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Dublin: 10 °C Wednesday 24 September, 2014

Column: Let’s make this school year better for people with autism

What can be done to support people with autism in mainstream education? Three words: awareness, dialogue and openness.

Adam Harris

BOOKS ARE BEING purchased, uniforms ironed and bags packed all across Ireland, as the doors of national and secondary schools prepare to open once more and students prepare for another year’s work with new teachers, classrooms and topics to study.

This is understandably a stressful time for all stakeholders in education from teachers, preparing for the year ahead; to parents, supporting their children in school and meeting the expensive costs that go with it; to students, dealing with new demands and expectations.

But just imagine for a moment if things were a little tougher…

Imagine being anxious about starting back to school for weeks now, imagine finding it extremely difficult to make friends in school or even to relate to your peers, imagine sitting in a classroom where the noise levels and environment are so tough that you can barely concentrate or sit still… and imagine if this was only some of the problems.

Believe it or not, these are the challenges students with autism face every single day in school, as well as having to do this in a climate of limited additional supports and services for students with special educational needs.

While this may sound very difficult, the benefits of mainstream education are also very clear – the opportunity to fulfil one’s potential (whatever that may be) and the chance to be educated in your local community and learn from your own peers.

So, what can be done to support people with autism in addressing these challenges and reaping the benefits of mainstream education? Three words: awareness, dialogue and openess.

Awareness

Many thousands of books, PhDs and medical journals have been written about autism however it really isn’t about how many such dissertations teachers read. What makes a positive difference is understanding the practical challenges of a person with autism in school – and it’s usually not rocket science.

Perhaps a student finds high noise levels very difficult and changes need to be made in the classroom to accommodate that. A student might struggle to sit still or hold concentration for long periods and may need breaks or the ability to move around. A student may have high anxiety and need to be supported, reassured or provided with opt-outs, the list goes on!

What is critical to understand is ‘if you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism’ – no two people are affected in entirely the same way and it is as important for teachers to spend time understanding the individual student at it is learning about the spectrum generally.

Dialogue

Students with autism needs a strong, united and inclusive support network around them in school in order to flourish. Often concerns or patterns of behaviour at home are reflected in performance at school and, equally, anxieties from school impact on mood and behaviour at home.

For that reason, it is crucial that parents and teachers maintain regular communication, through meetings or a communication diary, so problems, which people with autism cannot always articulate for themselves, can be identified and successful approaches shared. It is crucial to involve all stakeholders in this process such as SNAs and resource teachers and, as a child matures, they should be included in discussions around their own support and needs, as far as they are personally capable. This approach reduces friction, increases knowledge and ensures consistency – something very important for students with autism.

Openness

People with Autism are constantly expected to change to fit into the world, a world not built for those with the condition. However, in order to really support students with autism, schools must aim to meet people with the condition halfway and adapt. Having awareness is crucial, engaging in dialogue identifies a path of support but – ultimately –openness to adjust approaches, environments, expectations and supports is the deciding factor on how pleasant and successful the school experience is for students with the condition.

It is often not big changes required either, maybe a teacher will have to adjust how instructions are given so the students with the condition can process them; maybe a student will need to access lockers or go through corridors when they are less busy and noisy, so that they can concentrate and cope with their environment; or maybe a student will need a teacher to come up with new ways to explain abstract concepts or ideas, which they cannot imagine or see. All of this said – taking such personal approaches will take less time and be more successful for all involved than trying to use a system which will not work for the student involved!

So, this academic year let’s begin a conversation in our schools about how we can make them more autism-friendly and inclusive. AsIAm.ie, our online support and advocacy organisation for those affected by autism, will aim to increase awareness of these issues throughout the year and will also aim to educate students about the challenges their peers with autism face through a series of school workshops.

In preparing for the ‘back to school’ period, our organisation yesterday published a series of guides on autism for parents, teachers and students – download your free copy today here.

Adam Harris is the 19-year-old founder and CEO of AsIAm.ie. Adam founded AsIAm.ie based on his experiences as a young person living with Asperger’s Syndrome.

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