After talking to Lorraine Kelly of North Wicklow Educate Together School, we had a word with its principal Billy Redmond on the topic of Autism Friendly School management. Billy has been a teacher for 25-26 years and a school principal for the last 7 years. Prior to that he worked in guidance counselling in a mainstream secondary school. He also worked in the Department of Education with the National Behaviour Support Service for 5 years. Billy worked in teacher induction for 3 years with the teaching department and the Council for Education, and was the national coordinator for post-primary teacher induction for 3 years. He is a passionate advocate of inclusion and a close ally of the Autism Friendly School project and today provides his experience of leadership and management in NWET.
Why do you think it is important to have Autism Friendly Schools in place?
I was getting a certain response from parents who needed access in a classroom but were very measured in the information they were giving me, because they were nervous of getting a no or feeling like they would not get support. Listening to one parent’s story, the excessive gratitude, “I’m so grateful, I’m so lucky to be able to apply here,” and I’m like “no you don’t need to be grateful: this is absolutely what your child is entitled to.” Every single school in Ireland should have an autism classroom and it should be there before the child needs it.
It is about inclusion, whereas if we take universal design and principles, the universal design should say we should plan our schools for when those students are knocking on our door. I should not be putting in a ramp for a child who uses a wheelchair when the child comes to the school, the ramp should already be there.
What does Autism Friendly teaching look like in practice?
Because sometimes young people do not know themselves as learners. I ask so many people, even teachers- how do you learn? What environment do you learn best in? There are many ways of learning a topic. If learning is like eating, you have to stop giving people the food on the plate. Instead, presenting a buffet and letting them go up and fill their own plate. It should be whatever they want presented in any way they like. The idea that any teacher can walk into a classroom and say “I’ve prepared my lesson on proteins and this is what I’m doing and if you can’t access it, pity about you” – it is nonsense
So, you might have a student who is great at Home Economics but not English. You should ask why they like the one subject and not the other. They might like the way the teacher does certain things. This could be the way the information is presented in textbooks, or even the way the classroom is laid out. They are all factors that the English teacher could do and adapt what the Home Ec. teacher does in their classroom.
Giving students a choice will not do them any harm – if anything they will probably pick the piece that will challenge them the most, or the piece they will excel most on, so there are always benefits. Students in mainstream sometimes need a little bit more of a stretch to meet their needs. But what benefits one child often benefits every other child. There is nothing I do for my autistic students that is going to do one ounce of harm for anybody else.
How do you accommodate autistic needs without marking the student out as different?
If you are presenting information in class that is 95% one way and then you stop the class and say, “this is what I want you to do,” then you are marking out the autistic child as the only person in the class who is different; whereas they are all different in diverse ways. It is about normalising the way we present information as fluid. It is about realising that people will learn in an environment that is different.
Stimming is a good example of that. If a young person is not allowed to stim freely, in class, many things happen because of that. The child becomes more frustrated, they can become stressed or anxious if classmates do not see stimming as normal. In my school I make sure that our students stim openly, and nobody notices because this is normalized. It is a wonderful way that they release their tension and self-regulate and move in an open and transparent way. Nobody takes a bit of notice of it; they know it is no different to a child scratching their head or coughing or tapping a pen.
How are the access needs of the child decided?
When they come into First Year, it is like a blank page that is coloured in as we get more information. With the report, with meeting the parents, speaking to families and the school helps fill this in. Then as we go through the year, we get reports and assessment feedback, that informs the picture more. We colour in so in our reports we do what is working well in every subject for the student. Then we can also spot what needs improvement for them.
As we go through the years it evolves, throwing in a bit of teenage angst, and normal adolescent development. We do not have a learning style we have a learning profile of learning environmental factors, cognitive factors, memory factors, psychological factors, physiological factors: everyone has these. It is about the child learning more about the best way they learn. Once they know this then the teacher can present the information in ways that the child can best access it.
And you have got to remember the level of need can change. We have children in our school who would have needed very little support at First, Second and Third Year. But now in Fourth or Fifth Year, need huge levels of support. This is because navigating through adolescence is difficult for them. It is not easy, but that is what we are there for.
How do you think education of autistic children can be improved on a broader scale?
It is about school leaders and organisations that advocate on behalf of parents, being louder. I had a parent talk to me about their child getting detention for stimming. To me that is profoundly inappropriate. How could they say to the young person, “no you’re not allowed movement breaks because we don’t believe in them”? That is like a doctor saying “no, I’m not giving you insulin, I don’t believe in diabetes.”
Schools need to be in front of this, there needs to be less amazement when we do it well. Because we are paid to do a job, do it well and be professional. As a school it must be led by the principal and the deputy and senior management team. They need to understand autism and that the needs of young people are not wants. In our school it is a whole series of things we do, not an event where everybody is watching and us saying ‘we’re going to be inclusive today.’ It’s a daily presentation of “Can I do this better? Am I connecting with the students? Is this the best environment? What can I do differently?”
How has your experience been in understanding the sensory experience in the classroom?
I asked an OT to do a sensory audit on the environment. They did things like pick the right colours for all the walls, look at the lighting and classroom layout. They even checked where we were putting the multisensory room. It really had a significant impact on a group of students.
For the majority it is irrelevant to them whether the wall was coloured one way or another. But for a large group of our students, walking through a purple corridor calms them down immensely. Some will just sit in the purple corridor because it really helps them to regulate and catch their breath. One parent told me their child’s experience of school has changed profoundly because the layout of the environment.
Minor changes that are invisible to other people are massively impactful factors that mean that a young autistic person can reach their potential. All these things are tweaks or adaptations, they are not rewriting everything for them. All you are doing is creating the right environment to let them access the curriculum – you are not giving them anything extra, you are not taking from other children. Without these, they miss out and they get all these gaps in their learning and then they could even get in trouble for being absent.
You need to know what each child needs, and even if you do not know you need to observe what is happening. In that moment there is nothing more important than ensuring that child is in the most effective environment I can make for them. I cannot meet every person’s needs all the time, but if I attune myself to the specific needs in my classroom, I can at least reduce the impact for the young person. I cannot make it perfect, but minor changes can have a big impact.
How do you think leadership comes into making a school autism friendly?
You lead by example, but I will tell you it is much easier to lead if everyone is facing the same direction! I have been interviewing for 14 different jobs in my school in the past three weeks, and every single interview had questions about autism and questions about how you would adapt your teaching for an autistic child who might be in your classroom. If their language and awareness is poor that has an impact for me on whether they work with us. So in an autism friendly school, the management has to be thinking that from the early stages.
Leadership is about creating the dialogue and making sure that dialogue is heavily informed, making sure you are reminding people that inclusion is not a gift, nor is it a kind of choice that we have. It is a responsibility that we all have and a right that the young people have. It does not mean we will always get it right: I’m very good at mistakes and very good at apologizing for those mistakes, but it is not negotiable.
If a teacher wants to improve things for their autistic students, but do not have a lot of resources or help from management, how can they help?
If you are in an environment like in a school that does not have very inclusive culture – does not embrace autism, and you are teaching an autistic student; you might not be able to change the Board’s or the principal’s opinion – but you can certainly change that young person’s experience in your class.
Read up, spend four or five hours on AsIAm’s website, you will learn a lot. Go online and do an ICEPE course. Sign up to any of the online stuff from the NCSE on autism, Google ‘what does a young autistic person need in a classroom?’ and do things differently. Most importantly, speak to that young person and ask them what works for them, primarily. Talk to them about what they need, sometimes the best questions you can ask is “what I can do differently to help you learn in my classroom? What can I adapt? What can I change about the way I teach?”
It does not mean you are going to be able to do everything that the young person suggests, but even asking and listening to them will have an impact, so there are a thousand small things you can do to make the class autism friendly before you go anywhere near the school management, but school management should be encouraging you and validating you for doing those things. For example, I have one student who loves to talk about Coronation Street, it is her special interest. She can go back to any episode any year and she can talk about it, and I like a bit of Corrie myself, so a conversation with her even five minutes a day in an environment where she is completely fluent, knows everything and is happy talking, that can regulate her for the entire day.
Now I might not be able to work that into a physics class, but I can with other subjects. So, these small moments, that allow me to build a relationship with the young person are important. They allow the young person to experience meaningful conversation with engagement and connection and facial expression. The child can feel like they are an effective communicator and feel less anxious for the rest of the day. These are the things that take little or no effort for me but have a real impact for that young person and they are lovely moments; they are moments I really cherish in the day.
Could you explain the school’s vocational literacy programmes a bit more?
It’s very hard for you to imagine something you do not have the name for. You could be the best communications director in the entire world, but if you do not know what a communications director is you are never going to imagine yourself being one. You could be the best director, analyst, or data scientist, but if you do not know what they are, you cannot imagine yourself being one. If you are waiting until Sixth Year it takes longer to build that vision inside your head, to create that preferred future, so ideally with young people, I would argue (but specifically autistic young people), we should be having that conversation in primary school and the whole way up.
We need to be talking about “I wonder what it would be like if I was a translator, I love languages. What does the job of a translator do? I do not have to go into a big office, I could work from home, I could have flexibility. I have great attention to detail, concentration, and focus, how can I get a job as a translator?” and explaining there’s loads of different options.
You mentioned parents who were overwhelmed with gratitude. Many parents and educators will have experience fighting to get appropriate supports in place. Do you see signs of improvement moving forward?
I am by no way unusual in my desire for inclusion or to create an inclusive school. I know many other principals who are doing the very same thing. They are constantly attuning themselves to the needs of students. But while I am not unusual in any way; we are not 100% of the way there either. We are further than we were five years ago, but organisations like AsIAm are hugely impactful. In Bray, the work is happening in the background and other schools are also opening AS classrooms. So, it’s all about getting tipping points reached, getting enough people talking and enough people speaking the right way. But without lobbying and activist organisations like AsIAm integrating other organisations like schools and the department of education and the Joint Managerial Board (JMB), all working together, we would not be where we are.
I think in the context of education and support, parents have needed to be warriors. They have to fight so profoundly to set the groundwork for other people to walk through. Because of them so much of the resistance is breaking away. When I think of LGBT rights, I have young people in my school who are out and proud. They’ve no sense of the struggle of the 80’s in their head, it doesn’t exist. They’ve no sense of invisibility, of people like David Norris, who fought for the rights they now have.
Those warriors disappear in the background when things change. Similarly, parent warriors were doing the work that one could argue it is our job as educators to do. While it will not always be acknowledged, our current work is made possible by them.
We need to fight collectively, but I am constantly amazed by just the power of parents who stand up and say “no, that’s not good enough, I’m not accepting that for my child,” or more importantly a young person, and I’ve seen lots of young people say, “no, that’s not going to work for me,” and I love to see that energy in them, because they are the people that will make the next generation’s life much easier.
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