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Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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3.1 Challenges in educational settings

Now find out more about the challenges explored in the previous activity.

Physical and sensory environment

Classrooms in the western world are typically busy, colourful and information-rich, all of which may overload the senses of an autistic child. Bright colours, patterns, bright lighting, movement and the chatter of other pupils may distract or confuse them, as can examples of work displayed around the room.

Relating this also to the psychological theories encountered in Week 4 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , a child’s excessive attention to detail may mean that they are not clear what needs their focus and attention.

Cognition and the curriculum

An autistic child may have an especially uneven profile of academic strengths and weaknesses, coupled with a strong preference for particular areas of interest. Getting any child to engage with areas of the curriculum that they don’t like can be difficult, but in the case of an autistic child, it may be necessary to adapt the curriculum. Executive function issues may affect many areas of school life: getting ready for school, organising the materials needed for a lesson, knowing how to start a task and determining when it is finished, and navigating around the school from one classroom to another. A planner detailing the order of activities during the day may be helpful.

Theory of mind difficulties may make more abstract areas of the curriculum, such as reading or creative writing, a particular challenge to the autistic student. For instance, a child may have difficulty imagining the emotions or actions of the characters. The empathising-systemising model (Week 4) suggests that autistic children are likely to be drawn to systematic subjects like science and mathematics, although this is undoubtedly an oversimplification. Some autistic children particularly enjoy creative subjects such as drama and music, where emotional understanding and expression is called for.

Theory of mind difficulties may also mean that the autistic pupil may not understand instructions or takes them literally, leading to accusations of being cheeky or disobedient. For instance, an instruction phrased as ‘Would you like to turn to page 20’ may not be followed, because the pupil doesn’t realise this is a command rather than a question with optional answers (‘Yes, I would like to’, or ‘No, I would not like to’).

Parts of instructions or group discussions may be missed due to slower processing of verbal information. Even more able autistic students benefit from verbal communication being supplemented by written or pictorial information.

Finally, the 21st century curriculum also includes areas such as physical, emotional and sexual health, and understanding relationships. These may need to be presented in a more concrete and explicit way so that the implications and consequences are clear to the autistic young person.

The social environment

Unstructured periods such as breaks and mealtimes may be dreaded by the autistic student, because their lack of social awareness and social motivation distances them from the games and conversations of the other pupils. They find it difficult to join in because of all the ‘unspoken’ rules and the (seemingly to them) invisible processes by which others communicate.

It is also common for autistic students to be teased by other children, either due to their ‘weird’ behaviour, the way they speak or because social naivety causes them to misunderstand something. This teasing can very easily escalate into overt and covert bullying, involving name-calling, physical violence or social isolation. Another way that bullying can manifest is by manipulation, when an autistic pupil is coerced by another pupil into breaking a rule or hurting someone.

Surveys suggest that at least 40 per cent of autistic children have experienced bullying, and studies have shown that significantly more are bullied than are children with other special educational needs or neurotypical children (Humphrey and Symes, 2010). As David Hawker notes:

They called me the ‘sixth form punch bag’ as I was probably about the only kid who got bullied in sixth form (A-levels).

(Sainsbury, 2000, p. 72)

Bullying can result in low self-esteem, mental health problems and poor academic performance. Melanie said that her son Louis left mainstream school at 16 because of the bullying and could not face further education. However, some young people find the resilience to cope with bullying and emerge stronger as a result. Alex talked about his experiences of bullying in Week 2. Here he maintains that his experience of mainstream school was positive, despite what happened to him.

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