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How should schools approach the support of those with autism? Emily Haddock looks at what works at her school

I am lucky enough to work in a school that was specifically designed with autistic children and young people in mind. I have seen many of these children make remarkable progress, even when their previous placements have failed. In this article, I will outline some of the main elements that I believe go together to create an effective approach to education and care for those with autism.

Home/school relationship

It is important for schools to work closely with families and social workers as soon as a referral is received, to ensure that children have positive experiences throughout their time at school. It is good practice to invite the parents and young person to visit the school as often as they like. In some cases, it will also be a good idea to visit the family in their home. Schools should identify which class the young person will be in, who his/her teacher will be and who the lead teaching assistant will be, and ensure that it is these people that the family has contact with. It is important to remember that parents know their child best; schools can utilise their expertise and knowledge of issues such as the child’s likes, dislikes and triggers. Parents can also tell you which behaviour management strategies they find successful at home.

All young people with autism need an individualised plan to integrate them into school life. While some young people may immediately slot into the school’s routines, for others this can be a very slow process. It is crucial to gauge the pace of transition which is appropriate for the individual student. An 18-year-old young man recently joined our school after multiple failed placements; initially, he only attended school for 30 minutes a day and this was gradually increased in five minute increments. His mum was astounded to see him attending school beyond 2.30pm, as this had never happened before, and he now completes a full school day.

Schools should share the young person’s successes with his/her home on a continual basis. The school should make parents aware of which strategies have been successful with their child, and be prepared to consider strategies that the family has found to be successful. Communication should be daily, either via a home/school diary, personal contact or email. At the end of the week, schools can send home photographs or home/school diaries so that parents can look at these with the young person and discuss what has been happening and how the week has gone.

Regular parents groups can also be very effective, enabling parents to meets for a coffee and a chat about their experiences, struggles and successes. Informal training sessions can also be incorporated into these meetings, utilising the input of professionals such as speech and language therapists and occupational therapists, and behaviour management strategies. Parents often find such sessions extremely rewarding and they can go a long way towards helping parents to understand that they are not alone.

Achievement

While many people would support the view that individuals cannot be happy without developing themselves, too often this is not applied to people with SEN. It is important that all young people have access to a variety of courses which support their individual learning needs. This could take the form of a life skills program – which teaches young people the skills that are going to support their independence – GCSE or BTEC course in areas of specific interest to them or which are going to give them opportunities to further develop their knowledge in specific areas.

Young people with autism should receive constant encouragement to achieve. On a regular basis, perhaps every half term, they should be set subject targets, behaviour targets and specific targets relating to the difficulties that stem from their autism. Progress against these targets should be tracked to ensure that the young people are continually moving forward and making progress, not just academically, but in every area in which they could progress.
Success should always be celebrated, and parents and others involved with the child should be included. For example, at the end of each term, parents, social workers and local authority workers could be invited to an achievement celebration at which each young person is presented with a certificate for something they have achieved that terms. Schools can also maintain a record of achievement file which can be sent home to parents at the end of the year and used when children transition to their next placement.

Young people with autism should receive constant encouragement to achieve.Young people with autism should receive constant encouragement to achieve.Timetabling

Careful planning is needed to timetable the young person’s day so that therapy and academic study complement each other, rather than get in each other’s way. Different times of day can also be used for different types of activities. Mornings, for example, could see a focus on academic subjects, such as literacy and numeracy, while the afternoon might include more informal activities, such as swimming, art, PE and community visits. Community visits are important as many children with autism can be excluded from activities which others take for granted. It is important that these children get the same learning and social opportunities as their peers.

Behaviour management

It is important to see all behaviours as an attempt to communicate. A total communication approach is key. It is our responsibility as educators to try to understand what it is that the young person in question is trying to communicate to us, through whatever behaviour s/he may be exhibiting. If a child is behaving in a challenging manner, we should aim to understand why this is, rather than confronting and reprimanding the child for the behaviour itself. We need to enter the child’s world and communicate with him/her using whatever communication medium s/he has chosen. We shouldn’t try to make the child, or the child’s behaviour, fit neatly into a box just because we can’t identify a communication method that works for him/her; it is our job to learn the child’s method of communication, rather than simply trying to teach him/her ours.

As always, when working with children and young people with autism, we must remember that each person is an individual, and there is no single approach that will work for everyone.

Further information

Emily Haddock is Deputy Head at Birtenshaw School, a day and residential, non-maintained special school in Bolton:
www.birtenshaw.org.uk


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