Teaching children on the Autistic spectrum and what their parents would like you to know

By | June 23, 2013

A while ago (apologies that it HAS been a while), I was asked by a lovely trainee teacher what advice I could give to her on teaching children within the spectrum.

Teaching children on the Autistic spectrum and what their parents would like you to know

The spectrum is vast – as demonstrated by the above diagram – and although the aspergers diagnosis is disappearing (aspergers is now being referred to as high functioning autism), it’s an opportunity to remember that many different levels, traits and characteristics are contained with that one word.

I asked my followers what advice they would give and it was a resounding request for the following:

Treat every child as an individual. No two children are the same. Although there may be several children with autism in the class, each will have their own traits, anxieties and needs. Do not generalise.

However, many autistic children (and adults) respond better to positive reinforcement and a softly-softly approach when it comes to requests. Sudden noises and raised voices will cause them anxiety and may draw out a situation far longer (for example, an autistic child lashing out through fear) rather than a getting-down-to-their-level and gently finding out what has caused the anxiety.

With regard to positive reinforcement, consider using visual aids (ie a visual timetable), even if the child is verbal, there may be too much background activity for them to focus solely on verbal commands, visual aids will help with transition.

Don’t assume that just because a child is verbal, they necessarily understand. Many children use a form of “learnt script” or “echolalia”. This may mean that they appear to understand what someone else is saying but very often it’s a learnt response.

For example, ask D when her birthday is and she will say 20th May, which is correct. But ask her what the date is the day before her birthday or the day after, or what her birth year was and she is unable to tell you. This is because she’s learnt her birth date but can’t compute the other information.

There was a very good example of this mentioned by the National Autistic Society recently during their Push For Action campaign:

“Our conversation turns to the support some adults need, and a lady called Sally who took part in the Government’s trial assessments for PIP.

“When the assessor asked Sally if she can make her own meals, she said ‘yes’. But she can only make pasta with butter! Sally’s sister had taken more than six weeks to teach her this one meal and she still needs to be prompted and supervised. She’d obviously misinterpreted the question but ended up scoring no points –no wonder people with autism were so worried about those assessments!” The couple beside us turn around as Anna’s voice gets louder.”

Food is mentioned above and this is another point to mention, many individuals on the spectrum have sensory processing disorder and will stick to the food and drink they are familiar with. This does not mean they are “picky” and should not be classed as “difficult” or “fussy eaters”. Do not force them to try unfamiliar foods if it is causing them distress.
D has a fear of jelly, the sight, the texture, that funny squishy noise when a spoon goes in it. This was explained to staff but it did not stop them attempting to make her try some. She didn’t and couldn’t. They were surprised (but I wasn’t) when she then vomited due to anxiety.

The same would apply for new activities, in unfamiliar surroundings.
Take notice of anxiety soothers and calmers, they are carried for a reason. If the soother is not large, not constricting movement and helps the child/adult cope with the environment then it’s not an issue in my book. Better that than the fallout if they are purposefully separated.

For D, it’s Bunny, little Bunny who is either carried in her hand or under her arm if she’s writing/drawing. It used to be a play food asparagus when she was a baby, something easily grabbed and held.

For T, it was laminated Top Trumps cards or laminated football pictures, it’s now a book. Whenever we got out, even if there’s no likelihood of him reading it, it’s something for him to hold and focus on.

Every child is different but there are underlying traits.

Be aware of how lessons are taught, autistic children will take topics literally.
For example, D’s teacher last year ran an initiative on healthy eating and made great emphasis on “good” and “bad” foods. See my post on Lunchbox wars here. Her teacher at the time didn’t understand the consequences of her using “good” and “bad”, which D interpreted as she must not eat certain foods at all.

A home-school diary is a great idea, as long as it’s used. If a school commits to one, it should be completed. It doesn’t have to be pages and pages but parents like to (and need to) know what their child has been doing at school. The information can be used as a prompt to engage conversation, which if the child is anxious about their day/or has stilted speech or non-verbal is vital.

Of course, a diary works two ways, so read what a parent has written and acknowledge it, even if it’s just by an initial.

There can never be too much information when communicating about an SN child, never.

This is the one piece of feedback that came through time and time again:

Listen to the parents/carers. They know the child best of all. There will be times when they get emotional in meetings, in parents evenings, in class. That’s because they love their child very much, feel protective of them and want the best for them. They’re also probably running the gauntlet of emotions with the diagnostic process/the statementing process/the LEA/GP/CAMHS/OT – you name it – and they’re probably exhausted physically and emotionally.

Our autistic children are not just numbers and a budget figure on a spreadsheet, they are great individual children/young adults who with the right support and guidance will enjoy their school life. And they deserve to.

Teaching children on the Autistic spectrum and what their parents would like you to know
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Ciara MacGrath on 28th June 2013 at 10:32 am.

Wonderful piece Jeanette. The school diary was a godsend for us. Our son’s teacher was diligent about filling it in. We knew exactly what happened during the school day and so were able to respond when Andrew spoke about his day, usually hours after he had come home and often very garbled.

On another note about individuality. Andrew hates crisps. The taste the smell the noise they make in your mouth. Jelly is one of his favourite things to eat. It’s soft and squishy and makes no sound in your mouth. Best of all you can fill you cheeks with it. Two children on the spectrum with very different food issues.

Hope all is still well with your mum.


bluejays93 on 28th June 2013 at 10:32 am.

great piece jeanette. my daughters school has the school diary or communication book. those things help tremendously. i try and engage her in what she done at school at first then i look in the book to see. i can understand her not remembering she has such a short term memory. your thing about the food is bang on. my girl cant stand jelly either. tried to eat it once the feel creeped her. strawberries are the same way. everything you talked about in the post is how i approach everyday with her and really helps to make life better. I know her personal communication book is awesome for her. I tend to update from time to time when i noticed she asking about something new. has a first and then on back so i make the little symbols and stick them on the last two pages for her to use when she needs to.


ouremuk66 on 28th June 2013 at 10:33 am.

Great post – while there remains so much ignorance and so many generalisations, these messages bear repeating again and again.


Latoya Jordan on 28th June 2013 at 10:33 am.

I love reading your posts. 9x out Of 10, Iv come to struggle With putting my Sons aspergers and ADHD into context and simple understandable terms to others. And you just seem to make it flow so easily. It’s always so nice reading and knowing that you just get it. You’ve become my daily comforter, haha. Much love J and a huge thank u as always xxx


Natalia Erehnah on 28th June 2013 at 10:33 am.

“Treat every child as an individual. No two children are the same.” Yes!

Even the spectrum concept is limiting. It’s more like a 3-D field, and individuals (all of us!) can fall anywhere, and, I suspect move around.


rebecca Loring on 28th June 2013 at 10:33 am.

This is great and think I might forward to my sons teacher. I asked for a home to school notebook but was told I could bring up any concerns in the playground (with all the children and parents around) I accepted this at the time because I felt that my request was overbearing but am going to insist now


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