition, and more than two-thirds of parents of autistic children in mainstream education are dissatisfied with the understanding of autism at their child's school. One in four parents is also unhappy with the understanding of autism among special needs co-ordinators.
One in 110 children has autism, the society says, and with many of these now "included" in mainstream schools it is likely that every teacher will encounter the condition at some point in their careers.
"Because this is an invisible disability, it's frequently not diagnosed,"
says Beth Reed, NAS policy officer for children. "When a child with autism displays challenging behaviour, it's often seen as playing up or being naughty."
Already, however, the society's Make School Make Sense campaign is seeing progress. Last month the Government announced that a new resource pack will be distributed to all schools. It also plans regulations to ensure all special needs co-ordinators are qualified teachers, with mandatory training to include autism.
Angela Cosby is the kind of teacher every school could do with. She became Bierton's special needs co-ordinator 15 years ago and more or less taught herself the job. She now supports up to 10 children with language difficulties in her department, including some with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), and she helps teachers with other SEN pupils, including a number with Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.
The environment she promotes for children with autism has advantages for other pupils too. Autistic children need structure and routine and find noise and chaos almost impossible to deal with. Every classroom you walk into at Bierton is notably calm and displays a visual timetable - including pictures of breaktime, PE and lunchtime. Children with autism are strong visual learners and find oral instructions difficult to comprehend.
In the playground there are designated quiet areas with pleasant places to sit - a haven for children with autism, who find it difficult to socialise and sometimes need to be quiet and solitary. But there are also "buddy stops" to help a child find company if they want it, and "circles of friends" if a child needs more organised support. If there are playtime ructions, all staff have learnt that these need to be sorted out on the spot, because if left until later, autistic children simply will not remember.
In the classroom, the use of "social stories" (simple words and pictures to underline what pleases other people and what please them less) can help children with autism to learn ways of not annoying their classmates. One boy with Asperger's, for instance, learnt - by constantly repeating his "social story" - not to burp in class and not to talk all the time in a loud voice.
For Diane Fisher, Matthew's mother, one of the great strengths of the school is that the children are encouraged to accept one another's differences. "Matthew has his own problems, for instance, he's not keen on instigating friendship, but there are people who want to be his friend.
He's not a freak or a figure of fun, he's a hard-working member of the class who plays an important part"
GETTING THE BEST FROM PUPILS WITH AUTISM
Be positive. Give praise frequently, honestly and about specific things.
Show as well as tell. Many children with autism have highly developed visual skills relative to their auditory processing ability.
Tell children in advance what is going to happen next. Autistic children tend to dislike change to routine.
Use language that is simple, clear and concise. Too many directions may lead to confusion.
Exaggerate facial expressions to model appropriate expressions in different situations. Children with autism often fail to use facial expression to communicate and their expressions may not match their thoughts.
Label feelings. These children have difficulty recognising the feelings of others and expressing their own feelings. Use visual supports (photographs, books, "social stories") to help them learn how to behave and respond.
From: Understanding Autism by Susan Dodd, Elsevier, pound;17.99