Reflections on the Autism Friendly Classroom (3)

Elaine Cox, Principal Teacher of Support for Learning at Lourdes Secondary School, gives a reaction to the recent Autism Friendly English classroom seminar from Charlene Tait.

As an English teacher and Principal Teacher of Support for Learning, adverts for courses pop into your inbox or newsfeed on a daily basis, but attendance is often prohibited because of cost or availability of tickets or ability to attend due to the timing of the event.  You often have to look at the content of the course/seminar and justify why it would be appropriate for you to attend said event.

So, when a seminar entitled, ‘The Autism Friendly English Classroom’ popped up on my Facebook feed, a seminar costing less than £20.00 which would need no lengthy conversation about class cover, I couldn’t say no.  And to top it off, the speaker was Charlene Tait from Scottish Autism – enough said.

The event itself was really well organised and practical.  Opening with an outline of different complexities associated with autism and narrowing the focus into the classroom and practical approaches, resources and strategies, the seminar provided the right balance of discussion, pedagogy and exemplification to get me thinking about my own practice and the practice of others.

Following Charlene’s advice, I’ve already ordered one of the books she discussed and am in the process of trying to get my hands on the other one.

I’m already looking forward to the next seminar, one focusing on influence of literacy and language acquisition on wellbeing.

 

 

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.

Reflections on The Autism Friendly English Classroom (1)

Sudipa De, a PGDE student teacher at the University of Strathclyde, reflects on the recent Autism, Friendly Classroom seminar from Charlene Tate of Scottish Autism.

“It’s like we have big secrets: we are in it, they are not!” to quote Charlene Tait from her recent SATE seminar: The Autism Friendly English Classroom. Trying to understand what others mean and how to behave can be bewildering and stressful for autistic children.  The ideas presented in the seminar demonstrated Charlene’s deep understanding of classroom management with an insight to the world of youngsters under the spectrum with Autism.

As prospective English teachers, the most important attribute we should possess towards people with autism is empathy. Autistic students have a very poor sense of themselves, and need a lot of reassurance and confirmation of their performance. It is our responsibility as educators to support them in having a voice and enable these young people through their journey in life.

Qualitative research shows that the developmental profile of children with autism is rather spiky and inconsistent in comparison to their fellow counterparts. This is a human condition which clearly explains their difficulties with understanding receptive language, processing instructions and poor sequential memory. They are easily prone to distractions and have delayed sensory processing and lack skills in perception. Their developmental differences make them think, feel, view and react to the world differently. Their perspective of the world is very honest, consistent and truthful – and sometimes appears to be rude and arrogant to others!  Often autistic pupils are unable to organize or put limits to their own behaviour or acknowledge the rules of the society. To help us understand such complex issues Charlene advises the use of appropriate language.The language used in the playground with peers is different to the language used in class or with family. Similarly, the language we use in a seminar is different to the language we would use with our colleagues in pubs! Autistic pupils are unable to differentiate it. They struggle to adapt or model their actions and communication according to the demands of the situation.

As we are aiming to achieve successful learning experiences within the classroom environment, we need to shift our thinking from behavioural management of autistic children to stress reduction. It may appear on the exterior that the students are calm, pacified and relaxed. However, the unpredictability of when something different might happen can be very challenging for autistic students. Consequently, they often choose to stay with familiar activities and resist learning new routines. Repetitive, rigid behaviours are signs of stress overwhelming them. Scheduling daily or weekly events lessens the anxiety level and outlines a framework of ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ for them, helping with transitioning independently between activities.

English is difficult for these children and we need to acknowledge it. Pronouns like she, he, you, we, and I, or concepts of positional language can be really difficult to comprehend. To overcome such barriers in understanding, visual representation of the context by sequencing cue cards to build up a story line;  providing a picture/word dictionary would be helpful. Using emotion cards displaying abstract concepts of happiness, fear, remorse, excitement, and anger can help with better understanding of emotions.

A myth prevails that autistic children suffer from lack of imagination. This is not necessarily so .They suffer from contextual blindness, which is their inability to see the wider picture and think logically. As an example, Charlene refers to a scene in the movie Rain Man where Raymond misinterprets the sign “Don’t walk” and stops in the middle of the intersection. His mind doesn’t understand that “Don’t walk” can also mean ‘hurry up’ if he is halfway through the crossing.

For better understanding of novels or drama, films can be helpful sometimes as it helps the students to visualise the characters. Another interesting approach may be to ask them to create or present a paper cut out of the characters they think resembles them best. Graphic representation, creating online work space, use of speech bubbles with basic introductory sentences such as “The author says….” I know this because…”or The illustrator says….”can help in understanding. Charlene directed us to The Autism Tool Box for further practical approaches and practice grids.

Touching on perfectionism Charlene advise us, “be imperfect yourself”, to enable the pupils feel that it is ok to make mistakes! It’s all about modelling the task set to get it right for every child.

My participation in the seminar has consolidated my learning experiences of working with autistic kids over the last four years. Charlene’s relaxed, friendly and interactive approach combined with her video clips of interviews from autistic pupils generated a lot of productive discussions. Our fantastic hosts at Marr College –  despite their other professional commitments – were very welcoming too.