After diagnostic or clinical supports, education is an institution which will take up the largest part of a young autistic person’s life. Through school talks and training, AsIAm has tried to promote a learning environment where autistic learners are supported to reach their full potential. But what does autism friendly teaching look like in practice? How does it function day to day? Most importantly, how does it benefit our students? To answer these questions we speak to Lorraine Kelly, teacher in North Wicklow Educate Together Secondary School. NWETSS
What’s your background in education?
Lorraine. I did all my training in Scotland including my Postgrad, in autism and education training and I’ve worked with pupils on the spectrum since I got into education teaching. I’m just about to start a diploma as well, a postgrad diploma, in Autism. I’ve mainly worked in special education centres in Scotland since then whereas now I work in educational support as well as teaching history.
How is an Autism Friendly School different from a mainstream or special school?
Lorraine: I would say autism friendly schools work hard on educating our peers through setting up our communities of practice piece, to try and spread positive ideas, such as the inclusion models that we have, in practice.
We’re trying to educate all our pupils that there are positive options and positive things you can do to regulate your mood and we also share our own examples of how we would regulate our mood. We’d say if we’re stressed, we walk, or we might take a break for a minute with our mask out the back or sit in the garden.
It’s very rare you’ll find someone who doesn’t have some sort of an issue, with regards to some part of their education. So above all it’s about not having just one type of student in mind when you teach.
How are students’ sensory needs supported?
Lorraine: Our school is in a unique position insofar as we have quite a large majority of our pupils on the spectrum. In our school, something like stimming or movement breaks or sensory room breaks are not really something that’s out of the norm.
We have a blackout sensory tent and that is being used quite a lot by some of our pupils. They’ve described it to me as being like someone speaking Japanese, in a train station that’s crowded hot and noisy. They just can’t process what’s happening or what someone is saying to me. It’s like they’re experiencing a system overload and the tent allows them to reboot. We would have fidget toys, theraputty and bluetac; that kind of thing. There’s also a trampoline for some of our pupils who may have ADHD and they need to kind of expend energy to concentrate.
What kind of work goes into autism friendly teaching on the side of the educator?
Lorraine: You need to be proactive in your approach, but there’s supports in place to help you start. Autism friendly teaching isn’t something you achieve overnight. We have a small group meeting with new and existing teachers at the start of the year where we go run them through pupils that are on the spectrum or have other additional needs. And we would go through what exactly has been recommended, what they like or don’t like.
I have had members of staff who are maybe new and young who would maybe say, ‘his leg is shaking and awful lot and his foot’s tapping the table. Is that okay or is that a behavioural issue?’ and we would address that and say to them, that’s actually not a behavioural issue, that’s just someone trying to regulate themselves or trying to actually get themselves into a position where they can sit and listen and sometimes that tapping will help them listen.
If you are dealing or working with, a new class or a new set of pupils, you will need to familiarize yourself with the student support files and you need to talk to your SEN staff. None of the supports I mentioned are supportive or of benefit unless you understand the importance of it, to that individual pupil.
Finally, there’s always the option to pick up the phone and talk to their parents. I’m a very big believer in picking up the phone, not only when there’s a problem, but when something positive has happened; whether that be they came to class with everything today, like everything was organised. We had a copy, we had the laptop, we had everything. Why don’t you ring up, you know, pick up the phone and tell their mum, ‘this is great. Look what happened. We’ve reached a level of independence here.’
How do you change the learning process to fit the children’s individual needs?
An hour is a long time for any of us to be in a classroom. With this in mind, We use a ‘to do list’ with 4 points on it. The teacher fills out 3 points, and they’ll be what tasks they want the child to do with the 4th point as time set aside within that class for a preferred activity. Our pupils like to have that concrete set of time. So, say for instance, it’s 15 minutes with little boxes at the end of their list. They tick the boxes as they go along. A lot of them really like that finality, of ticking the box and marking the activity as complete. So, its breaking the hour down into smaller, manageable chunks for them. They know that they’ve achieved what they need to achieve in the class.
Then they can go enjoy their special interest or have a sensory break. Some will prefer the sensory break to stim. Some of our students are really happy and excited when they have finished their tasks’ and they stim to process this positive feeling. I remember one of my students said they wanted to “hang on to that feeling, I’ve done it!” You know, like, running out the door to like grab the feeling before it goes which I thought was interesting.
Have you noticed any difference in the culture to other schools?
Lorraine: What I have found interesting is the language that is being used regarding pupils on the spectrum. The language from our neurotypical students in mainstream has changed for the better. That language acceptance has really, for me, been a massive cultural shift. As a result, our pupils who are neurodiverse are much more comfortable to express themselves. This could be their sexual preference, their gender identity, or even whether they prefer identity or person-first language. Some of our students will self identify as autistics. Others prefer person with autism. It’s very much their decision.
Self-advocacy is considered just as important as other supports for autistic students. Yes, you need life skills and social skills’ but likewise you also need to be an advocate at some point for yourself. You know, you will be in situations where you will need to stand up for yourself. We have just had our autism acceptance week, and that was led by our autistic pupils. Both in our resource classes and those in mainstream, and they have titled that week themselves. They didn’t like awareness as part of the title because they felt that it sounded like a disease that people should be made aware of.
We used to have a sensory Halloween experience that our pupils on the spectrum created. And you have to put your hands into strange boxes and try and feel the eyeballs and things like that. They would make the room dark then flash lights and play loud music. And then when the parents come out, all dazed and confused, they go, ‘Now there you go, that’s what it is like.’
It was interesting because now you’re educating the parents as well, and that’s regardless of whether they know someone on the spectrum or not. You know, we need to kind of break down the barriers in a community sense as well. And it works so well because the pupils on the spectrum themselves are the ones that are leading this sensory experience.
Are any of the staff neuodivergent?
Lorraine: I’ve got dyscalculia, which sounds minor. I’m profound, I’m way up there on it, I can’t do fractions or percentages. All the kids know because one of the first things I do to get to know a child is telling them ‘I get where you’re coming from, the stress and the feeling of not being able to do something. I struggled and I still struggle say to day with maths. I’m lucky because the maths department help me out. So many of us out there struggle with something. Everybody has some element of access to education, or completing their education, that they found difficult. And through that kind of neurodiverse umbrella, that’s really what we would be aiming for.
Pupils on the spectrum actually presented themselves to the seniors recently, and the senior cycle classes took part and asked questions. A few who are on the spectrum even put up their hands in their class and said ‘I am on the spectrum. I am autistic. My special interest is … this is what I find when I stim.’ And someone else was like, ‘oh right, okay. Yeah. I get that now.’ It’s about building common ground.
I have heard vocational education is a big part of the school curriculum. How does that work?
Lorraine: When they’re down with us in the SEN department, we would focus specifically on life skills. So that would incorporate for instance your day to- day personal care, care of your house, managing your budgets and we’re lucky that the departments all have adapted elements of that into their courses. But we also foster, and support work placements for our pupils, whether they’re on the spectrum or not. Some would struggle slightly more than other’s but we have ways to address that.
Our SNAs have been out and supported pupils on work placement. We had one pupil who had worked in a recruitment firm and he was helping with filing and things in the recruitment firm. our SNA went to be a support to him for that. We’re going to set up our own little coffee shop here in school. We’ll have our own café and it will be for the teachers to buy their hot drinks and snacks. That will be work experience for some of our students who just maybe aren’t quite ready for actually being out in a work placement.
We haven’t actually had 6th year yet, so we’re very much in the planning of vocational elements for them. Covid has hindered this a little, but we still have plans. It depends on what the student wants. We’ve some that will go to 3rd level, and we’ll be supporting them to achieve those goals in every way that we can. We also have some that have expressed an interest in a Post Leaving Cert course or engaging with the National Learning Network and we will be supporting them, doing transition links and transitioning them as well, but we will also be giving them little tasters of work experience hopefully.
Our Transition Years this year have spent one class a week for the whole year working with our guidance counsellor, specifically on jobs, careers explorations and what exactly is involved in that career. Some of our students are set on t becoming, say, a lawyer, but, they’re not quite sure of the journey to it. They’re not clear on what you do after the degree, or what is involved in the day-to-day life of a lawyer. They’ve gone through all of that and then the different types, and then, the pupils have a chance to generate discussion at home about it as well, that then feeds back into us, and their class teachers, which allows us to support them by setting out the necessary steps to meet that goal.
Does this openness about neurodivergence encourage students to relate to each other better?
Lorraine: One of our students is now in 5th year and one night when we did our Halloween experience she really couldn’t cope and someone offered
her ear defenders to wear around the school because it was just too noisy for her. She only recently came down to us and said that she wears those headphones at home now. Subsequently, she also started coming down to us for the blackout tent. Her mam said she’d have had them all her life, but they didn’t realise to the extent that she would be curled up in a ball rocking because of noise. Some students come down to us to learn about their sensory needs. We have sensory assessments ourselves that we can do with pupils we do not particularly know very well to help figure this out.
And this isn’t just people who are seeking assessment. We also get people who already have a diagnosis learn more about their sensory needs, and I suppose their limits. We’ve got a pupil in here who would sell his soul, and yours, for an ‘After Eight’ chocolate. On the other hand we have a student who is incredibly sensitive to tastes and textures, so he has a particularly restrictive diet. He’d never tried mint and he had a tiny corner of an ‘After Eight’ because he saw the other lad enjoying it so much and he felt he was missing out. His eyes started watering like you would with a chilli pepper and he just said to me, ‘now I know!’
If a teacher works in a mainstream school with low autism understanding, how do you recommend they start educating themselves on autism friendly teaching?
Lorraine: The small things you can do is, besides getting to know them and being friendly, is getting to know what they’re interested in. I don’t mean just the special interests; I mean what do you like? What do you like to eat? What cake do you like? It’s no different to a mainstream neurotypical pupil. You’re really in a very unique position to be asked to be invited into their very personal world. I think that you need to reach out to your local schools and your colleagues. We try to create community of practise through autism sharing information about Autism Friendly Schools amongst each other. It’s going to involve dipping your toe into the community and getting out there. Above all you should get to know people who teach in SEN: there is a wealth of information there.
In addition, there are courses that you can do to get yourself trained if it’s something that you specifically want to do. Most of us have found ourselves in SEN due to a personal interest. That interest leads to research into things like autism friendly education and then finally into the experience of teaching kids with different support needs. And you’ll be motivated to get trained so you can further support these students in achieving not only their educational goals but also their dreams of progressing towards their future. If you are new to second level education, then there are small things you can do which will help a lot.
Tune in next week to hear about Billy Redmond, friend of AsIAm and principal of ET Wicklow, discussing management and the principles behind autism friendly teaching. For more information, check our Education section.