Unique Strengths and Challenges
Like all children, children with autism1 have their own unique experiences of being in the school environment. They will have personal strengths, and they will experience challenges too. Whilst autistic children do not have a unilateral set of difficulties, they may experience some or all of the following areas of difficulty in school:
- Challenges with communication and social interaction
- Sensory regulation
- Cognition/ learning (including motor skills)
- Social, mental and emotional health (SEMH).
Fortunately, there are a number of strategies that can be employed within schools to help.
We hope this guide will be useful to help parents understand how schools are able to help – and perhaps to identify how a school might be able to tailor the support they offer.
Helping with Communication and Social Interaction
The “hidden curriculum” is illustrated by autism researcher, Brenda Smith Myles2 to explain the intuitive, largely untaught social and cultural rules in society and schools such as: small talk, body language, respecting others’ opinions, personal boundaries and touch.
Judy Endow3, autism consultant, explains how she and those with autism struggle to learn the hidden curriculum, “our brains are not wired to enable us to automatically pick up, incorporate and then effectively use the often elusive and transient information that is all around us.”
The hidden curriculum is widely recognised amongst autism consultants and educationalists as a social impairment for many autistic children and young people. It can be a barrier to making and keeping friends / dysfunctional friendships, and potentially impair recognition of bullying. This can lead to social isolation, loneliness and anxiety/depression.
In terms of ‘universal’ / common interventions, primary schools have friendship benches in the playground and may offer mediation when friendships go awry. Secondary Schools will cover unhealthy friendships on and offline in PSHE lessons4. Schools don’t teach children how to make friends per se, but will routinely stress the importance of kindness, empathy, compassion and acceptance in circle time and themed assemblies.
A tool which is more specific to helping children with autism is Social StoriesTM and comic-strip conversations5: Using written stories, cartoon or picture layouts, social scenarios can be explored in writing, cartoon-style or pictures, depicting social rules and why they exist. Scenarios can be shown in a literal sequential way, with helpful guidelines for thoughts and behaviour. The ordered format helps with executive functioning (ability to plan, organise, plan, predict and monitor), which is an area that autistic pupils can struggle with. Social StoriesTM can be used for a wide-range of communication and interaction scenarios such as: jealousy and honesty in friendship, understanding how others might feel, regulating feelings around possessions, and also many other cognitive and learning scenarios such as changes of routine, seating plans and exam stress.
Baron-Cohen’s The empathising-systemising (E-S) theory describes how many autistic children may struggle to understand how others think or feel, yet they are frequently good at ‘systemising’ i.e. understanding how things work factually or how things follow rules.
Whilst Social StoriesTM can be used to help children with empathy and social understanding, schools can also employ positive strategies to help capitalise on autistic children’s potential strengths in systemising. For example, schools might offer certain clubs or master classes such as LEGO® clubs, computer game clubs, or classes exploring in-depth knowledge about a popular topic. The challenge, of course, would be to provide this in a way that sparks the interest of multiple children.
Helping Cognition and Learning
Cognitive skills are the core set of skills a child uses to read, think, learn, remember, plan and pay attention. It is common for children with autism to experience cognitive difficulties and often these match criteria for specific diagnosable conditions such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and ADHD.
Not all autistic children will experience such difficulties and, if they do, they will have their own unique pattern of cognitive strengths and weaknesses. As such, it is important to have cognitive skills assessed by a Psychologist. This is usually undertaken as part of an autism assessment, though more detailed additional assessments may sometimes be required.
Some autistic pupils may find the pace of lessons too fast and might be offered smaller break-away groups, led by a teaching assistant (TA) outside the classroom. The lesson could be differentiated through ‘chunked down’ information, visual prompts and appropriate rest breaks, if required.
Technology can offer digital assistance to many SEND6 pupils in the classroom. Dictation technology such as speech-to-text / Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) software allows pupils to construct an essay or project verbally, whilst the app/software generates the text.
Speech recognition software can be extremely valuable for:
- pupils who think much faster than they are able to type;
- dsyslexic pupils who may struggle with spelling;
- those with motor skills who struggle to type;
- pupils who have dysgraphia and may have difficulty with handwriting.
Audiobooks/electronic books are also routinely used in schools, especially in English lessons with SEND pupils.The benefits of audiobooks are that they can be replayed and slowed down, using optional subtitles. Pupils can access audiobooks outside the classroom at their own pace.
Primary and Secondary school teaching and support staff will constantly observe and monitor all pupils for their learning styles and trial exam concessions where required. There are a range of exam concessions available for SATs / SNSAs and GCSEs / Scottish National 3,4 & 5 / Highers. Concessions are also available for end of topic and termly tests. These include: rest breaks, prompting, extra time, (physical) scribe, e-reader, (physical) reader, braille exam papers, access to computer and quiet venue/private venue. All exam concessions are set and approved by an external body: The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ).7
Helping with Sensory Regulation
Sensory input includes the traditional ‘five senses’: sight, smell, hear, taste and touch plus two additional senses: vestibular (balance) and proprioception (body awareness). Some autistic children may have difficulties processing sensory information and may feel under or over-stimulated. This can then lead to sensory dysregulation, causing stress, anxiety and sometimes physical pain. Many autistic children can be hypersensitive (over-responsive) and hyposensitive (under-responsive) to different sensory input8. Occupational Therapists9 can carry out full sensory assessments to pinpoint which sensory input may cause distress or comfort.
Strategies to help with sensory processing will vary depending on the nature of the difficulties. For example, someone who is hyposensitive (under-responsive) to proprioception may stand very close to somebody and not consider their own proximity and personal space. In this instance, school support staff could help by using Social StoriesTM about personal space rules, and physically consolidate this by using arms’ length gestures.
For children who exhibit hypersensitivity to strong smells such as perfume and food, school staff could help by limiting their use of perfumes, and by offering a private space to eat at lunchtimes.
For a child who is hyposensitive (under-responsive) to sound i.e. not hearing or acknowledging particular sounds, staff might use visual information/cues to explain anything that might be lost verbally.
Where children are hypersensitive to sight, schools could help by providing a quiet space for reading – with blackout curtains, no overhead fluorescent lighting etc. Alternatively, audiobooks could be provided.
In the case of hyposensitivity to touch, school staff could encourage the use of weighted blankets in an allocated sensory space, with access to a sensory box containing robust, tactile objects.
For those with hypersensitive reactions to crowds and noise, ‘meet and greets’ with Teaching Assistants can offer a soft start to the day. A similar routine can happen at the end of the school day, perhaps leaving 10 minutes before other pupils leave. In addition, pupils can be allowed to leave lessons five minutes early in order to avoid congestion and crowds in corridors, on the stairs etc.
Helping with Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH)
Autistic children may have co-occurring additional mental health needs such as: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, PTSD and OCD, childhood developmental trauma or attachment difficulties10. Some of these conditions may be exacerbated by, or linked to, autism – although environmental and developmental factors are also important factors.
Many schools have dedicated teaching and support staff that work holistically with autistic children and young people. Support is often integrated fully into the curriculum, with support staff fully briefed on the individual needs of all autistic pupils. Often there is multi-partnership working with external Clinical Psychologists, psychotherapists, counsellors, art therapists or drama therapists to meet the needs of pupils through individual therapy sessions.
Social regulation – the balance between social interaction and rest/downtime – is individual to each pupil: Some children have larger ‘social batteries’ than others, and some require brief recharging throughout the day. There are many buffers, safety nets and support activities that can offer support during the school day. SEND teams offer supervised break and lunch clubs, usually in a designated room. This can offer a welcome respite from the often unpredictable nature of school playgrounds and a quieter place to eat, recharge social batteries and interact with a smaller group of pupils. Having this quiet place twice in the school day can make a big difference, easing anxiety and allowing for regulation.
Time-out cards can be given out at the discretion of the SENCo11 and support staff. This can be used discreetly in conjunction with traffic light cards. The traffic light cards can be placed on the desk or shown to a staff member, showing increasing dysregulation (amber-red) where grounding methods will be required e.g. a walk outside or a smaller, quieter classroom. A time-out card allows for self-regulation by the pupil and the pupil will often have a contingency plan e.g. to go and talk to the head of year, SENCo, mentor, key worker, or go to the sensory room to soothe or regulate.
Forest Schools have been around in the UK since the early 1990s ,and are increasingly being used in Primary and Secondary Schools as part of the curriculum, or on a rotational basis. Some schools use a designated space on site, whilst others go off-site.
There are many studies that cite the beneficial impact of interacting closely with nature e.g. growing seeds, building dens, having campfires and s’mores12 – as well as the nurturing impact of smaller, teamwork activities. According to the Forest School Association, Forest Schooling, “…helps learners develop socially, emotionally, spiritually, physically and intellectually. It creates a safe, non-judgmental nurturing environment for learners to try stuff out and take risks”.13
There are various activities and equipment that can be offered by schools to help with SEMH (depending on the needs of an individual child, or group of children). These could include:
- LEGO® therapy
- Cooking classes
- Boxing coaching
- Outdoor pursuit activities
- Colouring activities
- Word search puzzles
- Listening to music with headphones
- Reading a book, or being read to
- Weighted blankets
Getting Expert Help
Schools can successfully support many autistic pupils throughout their school years, utilising many of the approaches and strategies above, making school a safe, nurturing and productive environment. Sometimes assessment and intervention by external professionals may also be required, alongside school-based interventions.
At The Purple House Clinic, we are pleased to be able to offer a team of clinical expertise including Clinical Psychologists, Educational Psychologists, Speech and Language Therapists, Occupational Therapists and Psychiatrists. We can provide expert neuro-developmental (diagnostic) assessments, educational psychology assessments and neuropsychology/cognitive assessments. Further, we have a team of psychologists and other therapists able to support young people with autism with their mental health.
1 We will be interchanging the terms: ‘children with autism’ and ‘autistic children’ throughout this article. We fully appreciate that there is considerable debate around these terms within the autistic community and personal preference amongst individuals and families.
4 Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) lessons – taught in UK mainstream Secondary Schools.
5 Social StoriesTM and comic-strip conversations were created by Carol Gray in 1990: https://carolgraysocialstories.com/social-stories/what-is-it/
6 SEND: Children or young people with Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities.
9 Purple House Clinic Leicester can carry out sensory assessments: https://www.purplehouseclinic.co.uk/sensory-assessments/
10 Purple House Clinic supports adopted children through the Adoption Support Fund (ASF) at Leicester and Lincoln clinics: https://www.purplehouseclinic.co.uk/adoption-support-fund/
11 Special Educational Needs Coordinator – a school teacher/coordinator who is responsible for assessing, planning and monitoring the progress of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
12 Campfire treats – often involving melted marshmallows sandwiched between digestive biscuits (UK version).
13 Forest School Association: https://forestschoolassociation.org/what-is-forest-school/