I’ve written on this subject previously but thought it might be time to revisit the topic as it is under discussion among my fellow teachers once again.
Teachers in mainstream schools have their work cut out, there’s no doubt about it. They have full classes of 25 plus children, personal targets to meet, lesson objectives to meet and children’s behaviour to deal with. Rules are imperative in order to keep everything running smoothly in the classroom. No one disputes this.
Now add to that workload one or two children, maybe more who are on the autistic spectrum. For these children rules and consistency are even more important than for their peers. It is through understanding their rules, the ones that are set out for them in a consistent way every single day, every single lesson that they manage to keep their emotions in check. If something occurs that upsets their routine there will be a consequence in the form of undesirable behaviour. For these children expressing their frustration is a challenge in itself. ASC affects children in different ways but many will have difficulty with social interaction and have limited ability to communicate effectively and to understand what others are saying to them. This doesn’t apply to all children with autism but for those who struggle with communication, behaviour challenges are often seen as a consequence of their inability to communicate.
Special schools have time, resources and training to help with this. The difficulty is that more and more children on the autistic spectrum are in our mainstream schools. Training is in place for the staff but time is often an issue, a change in staff can cause a change in routine and the child with ASC may end up in meltdown.
So how do we avoid this? I can’t mention everything in one post but the non negotiables include a visual timetable at the start of each day. If the child knows what to expect during the day they will feel reassured.
Use a sensory diet if appropriate. Ask an OT for guidance on this one. If it isn’t appropriate build in sensory breaks of 5-10 minutes to allow the child a break and to expel some pent up energy.
Getting to know the child is vital so that you will know what triggers an outburst. If you know their favourite lesson is PE then you need to be warning the child how long they have left of the lesson. Use a timer if needed and count them down to the lesson end. If the lesson ends with no warning and they are expected to return to the classroom immediately they will often resort to what we think is inappropriate behaviour. A refusal to move is one example. To them it is a reaction to the sudden removal of a favoured lesson with no warning.
Crowded and noisy corridors might be their trigger. If so, allow them to move to the next lesson before the corridor fills up. Assembly is a well known trigger for children with autism. This is because it is often held in a packed hall that smells of food and cooking and there are many sensory issues associated with school dining halls. They are also very noisy places with loud music and chairs scraping the floor. Ear defenders are an obvious aid for this but will only work if the child will enter the hall in the first place.
I’ve only touched on a couple of issues here. Autism is a very complicated spectrum and there’s a reason why there are so many books written on the subject. In my experience if a child knows what to expect throughout the day and they have rules and consistency they are better able to cope. Remember that a child with autism may struggle to communicate and their only method might see them end up in a meltdown. If you as the member of staff really knows the child, talks them through their day, explains what is happening and avoids triggers you will be doing your best by them. Offer ear defenders, visual timetables, rewards, sensory breaks and whatever you feel they need to get them through the day successfully.
If all fails and there is a sensory meltdown and a refusal to move from the child, staff are often trained in TeamTeach and other manual handling techniques. These should only be used in a real emergency and are better used as deescalation strategies. I have seen several children in full meltdown over the years and I can say that I have learned something about myself every single time. I have always reflected on what has happened and what I could have done differently before any TeamTeach strategy was used.