Reflections on the Autism Friendly English Classroom (2)

Linda Harris, educational consultant and former ITE lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, offers her thoughts on Charlene Tait’s recent seminar for SATE.

Charlene Tait, Director of Autism Practice and Research at Scottish Autism, held her audience spellbound in the recent SATE Seminar, ‘The Autism Friendly English Classroom’. Charlene explained that children with autism are as varied in their behaviours and needs as any other learner and that empathy is the foremost requirement of teachers to help minimise the severe stress suffered by those affected.

Autism is a developmental condition that affects behaviours, communication and information processing. Since the presumption of mainstreaming in 2001, there are increasing numbers of these youngsters in mainstream schools and they can appear chameleon-like in that they modify their behaviours to blend in with their peers. However, stimulation overload can overwhelm them and they can opt out of activities or become so overloaded that their behaviour becomes problematic.

The core features are difficulties in social communication and interaction, social imagination and sensory processing. However, with the sensitive awareness of others, along with augmented and supported communication in some cases, they are able to develop and indeed display remarkable cognitive strengths and intense interests. Their restricted social imagination can lead to what appears as rudeness as they attempt to align themselves to societal norms. In their need for predictability, they attempt to exert control over their environment by incorporating routines in their lives. There is also a high incidence of synaesthesia for these individuals so in hearing a sound, they may experience a colour instead.

Teaching these learners is enhanced by concrete explanations and the frequent use of visual aids. Personal writing is the most accessible type of writing for them as they can describe what they have experienced easier than creating another’s experiences. Other helpful, practical suggestions offered by Charlene include deploying some of the visible thinking and visible learning approaches. (See Project Zero here and the work of John Hattie here) Additionally, these children need processing time of approximately 10 seconds, so we need to be prepared to wait for their responses.

This was an extremely enjoyable evening of learning interwoven with anecdotes and laughter. I am looking forward very much to the next seminar.

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