Unlocking the imaginations of the young and young at heart

Autism / ASD

What is Autism?

Autism and Asperger syndrome are part of a range of conditions known as autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). They affect the way the brain processes information.

Autism is a developmental disorder that can cause problems with social interaction, language skills and physical behaviour. People with autism may also be more sensitive to everyday sensory information. The world can appear chaotic with no clear boundaries or meaning.

Brain imaging studies suggest that the mirror neurones in people with autism respond in a distinctive way. This could partly explain what many behavioural studies have already shown - that children with autism can find it hard to copy or learn simple behaviours from others. Children with autism have difficulty relating to others in a meaningful way. Their ability to develop friendships is generally limited as is their capacity to understand other people's emotional expression.

Asperger syndrome is a milder form of autism with symptoms that affect social interaction and behaviour. Children with Asperger syndrome are often of average or above intelligence and may be particularly good at learning facts and figures. However, they may also lack imagination and find creative play or thinking in the abstract very challenging.

It is important to realise that each child with autism is different from the next. However, the common problems affecting social interaction, communication and imagination and the repetitive behaviour are common to all.

Autism in School

There are multiple approaches and strategies that teachers and support staff can use to help develop the behaviour, language and communication skills of children with autism.  These include:

  • Visual Aids make it easier for children with autism to understand the world about them. They can help children understand sequence and predict what is happening.

  • Comic strip conversations assist children with autism to develop greater social understanding. By seeing the different elements of a conversation visually presented, some of the abstract aspects of social communication (e.g. recognising the feelings and intentions of others) are made more concrete and are therefore easier for the child to understand.

  • Social Stories is a technique that helps children cope with different situations.  Stories are written for the individual child, explaining in words and pictures, step by step, what will happen in situations where they may feel anxious and how they should cope with situations they find difficult. For instance, a Social StoryTM might be used to explain what a child should do on a bus journey or when they hear a fire alarm.

  • Circle of Friends encourages the development of a support network for a child in a structured setting. Six to eight children are recruited as volunteers to form the Circle of Friends. Through a series of meeting they help the focus child to express his or her feelings and decrease anxiety levels. This can lead to improved social integration and higher levels of peer contact.

  • The Picture Communication Exchange System (PECS) is a commonly used approach to teach children who have limited language. Teachers use pictures as symbols to teach children the names of different objects. Gradually the child is taught to exchange a picture for the object he or she wants, to construct simple sentences using the pictures, and indicate choices between various objects.

  • TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped Children) is an approach is widely used within special schools and can be adapted for use within a mainstream setting. It focuses on altering the environment and using visual supports, such as timetable and schedules, to help provide structure, reduce stress and improve understanding. Children are given clear instructions for every stage of an activity, usually presented in a visual way.

  • SPELL is a framework developed by The National Autistic Society's schools and services to understand and respond to the needs of children and adults with autism. It recognises the unique needs of each child and emphasises that all planning and intervention should be organised on this basis. SPELL stands for Structure, Positive, Empathy, Low arousal, Links.

    For more information on the SPELL framework, visit http://www.autism.org.uk/living-with-autism/strategies-and-approaches/spell.aspx

Encouraging Reading

Learning to read can be challenging for some children on the autism spectrum; however, the right teaching approach can make all the difference. Here are some tips to encourage a love of reading:

  • Find a special interest. Whether your child loves trains or maths facts, capitalising on their unique interest is an excellent way of capturing their attention. Choose books that focus on the child's interest. For instance, if your child loves weather, use books on storms or cloud types to work on reading.

  • For new readers, find several objects related to the area of interest. For each object, write the first letter of its name on a card and attach the card to the toy. Each time the child wants the object, ask him or her what letter it starts with. From there, move on to labelling the object with the entire word.

  • Reward progress with objects or information related to the special interest. For instance, once your child has learned ten sight words, he or she may pick a new trading card.

  • Work on reading in a quiet, calm space. Choose a dimly lit room with no posters or artwork on the walls. Sit on the floor together to read, and speak in a quiet voice.

  • Many children learn better when they are moving. Try reading in a rocking chair as the movement can help your child concentrate

  • Take frequent breaks to provide the sensory stimulation your child craves. For instance, work on reading for ten minutes and then have a five-minute sensory break.