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Workshop: How can teachers and TAs support children with autism?

Vivienne Chan
27 Apr 2021
10 min read
Workshop: How can teachers and TAs support children with autism?

On Thursday, 8th of April, 2021, we hosted a workshop and Q&A on Strategies and Resources for Supporting Children with Autism with insights from our team.

  • Olivia Sheppard (she/her), Zen Account Manager and former SEN Teaching Assistant
  • Charly Pearce (she/her), Zen Software Engineer and former SEN Teacher

We debunked misconceptions and discussed ideas for supporting children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Asperger Syndrome in special schools and mainstream settings. We hope these strategies help you to create an autism-friendly classroom when you book your next SEN role!

1. Reflect on your understanding of autism

“We must learn strategies and techniques to make the world a safer place for children with autism” — Olivia

Summary: A key starting point for working with young people with autism is debunking the myths. Be up-to-date on research:

  • 700,000 people in the UK with autism
  • Approximately ⅓ of children with autism are non-verbal
  • More boys than girls are diagnosed with autism, however, girls can present differently and may be misdiagnosed because they ‘mask’; imitate neurotypical behaviour
  • There is no single cause, research into genetic and environmental factors is ongoing

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability and primarily affects how a person communicates, relates to and makes sense of the world and others. Understanding misconceptions allows us to make adaptations in schools and workplaces to allow people with autism to flourish.

Key Points: Thoughtful wording and inclusive language are essential, whether it relates to disability, race, gender or sexuality. Olivia avoids terms like ‘normal’ or ‘issues’, and said ‘it's key to understand what a child or young person wants to be called’. The graph below is an example of how people may think symptoms of autism appear (left) versus how symptoms could actually present (right). She reminds us to treat autism as a spectrum with non-linear expressions of symptoms.

how people may think symptoms of autism appear (left) vs how symptoms could actually present (right)

Opportunity: Olivia and Charly shared resources for learning about autism:

2. Accommodate verbal and non-verbal communication challenges

Summary: Children with autism can struggle with communicating their needs, wants, emotions, or making eye contact or understanding body language. Recognising the 4 stages of communication can inform your approach to teaching:

  • Their Own Agenda: Disinterest in playing with others
  • The Requester: Realise their actions can affect others, more likely to communicate by pulling others towards what they want
  • Early Communicator: Intentional interactions increase. They may have echolalia — repeat what they hear to express their needs — and engage in 2-way eye gaze
  • Partner: Uses speech to hold simple conversations

Key Strategies: Adapting your communication style may involve using:

  • The student's name: Help to direct attention
  • Simple language and short instruction: Split instructions into shorter sentences. Rather than ‘please come in and put your coat on’, you could say ‘come in’ and ‘coat on the rack’
  • Choices or closed questions: Offer choices, ensuring you’re still giving a child autonomy; rather than ask ‘which drink do you want?’, ask ‘tea or juice?’
  • Positive instructions: Rephrase instructions so it ends on an immediate, positive and meaningful outcome. For example, say ‘keep your feet still’ rather than ‘you mustn't kick’
  • Picture symbols, makaton signs, PECS and iPads: Helpful aids for visual learners
  • OpenSymbols: Charly recommends this programme to create free sensory choice boards for PowerPoint. The Comic Sans font is highly recommended for dyslexia
  • Peer friendships: It’s easy for children with ASD to feel left out. TAs can support relationships, and introduce children with similar interests to play with

Opportunity: ‘Using colourful semantics changed my way of teaching’, explained Charly. Speech and language therapists use this approach by Alison Bryan as a ‘colour-coded sentence scaffold to show children what makes up a sentence’. Once they’re confident, they can build longer sentences by organising words into their thematic role — ‘I could see the kids' progress with this. Just having the colours there gives them so much more confidence to be autonomous’.

Example of a colourful semantic structure. Who? What doing? What? Where?

3. Sensory impairments

“Children with autism might feel things at 10 times the power we do” — Olivia

Summary: Creating a safe sensory environment helps students with difficulty in processing certain sights, smells and sounds. This might present as hypersensitivity — feeling overwhelmed — or hyposensitivity — being under-responsive.

  • Sound sensitivity: Fingers over ears, talking/screaming to self or different behaviours in quiet vs normal environments
  • Visual sensitivity: Closing or covering of eyes, immense focus or avoidance of visual stimuli i.e. colourful lights
  • Tactile sensitivity: Recoiling from certain textures or touch i.e. having a restrictive diet, attempting to remove clothing with uncomfortable textures or labels

Key Strategies: Some sensory considerations:

  • Respect personal space: Rather than towering over a student’s shoulders, sit next to them or come down to their level
  • Avoid bright colours: Colourful clothes or PowerPoints can be visually distracting
  • Avoid strong perfumes/cologne: This can overwhelm the olfactory system and trigger past or traumatic memories
  • Offer noise-cancelling headphones: The gentle pressure on the head can help children with autism feel centred. Sunglasses and weighted blankets work too!

Children can exhibit “stimming”, a self-stimulatory and repeated behaviour that can signal challenging behaviour might occur. Olivia stresses the importance of learning triggers. If a child does display self injurious behaviour, teach them ways to safely channel their energy — engaging with a sensory toy can be calming.

Opportunity: Charly emphasises the power of using sensory boxes during wet play or waiting for a teacher to come in; ‘you've got a sensory box, you're in control, you've got a great activity to bring the kids together or to keep them occupied or feed into their sensory diet’. It can be a random collection of sensory items or specifically tailored to your lesson; for example, music, book or Science themes. The possibilities are endless (and cheap from Poundland), plus students can build their vocabulary on a topic!

4. Structure and routine are your best friends

“Children with autism can find the world really chaotic and confusing. The need for structure and routine is really important” — Olivia

Summary: Creating structure and routine for children with autism helps give them a clear idea of when to expect change.

Key strategies: Consider using:

  • Social stories: Social stories give context on a situation, issue or skill which the person with autism is finding difficult. Reach Out have a helpful guide
  • Sand timers: Break down activities. You can prepare children for imminent changes, such as lesson changes or sharing a toy (example — 5 minute, 1 minute then 10 second countdowns until playtime is over)
  • Lego therapy: A structured activity for small groups where each child has a role to play. This rule-led activity is brilliant for encouraging collaboration!
  • Motivators and rewards: Break up learning with rewards. Motivate 15 minutes of handwriting with 5 minutes on YouTube
  • Bookend your lessons with calm time: Get grounded for each transition. Whether it’s breathing exercises or children’s yoga, having regular age-appropriate activities helps children to fulfil their sensory diet so they’re ready to learn
  • Visual timetables: Support your students by giving them a daily structure in a friendly and accessible manner (see below example) example of avisual timetable

Opportunity: Charly recommends working closely with all staff. Establishing everyone’s responsibilities — where the teacher might deliver lessons to the whole class while the TA focuses on one-to-one support — can help children feel nurtured and hit their targets.

Lean on tips from occupational therapists, speech and language therapists too. The more consistently that a child is treated in school, the higher the chance is that they can regulate themselves better. It takes time, but ‘a sense of routine can diminish challenging behaviour because they'll have the tools to communicate with you properly’.

5. Meet challenging behaviour with calmness

“Meltdowns are not the same as temper tantrums, and they shouldn't be seen as naughty behaviour. The most important thing is to give them space and time, it might take a long time to recover” — Olivia

Summary: Challenging behaviour, or meltdowns, happen because children are ‘frustrated, overstimulated, understimulated, bored’, or saying ‘I can't communicate any other way to you’. The key is anticipating the meltdown (they may exhibit signs of heightened “stimming” beforehand), creating a quiet environment and removing triggers. Olivia said the focus is to ‘de-escalate the situation and reduce sensory discomfort’.

Key Strategies: Acting quickly and calmly is key for:

Self injurious behaviours

  • Reaction to trigger: Self harming to express their frustration or feelings
  • Intervention: It may be difficult to watch or hear, but intervene quickly ‘regardless of if you think it's attention seeking or if you think it's a genuine cry for help’. Their safety is the priority. Move them to a safe space away from others, redirect their attention i.e. to a sensory toy
  • Consideration: Only consider light physical restraint if you have training or the guidance of a supervisor, and it is in line with the school’s policy

Aggressive behaviour

  • Trigger: ‘Look closely at the antecedent and why it’s happening. This takes time and you’ll have to work with all the adults in the class’, advised Charly
  • Intervention: Distraction is key; it might look like rewarding 'bad' behaviour but it’s making sure they’re safe and their needs are met
  • Consideration: Try not to take it personally because aggression is often used as a communication tool

Running away

  • Trigger: Olivia described two runners: those who run around but never leave, and real runners who intend to escape school grounds and keep going
  • Intervention: Ensure the classrooms are secure and make adaptations when needed. Charly shared an adaptation; moving a runner’s desk outside the classroom, as the student felt restricted in the classroom, and slowly building on the time they spent there until it was comfortable
  • Consideration: It won’t be a linear journey! Encouraging change in behaviour takes patience

Opportunity: It’s important to build positive relationships with parents and caregivers so you can share and apply consistent strategies which help children to thrive. Introducing home diaries, regular check-ins, and fun activities such as family discos can boost morale and build amazing relationships too.

We hope you learnt something new about supporting children with autism and feel ready to explore SEN teacher or TA roles in London, Birmingham and Manchester. Follow us on Instagram for more tips!

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