The classroom and playground can be overwhelming places for all children, so with the added struggle of interacting with teachers and peers when you have autism, it is easy to see why this can be a barrier to academic, personal and social development. But of course, this needn’t and shouldn’t be the case. In order to make the school environment more manageable and comfortable for children with autism, we need to increase their peers’ and teachers’ awareness of the different ways in which children with autism perceive the world around them.
We will be sharing the results of this initiative and teaching visitors about how they can implement similar projects in their own schools, in order to boost the understanding and acceptance of autism amongst children from a young age. Kay and I believe that it is vital to increase awareness and sensitivity towards children with autism, and to help these children’s peers to understand how they can be supportive and inclusive – teaching them to accept difference and, moreover, embrace it as a positive thing.
A major part of our work as an outreach service for children with autism has been to promote inclusion. This is always focused on recommending practical strategies and approaches. These practical strategies are designed to help the children themselves, as well as their teachers and care-givers. However, while these strategies undoubtedly help children with autism to cope with the day-to-day challenges that mainstream schooling presents, we have found that when the children reach the age of eight or nine, new issues emerge surrounding difficulties with social acceptance. Therefore, we undertook a project in local schools which focused on changing attitudes to autism, so that children would not have to face the added difficulties of social exclusion and isolation, which can prove to be extremely damaging to their personal and social development and, of course, to their self-esteem.
As part of this project, following a whole-school assembly, lessons were delivered to a group of volunteer students to increase their understanding of autism and to help them discover suitable ways in which they could support and befriend their peers. We delivered a series of lessons with this group of volunteers, who were then able to become ‘Champions for Autism’ and support their peers, both in the classroom and in the playground – both of which can be minefields for children with autism.
As a result of this peer awareness intervention strategy, the schools involved noticed significant improvement; pupils with autism were observed to have more positive and confident interactions with their peers, as the volunteers who completed the peer awareness training created a support network for them. Also, the volunteers were more empathetic towards the children with autism, as they had gained a greater understanding of their individual strengths and weaknesses – both as children with autism but, more importantly, as their peers and friends. The eager volunteers suggested ideas on how to ensure that school was a fun and positive place to be for a child on the autistic spectrum, which they were able to do now that they had been given the opportunity to really get to know their autistic peers and to understand their world, what they enjoy and the challenges they face in school.
At The Education Show, we will be demonstrating how, by encouraging children to act as ‘Champions for Autism’, mainstream schools can set up a sustainable and inclusive support network for children with autism that works by breaking down barriers and changing attitudes towards the condition. We believe that this is essential, as the increasing number of children on the autistic spectrum will, of course, result in an increasing numbers of adults with autism in our community. As such, rather than putting the onus on those with autism to ‘fit in’ with school and society, we need to develop children who are aware of the various needs of people with autism and how they can work, grow and play together. Only in this way will we be able to cultivate an inclusive and accepting society that embraces and celebrates difference.
To find out more about how to create ‘Champions for Autism’ in your school, head to Joy and Kay’s session in the SEN and Early Years Theatre at The Education Show at 11.20am on Saturday 18 March. You can discover more about the event and register to attend here: http://www.education-show.com/.
Joy Beaney and Kay Al Ghani are consultants for Autism Train, an independent specialist organisation, which provides high-quality autism and Asperger’s Syndrome training courses, support and mentoring. Autism Train specialises in providing on-site training for organisations, educational settings, health care providers and many more, so that staff are equipped to support people with autism. Its mission is to lead people on a journey of understanding so that they are able to make a positive difference to the lives of people with autism.
Joy has many years’ experience in both mainstream and special education, and has been in charge of a facility for children with autism, assistant head at a special educational needs (SEN) school, and manager of an Inclusive Support Service that provides training and outreach support for staff in mainstream schools. She has undertaken research scholarships for the Department for Education (DfE) on ‘Developing the thinking skills of children with autism’ and ‘Using visual support’. Joy also completed a piece of research for the College of School Leadership which focused on the key features of a successful Inclusion Support Service, and has published two books for the National Autistic Society.
Kay has over 35 years of experience in education, and has specialised in the assessment, diagnosis and remediation of children with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyscalculia, and in the teaching of children with autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, semantic/pragmatic disorder, ADHD and Down’s Syndrome. She has designed and presented a range of training for teachers, parents and students. Kay is also the author of five Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) related books, and is a writer of children’s books which are illustrated by her son, Haitham, who has high functioning autism.