Children With Autism and ASDs in School

I have a relative with mild Asperger’s. I’m not sure i can ever really know what that means in terms of how it changes life experiences. Over the last 10 years or so I’ve had a number of occasions when I and colleagues have needed to wrestle with complex issues about whether or not our schools could meet the education needs of a particular child either diagnosed with Autism or an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

It’s always seemed to me that when a child is diagnosed with a learning challenge like ADHD or Dyslexia and the diagnosis suggests ‘mild or mild to moderate’ the prognosis was usually good that we would be able to find the right strategies to provide the child with appropriate support so that they could function, learn and flourish in a mainstream classroom and the day to day hurly-burly of a conventional school environment. However, time after time my experience has been that our ability to meet the needs of children with Autism or ASDs remained disappointing more often than not. This raised difficult questions both about our ability to meet the needs of that child and also the price to be paid by other children.

I recently came across this fascinating insight – 5 youtube videos brought together by Mashable, in which young people with ASDs have attempted to share their experience with a wider audience, to help the rest of us to get some glimmer of understanding about how they experience the world.

Mashable – 5 Autism Simulations

For me, after watching these 5 short videos the experience was quite a disturbing one. Firstly, I felt that anyone (but especially educators) who spends any time in proximity with those with ASDs should experience these videos. It also left me with disturbing questions about whether our conventional schools, as they exist today, can ever be anything other than a place of torture and extreme stress for the person with an ASD.

The conventional school today is a place with rigid time structured activities where all children in a cohort group are to do the same thing, at the same time, in the same place in the same way. There is little scope for real flexibility. Periods of ‘suppression’ and ‘control’ are interspersed with periods when the children’s natural exuberance is allowed full and free expression – meaning they can be very noisy places.

One of the biggest changes in the modern primary classroom over the last 30-40 years is that it’s become much more colourful. There’s an automatic assumption amongst educators that this is a good thing, but after watching these videos one has to conclude it’s almost certainly a bad thing for a child with an ASD. This simply contributes to more sensory overload.

On other change we’ve seen in most Primary Schools is the teachers being more ‘tactile’ with children as part of a more sensitive, nurturing style. However, again I can see that this may not be a good thing for the child with ASD.

In the end, are we to conclude that the school today is a bad place for children living with autism, or do we take this as a wake up call to find the ways to bring changes in to the school/ classroom environment so that they can be more conducive places for such children? Is this practically possible?

Evernote as a Tool for Education

I made my own first tentative explorations with the Evernote App in early 2012. Within a relatively short time I was pretty convinced that I’d found a new set of tools that enabled me to be more efficient, to marshal and organise resources, thoughts, ideas and data.

I started out purely using it in my personal life. As time went on, I started to explore ways to use it professionally. As a leader, one of the best uses I found was as a readily accessible place to make short, rough notes relating to interactions with staff and teachers, classroom observations and anything that might be relevant at some point in time.

I remember (and I’m sure many others have had similar experiences) in my early career when annual appraisals used to come around. You would get ‘psyched up’ for the interview with the big boss, make notes and go in believing that there was good case for giving me the highest rating on the appraisal and therefore a good bonus! What then invariably happened was a wishy-washy discussion that ended with some vague comments about how ‘there should always be something to aim for’ as explanation for why i’d been given a rating below the top (and therefore a smaller bonus!). As if this didn’t irk enough, what was even more troubling was the fact that where any data or evidence was given relating to my performance it was usually no more than 3-4 weeks old. Thus, I was supposedly being appraised on a year’s performance and yet nothing more than a month old was ever brought forward as evidence – positive or negative. Of course, the main reason for this was that record keeping during and throughout the year was non-existent. So, when it came time for the annual appraisals and ‘big boss’ sat down to write them he had to dredge his memory – which clearly didn’t pick up too much that was older than a month.

The overall result – an appraisal system that actually demotivated me, left me thinking less of ‘big boss’ and falling back on my ‘inner compass’ to figure out how effectively i was performing in my job. If there was one positive that came out of all this it was that I told myself repeatedly that when (if?) I became a leader I would ensure that i kept notes and records all year so that when it came time to do annual appraisals they would be fair, open and truly reflective of tangible data across the whole year.

My experience with Evernote was that this was the perfect tool for this. It doesn’t matter where i am, whether I’m using my laptop, phone or tablet, it’s so easy to capture a few jotted notes each day. They can be in audio format, occasionally even pictures/ photos and each can be stored in a folder against that person’s name. They don’t need to be finely crafted documents – capture immediately is the essence.

I’ve increasingly come to believe that for a teacher this offers similar benefits to document what’s happening with a class of students and with each individual in the class. The results – an ability to get a ‘helicopter view’ of what’s working, what needs to be changed etc. Also, I reckon assessment reports of real quality will almost write themselves with real tangible evidence to back up the statements made.

I was also interested to come across the following links. The first comes from a teacher, showing how he’s used Evernote to organise an entire year’s course and curriculum material, assessments and supporting documents. It also becomes a direct communication tool with the student who access specific files and folders

The Nerdy Teacher – Evernote for Lesson Planning

The second has a few ideas about how students can use Evernote themselves to organise and plan their work, keep notes and prepare for academic achievement;

Evernote for Academic Achievement

Online Educational Games – for Free

There is a growing pool of educators speaking for the merits and benefits of using online gaming for educational purposes. However, there is still a lot of debate, and no real consensus, about how much prominence should be given to gaming within the curriculum.

It’s perfectly understandable that some parents get apprehensive when their children spend such large amounts of their time away from school glued to screens of one type or another. The answers probably lie in some adjustment on all sides. parents need to give up on the temptation to let the screens be their home nannies to their children for what amounts to almost entirely ‘passive leisure’, making sure to carve out some time to engage their children in some ‘active leisure’ (especially if it entails getting out for some fresh air and physical exercise).

Then, some elements of educational time can be spent using screen based resources, not just games, but also research etc. to enrich the learning processes. It shouldn’t be the case of using ICT purely for the sake of it, or for novelty value, but because it offers clear and tangible benefits to explore certain learning, topics and concepts in ways that are far richer than other learning methods that can be offered in the classroom.

To aid teachers who may be thinking about bringing some elements of educational gaming in to their children’s learning, here’s a web link with lots of ideas and access to various websites of free learning/ gaming resources:

Mindshift Article – 10 Free Online Educational Game Sites

P.S. For the teachers who want to sharpen up their own brains with 5-10 minutes of daily mental exercise, I recommend

The Teaching Profession

Whilst I enjoyed this tongue in cheek web post about ‘things not to say to teachers’, I also felt a little disturbance. We’re not the only profession that’s guilty of it, but collectively we do spend an awful lot of time and energy complaining about how unappreciated we are, how the public don’t understand the skills in what we do ….. etc.

12 Things Not To Say To Teachers

At this point i am reminded of one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”

This isn’t saying that as profession we don’t have the right to be understood, trusted or acknowledged/ appreciated, BUT our starting point should be attempts to understand why people hold perceptions different to the ones we might like them to have. Even if we conclude that everyone is completely misinformed and should change their attitude towards us, it’s really not going to happen just because teachers carp or complain. Has anyone ever thought of mounting an effective PR campaign on behalf of teachers that seeks to give the wider public more insight in to what teachers do and the specialised skills required? Or, is there an unspoken concern that the house might not be in complete order enough to expose it to such harsh light?

Hmm, something to ponder on for the weekend.

Not Such a Baby Any More

The day is fast approaching. Many parents will have lost track of how soon will be the day when their ‘little baby’ gets dressed up in their first school uniform, turns and waves as they head off to start school. It’s one of those momentous landmarks in the child’s growth and development and comes with many emotions for both parent and child.
For the child, nobody can predict how they will react. Some take this event naturally and calmly in their stride whilst some others may struggle in the early stages. Some are excited by the novelty for a couple of days, but then their reaction changes when they discover this isn’t a novel interlude but a new way of life with some limits on choice and freedom.
Let’s be honest – it’s not just all the issues about whether starting school is going to be stressful for the child – there are implications for the whole family. Many mothers, particularly, choose to stay at home until it’s time for the child to go to school. The arrival of that milestone means major upheaval and change for everyone. For a mother who has stayed home to be with her child it’s going to mean a return to work. For the whole household it’s going to entail new routines and attempts to establish new habits.
And those are just the practical issues – there are all the emotional issues as well attached to what this moment signifies – the beginning of an independent, non-dependent existence for the child and the beginning of a diminishing sense of being needed or essential for the parent.
So, those are the challenges and the reasons why this can be a difficult time. However, there’s another way to look at it. It can be seen from the perspective of wonderful opportunities; new friends, new learning, new experiences, passing through a gateway to an exciting future on the road towards growing up.
Different children react in different ways – they are truly all unique. Some are emotional and upset for a day or two, but then find their feet in the new environment quickly, find interesting things and people and start to enjoy the experience. Some others take a bit longer whilst others may be fine to start, but then start to get emotional when they learn that the first novelty wears off (but you still have to go!) and that school comes with a whole set of rules, codes and obligations which are non-negotiable. At such times it can be good to remind ourselves – “This too shall pass”.
So, what are some useful things that we can do to smooth this process and help our child have a positive and enriching start to school life?
• Make sure the child’s comfortable with the place, physically. Take the opportunity for a tour of the school if it’s available. It can even be a good idea to drive past the school a few times, pointing it out and anticipating that it’s ‘your school’. Driving the bus route can also help to make that familiar for the child.

• We may have good or bad memories ourselves when it comes to our experiences as a child going to school. Whatever the memories, it can be important for your child to emphasise the positive aspects and to avoid talking about negative memories around the child. Focus on things like making friends, building friendships, caring and nurturing teachers, the joy of learning (on this point, it’s good if your child comes to realise that learning is still a fundamental and natural part of your life today).

• If there are older siblings and other relatives who play a prominent role in the child’s life they can also be enlisted to support with their ‘good news’ positive stories about school and learning (or at least to keep their negative feelings to themselves for a while),

• Don’t make assumptions about how much your child understands the principles of why they go to school. Instead, use gentle questioning to explore their feelings, their emotions and their understanding of what’s happening. The more they talk and express the better equipped we can be as adults to respond appropriately.

• As the child opens up they may well reveal anxieties and apprehension. Far better than dismissing these fears, it’s good to let the child know that it’s OK and understandable to have those feelings and how we deal with similar types of feelings in our own lives.

• When sorting out admission there are lots of issues for parents, choosing the school you want, securing the admission (just ask parents of young children in Delhi this year!!), then all the administrative issues, fee payments, books, stationery, uniforms. It’s understandable if you get a little frazzled at times. However, it’s a good idea to just limit how much frustration you express about your child’s new school in front of them – you don’t want them starting with negative feelings.

• Routines are a vitally important way of reducing stress and anxiety in a busy day. Don’t wait until term starts to begin the school routines. Adjust bed times, getting up times, breakfast routines etc. some days before the school starts, so that the child makes those adjustments easily. Getting adequate sleep is critically important to the learning process.

In addition, a child who has had insufficient sleep will tend to be more emotional, sensitive and worrying. School starts early and children who take buses to school start even earlier. So, we need to plan for this before the term starts. Make sure as much as possible is done the night before; tiffin, water bottle, uniform, bag etc. so that things can be calm and orderly in the morning. Right from an early stage, involve the child in this process as your helper – in time you can begin to give them their own responsibilities.

• Many schools serve food as part of taking a holistic approach to child development and as part of bringing the children together to learn, bond and grow together. It’s not going to do your child any favours if they have extremely narrow or picky food habits, or worse a heavy inclination towards sweet and salty snacks etc.. Start the process of being ‘unfussy’ within the context of a healthy diet as early as possible so that the child can adapt easily to the diet in school.

• Let your child know that you and their teachers are now going to be in a positive partnership for their good.

• The first days of separation are going to feel hard for parents, especially mothers. Find some things to ‘get busy’ with during those hours. However, plan to make sure you are where you’re supposed to be (school gate, reception, bus stop) well before time so that there can’t be any hiccups that cause the child stress.

• At the end of a school day your knowledge of your child will stand you in good stead. Some will be an instant chatter box, wanting to tell you every little detail of what they did, who else did what, said what …. etc. Others will want and need some quiet processing time before they are ready to open up and share their feelings about the day. Go with what’s right for your child. It’s important at times like this, though, that we make sure we give our child real quality time and quality listening. They shouldn’t feel they have to compete with our mobile phone!

As already said, starting school has the potential to be a wonderful and memorable time in the life of the child and the family. With a bit of careful thought and attention we can increase the likelihood.

Happy school life and great learning wishes for all the children starting school for the first time this year!!

Hand in Hand

A well made short film about an Institute in Mumbai doing amazing and inspiring work with the dead and blind deaf, the Helen Keller Institute for Deaf and Deaf Blind.

They are doing really inspiring work;


Here’s a share that’s likely to be of most interest to teachers and fellow educators. It’s a sample video of an online M.Ed programme from the US in which the leading expert on differentiation, Dr Carol Ann Tomlinson shares thoughts on the subject:

Differentiation is the root of any attempt to move away from 'one size fits all' to personalised educational experiences.