SENCos are key to a child with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) being able to continue within mainstream educational settings. This issue of SENCO Week discusses information, strategies and support for parents and pupils living with ASD

More pupils than ever before are now being identified as autistic, and while children with severe ASD may be better catered for in special schools and units, many others can cope (and indeed thrive) within mainstream settings. The success of mainstream placements depends to a large extent on the level of whole-school awareness and the willingness of individual teachers to adapt to the real needs of a particular child. This issue we consider how SENCOs can be instrumental in achieving the best conditions for pupils with ASD, with notes for teachers, parents and the children and young people themselves.

As SENCO, you will probably be the person ensuring that:

  • all staff understand the difficulties experienced by children with ASD
  • there are adaptations to expectations (in terms of behaviour and learning) for children with ASD
  • a member of staff is nominated as ‘key worker’ for children with ASD, explaining expectations of behaviour (use social stories to teach about social interaction and appropriate behaviours for different situations) school and classroom routines and how to navigate around the building. This person will be the main support for the child or children in school, someone to whom they can always turn and the point of contact for parents
  • staff receive detailed information about individual children with ASD in their classes
  • teachers understand strategies for supporting pupils with ASD and have access to appropriate resources
  • appropriate TA support is allocated to individual or groups of children with ASD.

These requirements obviously call for regular staff training and opportunities for teachers and TAs to seek advice and guidance form the SENCO about supporting individual children.

Information for colleagues
Autism or Autistic Spectrum Disorder, is a lifelong developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates and relates to people around them. It is a spectrum condition and affects individuals in different ways, with different degrees of severity. At the lower end of the spectrum, ASDs are often associated with learning disabilities. Children with higher-end disorders, such as Asperger’s Syndrome, tend to have an average or above-average IQ. However, all people with ASDs share difficulties with:

  • communication
  • social interaction
  • thinking and behaving flexibly.

In addition, some children with ASDs are especially sensitive to their environment. Noise, bright colours, strong smells, strip lighting and high-frequency visual stimuli can cause stress or even physical pain; some children shrink away from physical touch and have a strong desire for privacy and their own space. Other children can see these pupils as odd and fair game for teasing and bullying; teachers need to be on the look-out for this. Explaining to the rest of the class what it’s like to be autistic, and why you (and they) may have to make some acommodations for a pupil, can pre-empt problems in this respect. Establishing a buddy system or circle of friends can be very valuable, with classmates taking it in turns to give support in lessons, during lunch and break-times and generally helping the child to navigate around the school and through the day.

Some general strategies
It’s important to remember that every child with ASD is unique and will respond in different ways to different situations and approaches. Some general strategies include:

  • having a clear structure to the day or lesson, with a visual timetable displayed to show what is going to happen
  • minimising disruption to routine. Always talk through any known changes well in advance so that the child can be prepared
  • organising the classroom with clearly defined areas, and setting up a quiet, distraction-free corner for the child with ASD (and others) to use, as and when appropriate
  • remembering that the child with ASD may not understand facial expression and figurative language; explain clearly and concisely in black and white terms
  • referring to the child by name – she or he may not undertsand that ‘everyone’ or ‘the red group’ includes them
  • using concrete apparatus and visual signs (eg, Makaton) and symbols to back up verbal and written instructions
  • making explicit links between old and new learning
  • remembering that the pupl may find it hard to see the ‘big picture’ and may get bogged down in the detail
  • being clear and firm about behaviour and applying rules consistently, but also understanding a child’s limitations
  • making use of ICT – computers are not demanding emotionally, as people often are, and can allow the child with ASD to rest from the demands and pitfalls of social interaction.

It can be totally exhausting being the parent of a child with ASD, so give them as much support and encouragement as possible. Check that they are in touch with the NAS and any local support group. They will want to know that you understand about autism and their child’s specific needs, and that measures are in place to meet those needs. Involve them in the drawing up of IEPs and talk to them about any particular strategies they have developed at home that might usefully transfer to the school situation.

Good communication with parents means that they can support the work of the school effectively and feel reassured that good provision is made for their child. Consider a home/school diary where parents and teacher and key worker can pass on information and updates. For example, knowing that a child with ASD has been upset at breakfast can alert you to the need for extra-careful handling and perhaps a settling-down time before lessons begin. Explain how family members can help with homework, organisation of PE kit, etc and preparation for a school trip or other changes in routine. Remember to send messages containing good news about behaviour and achievement during the day rather than communicating only about problems.

Young people with ASD need to understand as much as possible why they are different to other children. There are many reports of older, more able students describing the relief they felt when it was explained to them that their brains were wired in a different way to other people’s; it takes away the responsibility to perform in the same way as everyone else and enables them to acknowledge their specific needs. They appreciate having the opportunity to speak frankly to a supportive adult who will explain in clear terms anything which seems puzzling and help them to operate as effectively as possible in what can often feel like a hostile environment. (There are good resources around to help teach children with ASD about facial expressions, figurative language and coping with different social situations.) Many schools find that the Picture Exchange Communication system offers really good support to children with ASD (and others),

Jessica Kingsley publishes a good range of books about people of all ages with ASD which you could lend to/read to students and their parents.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in October 2008

About the author: Linda Evans is the author of SENCO Week. She was a teacher/SENCO/adviser/inspector, before joining the publishing world. She now works as a freelance writer, editor and part-time college tutor.