Special Needs Assistants make an enormous contribution in supporting those with Autism through their time in education. It can be difficult to sum up the role of an SNA because so many go above and beyond the call of duty to help and assist children with Autism who they are assigned to.
The Department of Education and Skills defines the role of an SNA as:
- Preparation and tidying up of classroom(s) in which the pupil(s) with special needs is/are being taught.
- Assisting children to board and alight from school buses. Where necessary travel as escort on school buses may be required.
- Special assistance as necessary for pupils with particular difficulties e.g. helping physically disabled pupils with typing or writing.
- Assistance with clothing, feeding, toileting and general hygiene.
- Assisting on out-of-school visits, walks and similar activities
- Assisting teachers in the supervision of children with special needs during assembly, recreational and dispersal periods.
- Accompanying individuals or small groups who may have withdrawn temporarily from the classroom.
- General assistance to the class teachers, under the direction of the Principal, with duties of a non-teaching nature. (Special Needs Assistants may not act as either substitute or temporary teachers. In no circumstances may they be left in sole charge of a class).
- Where a Special Needs Assistant has been appointed to assist a school in catering for a specific pupil, duties should be modified to support the particular needs of the pupil concerned.
So, these are the criteria set down by the Department. The duties are broad and are of a non-teaching emphasis. However the role the SNA plays in the school life of someone with Autism is so much more! SNAs provide a safety net for the child, a friendly face they can grow to trust (which is of such importance to people with Autism).
From an Autism perspective here are some points regarding the role the SNA can play (along the lines of point 9 of the Department circular above):
- The child must feel comfortable and safe in their school environment, and with the challenges that school brings and the anxiety so often associated with people with Autism this is of major importance! SNAs are someone who are child with Autism can feel comfortable with and develop a bond with over time.
- Children with Autism may need space and often find it very difficult to cope if someone overcrowds them. Therefore the SNA has a difficult task, which will vary from child to child, in establishing the balance between supporting them in their work and allowing them space.
- The SNA is someone who can really focus on the specific challenges of a child with Autism. Over time, the SNA can learn what the child is able to cope with and what stresses them out. This is of major importance as it means that their is someone in the classroom who understands where a child with Autism may be majorly anxious or at risk of getting very angry or upset. It also means there is someone there who can ensure that a child with Autism is not put into a situation which they find particularly hard to cope with. If the SNA moves each year with the student, they can also offer great continuity among the upheaval of a new classroom, teacher, curriculum etc. and can ensure that the new teacher is aware of the child’s specific needs.
- The SNA plays an important role in enabling a child with Autism to become more independent. Establishing the balance between gently pushing them on and considering their limits, once the child with Autism gets to know an SNA and trust that they will be there if things get too much for them, it can really boost their confidence.
- The SNA can play a great role in gently challenging a child with Autism. Head-on confrontation will rarely work with a child with Autism, more likely it will result in a major melt-down or negative behaviour. The SNA is someone who can withdraw a child from a circumstance and allow the issue to be addressed at a issue at a later stage when they have calmed down.
- The SNA can be a great support in helping to socialise a child with Autism, encouraging them to play with other children in the class as much as they are able or can tolerate. Equally, they can play a great role in ensuring other children are kind and inclusive of the child in the playground, as children will often look up to the SNA figure in yard supervision.
- SNAs play a major role in ensuring that a child with Autism gets the maximum out of class time and concentrates and applies themselves to a task as much as they can. SNAs can help the child to stay focused and doesn’t miss out on anything the teacher says due to distraction, problems with following instruction or in grasping what they are being asked to do.
- As the SNA is someone who the child with Autism generally grows to trust the SNA can be a kind but firm voice who can help the child to realise what behaviours are acceptable or unacceptable in the school setting.