It can be daunting to work with students with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in a mixed class. When pupils have impairments in communication, interaction and imagination, coupled with a sense of crippling anxiety, it can often feel as though we are working with children who perceive the world and their place in it in a very different way from how others see it.
As teachers, we can feel that we are failing such pupils. Whether our ASD pupils have additional learning needs or not, whether they are at the beginning or the end of this long continuum, there are still 10 golden rules for teaching that can leave us all feeling more secure and empowered.
1 Watch your language
Our language needs to be clear, uncluttered and free from idioms. “Keep your eye on the ball” as an instruction could leave a pupil completely mystified, and a sarcastic “Great!” can mean that undesired behaviour goes on to be repeated.
2 Keep it clear
Avoid rephrasing requests or instructions. It is better to pick out key words and repeat them as many times as necessary, accompanied by visual cues, referring to a schedule or using gestures. Use short sentences. Address the pupil individually and connect with them by using their given name.
3 Keep it predictable…
Schedules, structure and routine support the learner. These will need to be presented in different ways according to ability and age level, but visual back-up is essential. Pupils need to have clear warnings of when things are about to change or end, of what “finished” looks like, and what happens after that. A void or uncertainty heightens anxiety.
4 …but be flexible
Ours is not a permanently autistic-friendly world, so it is important to set up, perhaps artificially, situations where change happens unexpectedly. You can then support the pupil through this change.
5 Good choices
It is important to give fewer choices and limit language. It is better to say, “Do you want to use crayons or paint?” than to say, “What’s your picture going to be today?” Pupils will limit their own choices through anxiety and a narrow range of interests. It can be helpful to use their “enthusiasms” to motivate and engage, but there needs to be a good balance between a focus on what they already like and challenging the pupil to open up their world and expand their interests.
6 It’s not you
Take comfort in knowing that apparently personal insults or rude aggressive remarks or behaviour are not connected with you. They may be learnt from another source, such as a film or television programme, and their impact when repeated is not likely to have been fully understood.
There can be a genuine frustration on the part of the learner because they assume that you will know what’s going on in their head. The target for the pupil’s anger can often be unrelated to the source of the anger.
7 Behind the words
The feelings, intonations and reactions of other people can be alien to the pupil and dealing with these in day-to-day life needs to be drilled and taught. Role play and practice of social situations can help here, with a few unexpected scenarios thrown in to simulate our flexible, non-ASD world.
8 Pupil power
In an inclusive environment, other pupils will benefit from learning about the condition as part of the PSHE curriculum. Other pupils can be immensely effective in modelling social play and including learners with autism, but they need the tools to do it. Understanding ASD is a huge part of this.
9 Make sense of the sensory
Sensory challenges can be a huge barrier to learning but may be overlooked. Consider using occupational therapy for a sensory diet or creative therapy for the development of play and social skills.
10 Rationalise the ritual
Most autistic people display obsessive, ritualistic and/or anti-social habits or behaviour that make no sense to people who do not have ASD. Unless this sort of behaviour is proving a significant impediment progress or it is harmful to others, address it at your peril. The behaviour will, in all probability, be replaced by something far less desirable. Allowing pupils to indulge in such behaviour can even be used as a reward for positive efforts, in controlled conditions.
Hilary McDermott is associate head at the Eden Academy, a family of five schools in north-west London