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Top Tips for making mainstream work for students with Autism

Part Two- Relationships are key

Last month - in this series of three Top Tips for making mainstream work for students with Autism - we wrote about getting the routines right for our Autistic children. This month's blog builds on these ideas to focus on how important relationships with school staff can be for our autistic pupils.

Lots of people believe that relationships are not important to autistic pupils- messages from the media tell us that autistic people aren’t interested in others, perhaps because they are more interested in minute details, or prefer objects and items.

Not all autistic people can express themselves through language, but both autistic adults and autistic children tell us in lots of different ways that relationships are very important to them. Just like all children, they need to be able to trust in the relationships with the adults around them in order to be able to learn.

One of the features of autism is difficulties with joint attention. Joint attention is the ability to use the other person’s eye-gaze to work out what they are paying attention to, what they are interested in and what they are likely to be talking about. This skill sounds very easy- and it is for many people- but it is very difficult for our autistic pupils. It includes skills such as securing attention to oneself before expressing what you want or need from the conversation, responding when someone invites you to engage with them in play or talk, inviting others to take their turn in play or when talking with us, and more complex skills such as noticing when the other person shifts their attentional focus or sharing our internal thoughts or mental plans with partners. We think that it is difficulties with these joint attention skills make it very hard- and very effortful- for our autistic pupils to understand other people and therefore to establish relationships with them. It can lead to other people being unpredictable and this can be anxiety provoking and even scary- with whatever behavioural consequences that come with those feelings for your student.

For the adults trying to make sense of the child and their behaviour at school, it’s worth remembering that when things get tricky, the autistic child is not being difficult on purpose. Your student is doing the best they can with their worldview and the skills and support they have available.

Adults in school have a big role in helping our autistic pupils- who may be more in love with things than people- fall in love with the delights of the social world too.

It takes time, dedication and patience. To do this, you will have to slow down and notice their interests. Notice the things that they seek out and show enjoyment in and which people they enjoy being with. Spend time getting to know your student- learn from their parents about what they like to do at home during free time, find out about their preferences, for instance; what they like to eat and drink, the activities they like, the sound/light/tactile toys that work for them, social games they enjoy and places your student likes to visit. All of this can help you find many ways to connect with your student over things that matter to them. Many primary teachers have found it helpful to have a clear box of motivating and interesting toys available within the child’s sight but out of their reach. This means that when the child requests for something, the adults can offer it. In this way, when you work out what the child is interested in, you can make yourself irresistible by becoming the source of all good things, rather than someone who is a barrier to the things they find most satisfying, intriguing and joyful in life. For older children, teachers have found ways of linking learning activities to their interests and enthusiasms- offering them information, books and assignments based on topics that are their passion of the moment, rather than trying to get the student to follow the topics set out in the curriculum.

Each autistic learner is an individual- there are as many different ways of being autistic as there are autistic people. This means that building a relationship with autistic children is not something that happens overnight. It takes time and effort to get to know the pupil.

Remember when making relationships with autistic pupils that every mistake you make (and you will make mistakes) is valuable feedback for figuring out what works. Just be kind to yourself and remember that you won’t always get things right at first-and, ultimately, all children can be a handful at times!

Our blog comes out on the first Thursday of every month! Next month’s blog will be our third Top Tip on making mainstream work for autistic students- it will focus on recognising and responding to the unmet needs which can lead to children becoming overwhelmed.

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