Thursday 2nd April was World Autism Awareness Day. This is an important event for schools I think, especially in light of recent reports that ‘more than half of Britain’s school teachers have never received any training to help them support children with autism’ (In Brief, TES, p. 4, Friday 3rd April). This is despite the fact that 1 in 100 students has needs on the spectrum, which means that one child in every three classrooms needs additional understanding and support.
Our school has developed a fairly revolutionary partnership with a special school to support young people on the autistic spectrum over the last two years — whereby we have kids on dual role and they are supported by specialist staff from there — and I think we have a good level of awareness and all staff have received significant training. However, as with any ‘hidden’ disability, we need to work hard and continuously to educate all those involved, especially the peer groups.
In the week running-up to the day itself I delivered assemblies to all classes, together with the specialist teacher from the school which we have a partnership with. These assemblies were to raise awareness and to set-up activities to be undertaken during form times, in order to promote greater understanding and to support a whole-school approach to becoming more ‘autistic-friendly’.
The assemblies were pretty effective in terms of raising awareness. We began with the students entering the hall to the music of Rory Hoy, a 19 year old who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 5. Having made 30 films (3 of which have been shown on the BBC) and now a signed recording artist, he was one of several positive role-models being shown on a PowerPoint presentation as the music played, which asked the question ‘What do all these people have in common’ and showed pictures of famous people with autistic traits, such as Daryl Hannah, Bill Gates and Keanu Reeves.
When settled, we moved onto some general points about what autism is and how young people with needs on the spectrum may find school difficult. Then my colleague read a short passage form the Curious Incident of Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. This was really effective, describing Christopher’s responses to meeting a policeman and his subsequent inability to deal with his questioning.
We then showed a short film about the artist Stephen Wiltshire OBE. After flying over Rome − a city he had never seen before − in a helicopter for only 45 minutes, he spent 5 days drawing an almost precise replica of the city in minute detail. Showing the sketches that Stephen produced really engaged the students, and many of them stopped me after the assemblies throughout the week to ask me more about it. We even made a follow-up activity for form times so they could have their own go at it, which was to look at this photo of St. Paul’s Cathedral for two minutes and then try and draw it from memory, as accurately as they can — as Stephen has done here.
Why don’t you try this with your students?
I then finished off with some ‘Top Tips’ on what a young person with autism wants you to know adapted from Ellen Notbohm’s book. A really powerful set of assemblies, I think, which led to staff and students alike asking questions, and generally gaining a much better understanding of autism.
So, we aimed to raise awareness and we certainly did. Young people with autism in schools are at a high risk of bullying and social isolation, so we need to continually raise awareness of it, as well as offer solutions and supportive systems. This assembly was part of our ongoing support for young people in our school who have needs on the spectrum.