New insights from social isolation about provision for autistic pupils

‘School is the problem’ for many autistic pupils, but there are ways of changing this

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.

School was the problem

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.

How to make school more autism friendly

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:

  • Complete a sensory profile with the young person and their family, to gain a greater understanding of where they should be positioned in the classroom, the lighting that works best for them, and the types of sensory-input that can be painful or prevent learning (if you’re not in a calm-alert state, you’re not ready to learn).
  • Find out what the young person values – do they want friends? What are their interests? What are their goals and ambitions? This can take time but can easily be built up by having:
      • A daily short check-in using a visual emotions tool
      • Opportunities for them to talk about their interests – just show up for them and listen
      • Secret signals between young person and adult to be able to share concerns, highlight differences in understanding or offer discrete praise
  • Support for unstructured times:
      • Playground timetables showing the activities on offer and alternatives that encourage small group social interaction e.g. book sharing with a peer
      • Sentence starters to support peer to peer interaction
      • Draw out comic strips to explore unwritten social norms or other people’s thought processes
  • A ‘place of peace’ where they can go during the school day to help regulate their emotions (rather than containing them until the end of the day).
  • A designated person to go to with any questions, concerns or comments.
  • Whole class education of difference – celebrate neurodiversity throughout the year, not just in Autism Awareness Week.

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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