With World Autism Awareness Month (2 April – 30 April) among us, it got me thinking about all of the brilliant students I’ve taught with Autism over the years.
Throughout my time in ‘mainstream’ schools and in my current post, teaching children with Autism has always been (in equal amounts) rewarding and insightful.
With as many as one in 100 people on the autism spectrum and around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK, I think it’s worth knowing a little about it and how we can teach our children about it too.
It’s very likely that your child has a peer in their class or school with autism. So, I wanted to share some of my insights.
What is autism?
The National Autistic Society defines autism as: “a lifelong developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world.”
As the NAS say there is no ‘one size fits all’ diagnosis or symptoms when it comes to autism and the definition is ever-changing.
Autism is a spectrum condition so affects each person in very different ways. Many of the students I’ve come across have had their own strengths and weaknesses.
Some of the more common difficulties people with autism face are:
- Social communication and social interaction
- Repetitive and restrictive behaviour
- Over- or under – sensitivity to light, sound, taste or touch
- Highly focussed or obsessive interests or hobbies
- Extreme anxiety
- Meltdowns and shutdowns
What can children with autism teach us?
Many children I’ve encountered with autism have had a combination of the above symptoms. Each and every one has taught me a lesson about myself and the world we live in.
A close family member of mine has autism and when he was younger was extremely withdrawn, quiet and seen as the outcast from his other two siblings. No one in the family expected him to amount to much and even thought he would be entirely dependent on his parents for the rest of his life.
We were all wrong.
He now has a full set of GCSEs and A-Levels as well as being in his final year at university. He’s volunteered in Africa and has signed up to do many more volunteering positions in the future. Not only this, he’s the only one of his siblings to have left home, got himself a job, accommodation and has a bright ambition for his future. He’s shown us all that you should never map out a child’s future based on a diagnosis.
This is not to say that children with autism don’t face challenges. They do. Just like any child. School can be a scary and tough place. Especially if your peers see you as ‘different’.
How can I educate my own children about autism?
- Talk to them – now is the perfect opportunity because of the month of awareness. But if your child comes home and comments on a child in their class who acts in a different way, discuss with them the possible causes of this behaviour.
- Visit autism.org.uk – this is a fantastic website and full of testimonials, helpful videos and guidance.
- Be honest – if you’re unsure or don’t understand yourself, tell your child this and do some research.
- Share a story – there’s tonnes of great books out there that highlight characters with autism. These can be great conversation starters.
Some great books to improve understanding of different experiences:
- Through the Eyes of Us, Jon Roberts (age 3-6)
- Talking is Not My Thing!, Rose Robbins (age 3-7)
- Maria and Me, Maria Gallardo and Miguel Gallardo (age 9-13)
- Anything But Typical, Nora Raleigh Baskin (age 11+)
- How to Look for a Lost Dog, Ann M Martin (age 8+)
- Can You See Me?, Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott (age 9-11)
Over the years I’ve learned a lot from my students. But the students with autism have taught me the most:
- We’re all very easily distracted – I now make an exerted effort to stay fully focussed and absorbed in one activity at a time (still a work in progress).
- The world is a noisy place – traffic, radios, music, birds, chatter. I now try to keep my classroom and home as noiseless as possible.
- Humans are weird and sometimes cruel – when we’re faced with the unknown, it can be scary but there’s never a need to be mean. But the combination of sarcasm and facial expressions make us quite odd creatures.
This is by no means an exclusive list. But one resounding lesson I’ve learned is that what makes us different also makes us powerful and strength is grown through adversity.