Over half the children with Autism attend main-stream primary school. But over half the teachers feel they have not received sufficient training or financial support in terms of teaching assistants and equipment to adequately educate these children.
Where the school is ill-equipped, the Autistic child suffers a raw deal, as well as being the frequent target of bullying. May parents realizing this seek alternatives, bringing them out of school and trying to home educate their child. This can be an enormous relief for the child and a wonderful experience for the dedicated parent.
Very often people, including teachers, do not know what Autism is and how it affects the child. So let’s start by looking at Autism.
What is Autism?
Autism is a collective name for a variety of things that affect how the person thinks and feels. It is not a smooth spectrum of behaviour – at one end severe autism and at the other end no autistic features. That’s not how it works!
Children differ one from another – and autistic children are just the same – one child’s autism can be quite different from another child’s. So, let’s look at some of the different features autism may show.
Many autistic children experience sensory difficulties. It’s not that they can’t feel or see or hear as well as other children – but that their sense of hearing, their sensitivity to touch, and their acuity of eyesight may be much stronger than in other children. A bright light may actually be felt as pain. A loud noise can be extremely alarming and touching may be very uncomfortable.
Children with autistic features may take longer to process speech. They need extra time to make sense of what you are saying and need a prompt to realize you are speaking to them. This might give the appearance of inattention but they cannot help it. Does the child make eye contact? Some do – and others don’t. It’s not the only way to diagnose autism. But many autistic children do have social problems. They might find it hard to pick up and understand facial expressions, they might act inappropriately, not realizing they should assess the situation first.
A child’s story
It’s the last lesson of the day and the infants are sitting on the floor round the teacher for a story before they all go home. Most of them sit quietly enraptured with the story, but Jake is fidgeting and eventually gets up and starts to roam around the room. What’s happening in Jake’s world?
The light bright fluorescent light may be uncomfortable for Jake and his acute hearing means he could hear people in other classrooms, the traffic outside, the central heating pump – so for him, it’s noisy and hard to hear the teacher. This is not uncommon in autistic children.
Sitting on the hard floor might be painful for Jake – so he gets up. Sitting close to other children can be risky since even small unexpected jostling can feel like electrocution. So Jake wants to distance himself from other children as a self-protective mechanism. Sometimes these children also have restless leg syndrome which results in an uncontrollable urge to move the legs and where the only relief is to get up and move. Some of these children also find too hard to sit up since they have muscle weakness and joint pains, a type of Ehlers Danlos Syndrome.
Jake might start flapping his arms in front of his face – some autistic children do this to check where their body is since they have a poor body map and find it hard to know where their body parts are. These repetitive movements help him sort out his feelings and is a clever way for him to work out his actions.
Sadly, too many autistic children have had some trauma in their lives. They may be making sure they can escape when danger threatens. These are survival tactics, not naughty behaviour.
None the less, Jake’s patrolling behaviour can be disturbing for the other children and for the class teacher.
The pros of home education
- Despite the hard work home-schooling can be extremely rewarding and enjoyable. Parents and children working together can achieve amazing results. Very often, these home-educated children go on to further education and university and do very well.
- In fact, autistic children often take to online learning and do very well – provided they are interested in the subject. And this is the great advantage of home tutoring, they can follow a line of interest and learn so much more about it than they would have time for in school.
- They need the ordered routine they are used to, to enable them to function without enormous stress. The familiar environment and routines at home are reassuring for the child and make stress-free learning far easier. Even at the primary level, there are many changes during the day, noise and other children’s demands as well as playtime which can be a disaster area for the child who is seen by other children as different.
- In school, playtime and lunchtime are times when bullying can be a real issue for any child but is both more likely and more hurtful for the autistic child. Where there is home-schooling there is no bullying.
- At the secondary school level, the level of stress escalates. Constantly changing classrooms, different teachers for different subjects, the noise, and the sheer number of other children can be overwhelming.
- Children who are home educated can be more closely monitored and because the parent knows the child so well potential problems can be sorted out before they become big issues. On the whole home-educated kids are happy and relaxed, which makes learning far more effective than when the child is stressed and watchful.
The cons of home education
- Home education is demanding in time and effort – and expense. It’s very hard work and autistic children require constant attention and care – so parents can often end up exhausted. Home tutoring does not give them the essential breaks they need to maintain their stamina.
- The home educator needs guidance as to what their child needs to learn and access to online courses. It’s a learning experience for the parent as well as for the child.
- One disadvantage is that the child may choose not to learn something they will need later on in life – or the parent may not be competent to teach every subject and not have the training a teacher has had.
- A further factor to consider is the provision of special equipment – primary schools are usually well-stocked with learning aids and toys which most parents cannot complete with.
- When home tutoring is taken up the parent still needs to find social outlooks for their autistic child. It might be in sports, a computer club where the children communicate by screen, outings to castles, countryside, and shops.
- Cost may be an issue. There are also classes especially for home-schooled children which can fill the gaps in the parent’s knowledge but which can cost considerable sums of money – especially when there might be more than one home-educated child in the family to cater for – and more than one class for them to attend.
How can the teacher support an autistic child in the classroom?
It’s not easy but it’s so worthwhile, helping any child to find their true potential is surely what education is about? Some of the things a teacher will need to do when they have an autistic child in their care include establishing a routine with them, change can be difficult. The big wide world can be confusing, and routine gives them a sense of security. A visual timetable is a useful tool and with young children, pictures can be used. Where there is going to be change – prepare the child well in advance, show them the new classroom or introduce them to the new assistant.
The learning environments might need adjusting, sensory overload is a common source of difficulty if you are extra sensitive to stimuli. The bright, full classroom most children thrive in may be overwhelming for the child with autism, and the school bell may be deafening.
Many of the difficulties autistic children experience are because someone has not made sure they understand what is expected from them. The teacher should get their attention before they speak to them and make the task easy. Giving multiple instructions at the same time is simply confusing.
One of the talents many autistic children have is their ability to focus on a project that interests them. Teachers can use this to engage their interests in other subjects – maths lends itself to space exploration for example. Perhaps most important of all is a good teacher-parent relationship, when there is dual partnership each can benefit from the other’s knowledge. One final thought. Teaching is a demanding job and teaching when you have an autistic child adds to the workload. It’s vital that teachers take a little time to invest in themselves to build up their own resilience. Remember – there is no failure, only feedback. Mistakes will happen – it’s how we all learn
There are times when the special skills an autistic person has may be incredibly useful. Take the example of a group living in fear of their neighbours. They need a lookout – and who better than the autistic person. They can see and hear better than others so they sense the enemy approach earlier than another person. They can be very focused and are not easily distracted. Another example is the need we have for excellent computer skills – often a place of work with little human contact can be a place of refuge for the autistic person. Often they see patterns that elude most of us and like, for example, an ability in number-crunching in ways that differ from the rest of us.
There are some more unusual solutions. Montessori schools might suit these independent-minded kids, which are child choice but teacher-guided. And the teachers are very well trained, but even so, the autistic child might find it too much to cope with.
Micro-schools are another option. These are tiny schools, often in the teacher’s own home, catering for about 4-12 children only. One would need to check the teacher’s qualifications carefully, and also the safety aspects. (In COVID they could form a safe bubble for the children.) There are few of these micro-schools around as yet but they could be a trend that would suit many children, including those with autistic features. Parents would need to face the cost if they choose this type of education for their children. Part-time attendance might give the best of both home tuition and school.
Autistic children differ one from each other there is no “typical” Autistic child. Just like other children, they have talents and difficulties but for the Autistic child the difficulties may be overwhelming if not dealt with in an appropriate manner.
Features of autism include extreme sensory feelings, motor problems, difficulty with social skill clues, and problems in accessing language. They need routine and order to feel safe in a world that can be very confusing, and time to integrate information. They may have unusual and sometimes surprising talents (one very popular doctor was autistic and his “bedside manner “was non-existent yet patients loved him for his great care and excellent diagnostic acumen.)
Home tuition is for many an excellent alternative to ordinary school. If the school has access to the support needed, then there are advantages there as well as the fact that it gives his carers a break to revitalize themselves. Which you choose will depend upon what the local school has to offer and how well you can take on the tuition. Be honest! When the diagnosis has been made early then that gives the school the chance to obtain funding and get the necessary extra support they will need. Micro-schools and Montessori teaching are less available alternatives with much to offer.