When I trained to be a teacher back in 1976, our course was only 3 years long and there was no special education component of the course, so for me, it really was a matter of learning on the job. There was no Google and Facebook groups to turn to for support and to be honest, my peers and mentors had little insight themselves. Terms like ADD, ADHD and Autism were rarely heard of, and it was considered a specialist field best left to the counselor to attend to when they arrived once or twice a week. On reflection, I can see that I failed many students, not intentionally- but because I was not informed or educated around these diagnoses and how to make school ‘work for them’. Differentiation was not a strategy, and these poor students were often punished more often than supported due to their behaviour.
Moving forward into 2000 (and yes it took me that long to get a proper training) I was mentored by a wonderful teacher. I had taken a break from teaching and decided that I wanted to work as an aide for a while, I was feeling burnt out as a teacher yet still wanted to work with children. It was the perfect solution. It was at this time I met Paul (not his real name) who was a new enrolment in kindergarten. The preschool had told us this little guy was arriving to start school, and to be honest, I had never met a child quite like him. Very quirky, unsettled, would fiddle with his shirt, rock back and forth curled up in a ball and had a ‘thing’ about books, scorpions and dinosaurs and spent a lot of time covering his ears.
The classroom that he was enrolled in was visually very busy and noisy. It wasn’t the most organised and I must admit, I found it a challenge to be in there at times. We started to work outside and instantly there was a visible change in him. He relaxed, was calmer and would happily chatter away with me (mostly sharing interesting facts about dinosaurs and scorpions) I noticed he had a passion for books but only nonfiction books, he had no interest in PM readers and the like. It was always interesting to learn something new from him. He would often retreat to the library area to look at a book and would not move onto another activity unless he had completely finished reading the book. The other students became fascinated by the facts that Paul shared with them, and he became somewhat of an authority on his favourite topics.
The playground was not a place that he enjoyed and was often found back in the classroom (mostly trashing it). They were heady days and the first term was one of the biggest challenges I had faced in my years of teaching. Despite all my training, I was not well informed about Autism and Paul’s needs. I spent hours reading and researching and worked closely with the welfare support team planning ways to meet his needs and improve the quality of his time at school.
I discovered social stories and visual timetables, and they were a game changer for him. His day was more ordered, he had more direction and was calmer. We had soothing strategies like fiddle toys, noise cancelling earphones, a dedicated iPad for him, and a book box full of special interest books. In the playground, he had a tub of toys that he loved, and was paired up with some students who really enjoyed playing with him, and we worked with them to help them when meltdowns happened (like everyone not following rules etc.)
Some indicators of Autism
Autism Awareness Australia has a checklist for children of all ages to help with a diagnosis
What did I discover? The top 7 tips…
Here are some tips that I can share with you thanks to my mentorship with Paul.
1. Learn from the student and their family
It is essential that the teacher, family and student work with a team so that there is consistency and continuity in the child’s life. Any observations you may make e.g. meltdown triggers, likes and dislikes, toileting issues etc.- keep in as anecdotal records for your personal reference and to share at welfare and parent meetings. They are an invaluable tool for creating individualised programmes of work and behaviour management plans.
2. Teach to the child’s interests and strengths
Most students on the spectrum have a ‘thing’ that they are passionate about. In Paul’s case it was dinosaurs, scorpions, books and computers. Integrate these into the learning activities for the day, and plan for them to have breaks in between activities.
3. Get them talking
When students are verbal and high functioning, encourage them to talk and explain their thinking to you, or their reactions to situations e.g. a meltdown. It may simply be that the classroom is too noisy, or that there is a smell in the room that they don’t like. Paul would get very upset over noise, and we found noise cancelling earphones incredibly valuable. He would also have meltdowns if his lunchbox had something in that he didn’t like.
4. Give them choices
Solve five of the ten problems assigned, or cut the worksheet into sections
Work alone or with a small group
Read quietly or with a friend
Use a pencil, pen, or the computer
Conduct your research in the library or in the resource room
Take notes using words or pictures
5. Consider handwriting alternatives
It is not uncommon for students with autism to baulk at handwriting. It is not unusual for a child to refuse writing. Look at using computers or other adaptive resources that may be available in the school.
6. Help them with organisation
While some students with autism are very organised others need support to find materials, keep their bags and desk areas neat, and remember to bring their assignments home at the end of the day. Consider implementing support strategies that all students might find useful. For instance, teachers can have all students copy down assignments, pack book bags, put materials away, and clean work spaces together. Structuring this time daily will give all learners the opportunity to be organized and thoughtful about how they prepare to transition from school to home. Specific skills can even be taught during this time (e.g., creating to-do lists, prioritizing tasks).
7. Support transitions between lessons
Many students find it hard to leave an activity unfinished, and so will need to have a reminder or countdown to give them an idea of just how long they may have in order to finish an activity or if something else is going to be happening soon. For example, we will be going to library in 5 minutes you will need to finish this sum and then we can get ready. A board timer, egg timer or similar can be an invaluable resource.
-Nikki Tester, from the Relief Teacher Association
Dig deeper by taking a Relief Teacher Association course on Autism
The Relief Teacher Association has two wonderful courses created by Karina Barley who is an authority on the subject. Read more about them here.