During the lockdown process I have had many parents and young people telling me that their lives have become considerably less stressful on an hour to hour basis. This is not to lessen the impact on the anxiety of a global pandemic, but there is something else that eats away at many young people that has now diminished.
What is this demon I speak of? You may be surprised to hear that it’s something many individuals are missing – the constant flow of social demands and sensory input.
When asked how they have been getting on, many parents of autistic pupils have said “pretty good actually – school was the problem and now it’s been removed.” In the old ‘normal’ world, I would hear endless stories of young people that would struggle (often not visibly) through the school day and then ‘meltdown’ or ‘shutdown’ at home.
This was as a result of having to navigate a demanding social curriculum that was at best, draining on cognitive supplies, and at worst, causing emotional trauma. Autistic individuals report having to use logic and problem-solving abilities for many social interactions, where their peers may just ‘respond’ seemingly without a second, or even first thought. Having to try and unpick whether the teacher is really asking a question, or using rhetoric to imply a demand, while noticing every small detail of said teacher including her new washing powder, deodorant and hair style, is unsurprisingly, exhausting.
So, lockdown has taken away a lot of this social and sensory input. No longer do pupils need to share their learning space with 29 others with varying degrees of bodily smells, tapping pencils, bright lights and other endless varieties. Now they can choose their own learning space and preferences, taking regular movement breaks and tailoring it to what works best for them.
Some say, that’s all very well, but they have to go back into the ‘social world’ and surely now it will be even harder. But, we have all now had a taste of a simpler life and may well have a better idea of what does and doesn’t work for ourselves when trying to work from home. So, what lessons can we learn from this experience, in order to try and make the school environment more autism-friendly going forward?
Firstly, the most important thing is a whole school ethos of inclusion. Inclusion has to be at the heart of what all educators do, from the senior leadership team to the midday-supervisors.
Secondly, there are some simple tips that can make a big difference:
I strongly believe that in years to come, the autistic community will be recognised for their differences and these will be celebrated. Autistic pride will become a stronger movement and our society as a whole will become more inclusive. You have the future society within your school now – what part will you play, after lockdown, to bring forward this change?
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