One of the things that many children with Autism say causes them high levels of anxiety during the school day, is the over arousal caused by being in a loud busy environment.
Although it isn’t a requirement for diagnosis, almost all children with autism will have different sensory needs to their peers. Nowhere is this more apparent than at school.
As an aside before I begin. It’s not uncommon for a child who is always shouting to be the one that is the most distressed by the noise of others.
Unexpected sensory stimulation always children more than that which they create themselves.
It is likely that not all of the things mentioned below will affect every student you teach. The advice is therefore intended as a pick and mix approach, for you to discuss with the student and their family, before trialling to see what helps.
If you get the sensory environment right, you will be stunned at the difference it can make to learning.
So what steps can you put in place to help:
Noise is the single biggest cause of distress for my students. Lots of children all talking at once, the sound of hundreds of feet all walking into the school building at the same time and the sound of teachers shouting at other students come in their top three complaints.
Some of my students use ear defenders, which can be of massive benefit. Having several pairs in the classroom and making them available to anyone who would like to use them is the best approach. This works well because it’s likely others will choose to use them too which reduces any stigma associated with wearing them. For teenagers a cooler option is to allow them to wear headphones and listen to music whilst they work. Listening to one continual sound is much less distracting than listening to multiple sounds all coming at you from multiple different directions. It also serves as fantastic reward for being settled and getting on with the task.
If it’s more general school noises rather than classroom noises which students find difficult, allowing them to come into and leave school via an alternative entrance can make a big difference. Being allowed to leave lessons five minutes early to avoid the rush in the corridors and for the lunch queue can also be of significant help especially in large secondary schools.
Traditional fluorescent lighting in the form of the strip lights so often found in schools can cause problems for many children on the Spectrum. This tends to be a problem which builds by the end of the day. Irlen lenses or coloured overlays can be helpful for those who are particularly affected and are well worth looking into. Overlays can be bought very cheaply and assessment by a specialist is also relatively inexpensive. For others, turning the lights off and making the most of natural light can be enough to make a difference and should be an option that is considered.
Many students with autism will have a limited diet. Some dislike food of a certain texture and others food of a certain colour. Some will have such a finely tuned sense of taste that they will know instantly if a brand of produce has been changed.
Many of my students eat exactly the same lunch from the canteen each day they are at school. Liaising closely with the canteen about any expected changes to the normal menu, and ensuring a student will have access to foods they can eat when heading out on school trips can make a huge difference in preventing Meltdowns and therefore in improving learning.
Schools have a whole host of smells, from the strong bleach used to keep the bugs at bay, to school dinner cooking in the ovens. Add to that the smell of soggy coats hanging on pegs, sweaty trainers in the PE changing rooms and a host of chemicals drifting down the corridors from the science labs and it isn’t surprising that our students often become overwhelmed.
Be sensitive to these issues and if necessary look at changing classrooms round to make it easier for students to manage. Several years ago I taught a student who refused point blank to go to Science. When we got to the bottom of the problem it wasn’t the lesson that was the problem, it was because he hated the smell of the corridor the classroom was on so much that he couldn’t bear to walk down it. Switching two classes around solved the problem immediately and he’s never missed a Science lesson since!
Most people associate touch with one person touching another, and whilst this can be an issue for students it’s one that is relatively easy to manage. Always check with students with autism if they are comfortable with you touching them on the shoulder to get their attention, as for some a gentle touch can feel like the sensation we experience during physical pain.
Some student however are as affected by breezes or drafts in the environment as they are by physical touch and this can need more forethought. In this instance their seating position is particularly key, putting students as far away from the windows as possible with the back of their chair close to a wall so that others can’t walk behind them will make a difference. If windows are opened remember to ensure blinds are pulled fully back so they flap in the breeze and secure all posters with four pieces of blutack so that they don’t move when someone walks near them. Often the fear of a draft can be as worrying as the draft itself.
If you do want to learn more you might find our autism section a useful place to start. It’s full of different strategies to try out.
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