Chalk & Cheese: Girls on the Spectrum

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The NAS (National Autistic Society) defines autism as a lifelong disability that affects how people perceive the world and interacts with other. They highlight that it is a spectrum condition, which means that no two people with autism are the same. Their autism affects them in different ways, making each day with them a new experience, like it would be with any other human being. Statistics tell us that in the UK more that 1 in every 100 people is autistic. Studies are now suggesting that the numbers might just be higher than previously thought especially because it is felt that girls have been undiagnosed or diagnosed later in life due to a gender biased screening process for autism.

Working within a specialist autistic setting, it is no clearer than on the playground that the girls are truly a minority. Testosterone often runs rampant as young boys strive to assert their control. But today, is not about the boys. It’s about the girls and the way that they are all autistic and in some cases as different to each other as chalk and cheese.

Cheese 

She is probably the reason why I decided to work in a special school. Her smile and her warmth was welcoming. She dished out compliments and reinforced my value as a teacher. In many ways, she doesn’t seem to fit the autistic stereotype. Although she had special interests, it didn’t seem particularly repetitive or overly intense. Not only was she a good communicator with adults but she engaged well with her peers and had a number of close and casual friends. In many ways, typical of her peers. It was clear that she was observant; she would readily pick up on the feelings and emotions of others and responded appropriately to them. Her behaviour never seemed to stem from rules or a literal understanding of instructions. Instead, like so many other students I’ve taught in mainstream settings, her behaviour seemed dependent on relationship, praise and her own internal motivations. In some ways, I had to question: is she even autistic?

Of course, some may argue that she is camouflaging or masking her true feelings. In this case I think this sunny side up is just who she is. Nevertheless, there are other indicators which stand out loud and clear. She loves to be in control. If she feels even for a second that this is being lost, she can descend into stomping, crying and tears. If she is unsure about a task, she locks her head and her pen to her book in the hope that you wouldn’t see her. She hates to admit when she doesn’t know something or feels unsure about it. When asked to present to a group or asked to share her answer in class, she easily reclines back into herself, afraid to speak, afraid to be wrong. There are other difficulties of course with her memory and her handwriting. She struggles tremendously in these areas; however, through over learning and praise, progress though sometimes slow is steady.

None of the areas above worries me because I know that with time and practise and maturity she will continue to improve. But, there is the sense that she is vulnerable to manipulation not necessarily with other girls but with boys. Often she is too trusting, doesn’t fully observe social rules of personal space which in other contexts could create difficulties. Therefore, teaching self-advocacy and e-safety becomes of great importance to ensure that she stays safe.

Chalk

Chalk forever remains my inspiration and is a constant reminder that all autistic individuals learn and develop. They of course do so at different rates but we can never afford to underestimate and undervalue autistic learners. In many ways, she is atypical of what we would expect of an autistic girl. She shares many of the special interests of her peers. Yet in a rare moment she communicated in a whisper that she loves to watch Shimmer and Shine, a cartoon often associated with younger children. This in many ways highlights her effort to mask her true self in an attempt to fit in and be accepted. Furthermore, she has an intense need to be perfect at all times and in all things. This allows her to be the perfect student, forever attentive, engaged and working hard. This drive as well as her high information processing ability consistently reinforces her high intellectual ability. Of course, after reading more recent research I have come to wonder at the extent to which the drive for perfection masks a feeling that she is not quite good enough. She worries me.

Her anxiety is ever present although it has subsided considerably in the last year. Presently, she is less afraid to fail and ready to try again after she has made a mistake. She is not shy and reclining. Instead, she is always ready to share her ideas and express her feelings. She is often sociable but as with many autistic girls, she engages well with adults or those who are younger but struggles when she has to communicate socially with a peer. Her intelligence though is clear and this means that if provided with a clear script for her interaction, it can go off without a hitch. But when the script runs out, the uncertainty and anxiety returns and so she’s cast adrift. Nevertheless, her desire for a friend is forever poignant. She seeks to connect with a peer, wants to interact and be with them. Yet, at the same time, the act of interacting and observing social cues can become mentally exhausting and so if she’s having a bad day, she will recline, happily away from them. It leads me to wonder: did she really want a friend or did she just want to fit the social stereotype for a young girl, if only for a little while?

Girls on the Spectrum

It is always life affirming to recognise that although we all have similarities, we are also unique. Young girls with autism are no different. Although they reflect some atypical characteristics, when you get to know them they are all different and contribute value in myriad ways. Therefore, it is clear that autism is quite rightly a spectrum condition – even with the same gendered peers, the result is simply: chalk and cheese!

SENDT Reflections

b558ec7ba439a6ffd0ceb3c4660897f2_special-education-clip-art-special-education-clip-art_500-375This year will make 10 years since I trained as a teacher. It is no wonder then, that I have started to reflect on the journey and what I would have done differently. In one way or another, my students are still with me. Whether they appear on trains or in the drive thru, in a plane or just my memory, I have come to accept that their story will always cling to me. Their lives are continually shaping me.

So, now I wonder, what would I have done differently and below, I’ve taken the time to chart a few reflections:

For the little boy with the veiled anger and buried hurts who was nowhere near the old level 3, I wish I had the time to hear you read. I should have given you more spelling tests and tried to get you out on trips. I should have created word walls and vocabulary lists, set you targets to use new words and make opportunities for you to use them. For you see, recently, it has come home to me that in schools, we are often expecting students to create extended answers. However, if the students do not have the language to do so then getting these answers are near impossible. So before we begin to ask for paragraphs and extended responses, we must ensure that our students have the language to make this a reality.

For the other little boy, the one who should have a diagnosis of autism, I should have chased it for you. I should have gone beyond the rhetoric that your parents were not interested and called them myself. I also saw your loneliness, I saw the anxiety now that must have been chipping away at the dawn of teenage-hood that made you withdraw from your peers. I should have requested that the learning mentors buddied you up with someone. I should have made more time for you, perhaps prepped you with questions at the start of the lesson so that you were more confident answering them as we would go through the lesson. This could have made you more confident, it could have helped your peers to see the possibilities that I will always see in you. I know I placed you near the door, so if ever your fight/flight/freeze impulse flared you would have an easy way to escape. But I regret that now, I should have put you front and centre, directly in my line of sight so that I could forever get to you. I did growl for you though. The minute they hinted at marginalising you, I would snip them back in line but those who seconds in an eternity where I am absent. Your memory tears me up!

And to the students who were always off task, wiggling in your seat and ready to drift off at any moment to near oblivion who I strategically seated next to the quiet intelligent ones to maintain my sanity, you needed a checklist. I simply could have kept you a little more focused by giving you the feeling that you were achieving, that you were making steps. Perhaps, you also needed a sensory aid just to settle you, or a cushion to make you move in your place but I never knew they were out there then. I do now of course and although I would definitely use them, I would still want you to say random things and make me smile.

I remember the young, black boys too who thought they were some kind of ‘bad man’. At every turn, they are ready to swagger and light up the room with some new slang. When they started to lose the plot, have a few too many fights, they could have used a few comic strip conversations to view their thinking and the people they’re arguing with in an objective way. It would have helped them to really think about the world outside of themselves. And I should have found ways to get you mentors from the community, people who could help to show you that the see more in you than you do in yourself.

And for all of you who hated English and reading and writing, we should have spent more time just talking. We should have had more artists in, performed poetry and do presentations. We should have danced, done the olden days equivalent of the dab whilst making rhymes about the things we’ve learnt. I still remember when Freddie  Macha came in for some workshops. Where ever you are, my lovely class, I think you will too.  I know we had fun in the end and that you all tried so hard. You might not all have gotten Cs, but you went far beyond expectations. I’m still saluting you.

And for the little girl with the long black hair, who had started to perform beyond expectations and then suddenly stopped coming in, I should have gotten your parents in and tell them that you’re smart and could go on to do amazing things. It might not have made a difference but I feel now, that I should have tried.

Through it all though, meeting you all has been a blessing. I just wish now that my teacher training had helped me to recognise that meeting the needs of my SEN learners, went far beyond coloured paper, clear tasks and dyslexic friendly fonts. It’s so much more than where you seat them or by differentiating, giving them a simple text. It’s myriad strategies and ways in, realising that each child is unique and forever bringing their own things. And as teachers who are SENDT (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Teacher), we must identify what they bring and if it is a barrier, we must lead them past it, however gently.

 

Are Special Schools Fit for Purpose?

For some, this is a daft question. Of course, they are fit for purpose! Of course, we need them! This is the place for young people with severe and complex needs; this is where they are provided with specialist equipment and specialist teachers that you might never find in mainstream. In special schools, these young people feel they belong, they are included. If you take the time to watch them, chatting away to their peers, an adult or alone, you will see how happy they are. How safe!

But are they fit for purpose?

In a sense, yes. For those students with severe cognitive impairment, who will not progress beyond P Scales throughout the duration of their time in education, I would say, yes. If these same students with severe cognitive difficulty are also violent, non verbal, require specialist IT equipment to communicate, then once again, yes.

However, as with any organisation or group, special schools possess a rainbow of students. There are those who began their journey with little language, poor social skills and progress that did not go past P Scales but with great teaching or maturity or their own thirst to improve, they have broken through those barriers. There are those, who with time, perform as well or even better than their peers without SEND. There are those, who with time, have come to show that they are capable of accessing the same subjects and curricula as the latter students. So the question is clear:

For these learners, is it necessary for them to go to special schools?

The answer is simple, absolutely not. Special schools are only fit for purpose if they are able to provide the curriculum which allows their students to progress to their best self. If the students, who perform as well as their non SEND peers are in a system that is stuck on P Scales, it is possible that such school are not adequately meeting the need of their students.

Yet, even in this case, there are those who would argue that regardless of the academic possibilities of the child, the young person’s  ability to participate socially takes precedence. And it is in special schools that the social skills of SEND learners are often fostered and brought to the fore.  This is the place where they are given copious opportunities to interact and communicate with others without judgment or too much fear. And so, they would argue, that even though special schools might not challenge these learners academically, at least socially that child would be able to interact with the world.

Special schools, as with all schools, should be able to meet the needs of a learner both socially and academically. In both areas, it should allow the learner to progress and achieve to the best of their ability. If it not able to cater to these areas, then it is not functioning as it should. I admit that for some special schools, with a high number of both able and less able students, it is an extremely challenging situation.  How do they effectively provide a curriculum that caters to those on P Scales and those on national curriculum levels, especially if they are mixed across classes and key stages?

In a situation like this, I think schools should create two streams of pupils within the school, one for those who are able and one for those who are less able. Doing this would mean that subjects like Maths, English and Science at the very least, are taught at the appropriate level to challenge all learners. It would also mean that teachers would not have to struggle to teach students at P Scales and at Level / Stage 3 or above in the same lesson. This of course, might be an unrealistic suggestion as special schools often struggle to recruit staff and so may not have the manpower or monetary resources to make this type of streaming possible.

Could there be another way?

I suspect, there might be an even more difficult solution. In cases where special schools have come to realise that there are students who with time, are performing far above what their schools provide, parents should be contacted and alternative arrangements made. This could be by linking the student to a main stream school to pursue interests to a higher level or it could be by transitioning the learner to a mainstream school with a SEN Unit. The impact of funding on special schools if this is to be done could be vast, in some cases catastrophic if many students fit this category. However, isn’t it a part of any educational establishment’s duty of care to ensure that their students are able to be their best?

But luckily…

…the winds are changing in special education and the government’s changes now mean that more students with SEND are able to attend mainstream schools. In this way, those students who with time can perform as well as their non SEND peers, have the opportunity to experience a vaster range of subjects. They have greater opportunity to discover their innate talents and gifts, the areas for which they have a flair. It is possible that in these environments, these students can see that the sky is the limit but they just have to take their own time to get there. I believe that mainstream schools are also awakening to the reality that for these students, it is important to balance the social and the academic for these students. Therefore, more emphasis is being placed on both the social and the academic to ensure that these students are given the opportunity to develop independence and resilience.

So, are special schools fit for purpose?

Of course they are! But only if the curriculum is right.

 

 

 

 

Teaching Jekyll Junior

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A Teacher’s Reflection on a post by @GwynneMiriam

It is so self satisfying to believe that he is having meltdowns at home because we [teachers] give him something better at school. It deifies us, allows us to have the stage that we are so often swept off of by celebrity politicians. Suddenly, we can shine and claim to the world that we have the healing stuff. But the illusion must stop! When faced with children who are radically different at home and school, children who are violent and aggressive depending on which environment they are in, no one should be seeking glorification. Instead, we should be seeking to understand why. We should be seeking to help!

It is true, teachers are not social workers. We are not therapists! We can not fix every conceivable human issue by the wave of a hand and the mumble of a few words. We are there to teach, to instruct, to lead our young people into a new horizon of academic excellence. Yet, this journey is not in isolation. While leading our young into new realities and visions of a better self, we will interact with myriad other agencies. Therefore, it is wise that we work with these agencies effectively and efficiently because it is the only way we can help in the development of the best possible human beings. This will never be the case, if we educate them to an A* yet never help them to see the value in treating their families and friends well.

So, who is Jekyll? He is the charming young man who turns up neat and ready to learn each day. In class, he works ardently never wavering in his attention or goal. His answers are on point and it’s a pleasure to have him in the room. And you wouldn’t have guessed that his parents had had to drag him kicking and screaming to the car in order to get him in to school. You wouldn’t have dreamt that the night before, his parents had to restrain him so that he didn’t hurt them or possibly himself.

As a teacher, working alongside Jekyll Junior, we have no experience of the rage or the meltdowns. We have no experience of the violence that mars the face of the angel; we never see when they fall. So it’s easy to ignore the parents’ pleas for help or surmise that the trouble must be with them. However, we must consider the possibility that if Hyde exists and if he continues to rail unchecked, there might be a time when he is no longer confined to home but becomes the everyday reality. An everyday reality not just in school but into the future.

So, how do we help little Mr Hyde? I think the first step is to have an integrated approach to supporting the parent. This could be done by having a meeting with the teacher/school representative (SENCO), parents or carers and a family support worker. I believe that the parent should have a safe space to share their reality and their concerns. Parents should understand that it’s not about patronising them or judging them but enabling them to better support their child in these times. It is possible that having a Parent Support Group where confidentiality is emphasised could help to alleviate parents’ concerns about being viewed negatively. Within this setting, strategies should be suggested, acted on and reviewed. Where parents feel uncomfortable with a group setting, a more individualised approach could be taken.

In schools, we are encouraged to use social stories and comic strip conversations to help children to understand how to respond in social situations or to process their feelings within situations. Parents must also be equipped with these strategies or have access to individuals to help in the creation of these to support their children. Parents need to understand more than just medicating their children. They need proven strategies that will help them to reduce the levels of anxieties in their homes.

When students are violent in school, staff members are trained in using methods to deescalate and where necessary restrain a child. When this is used, the dignity of the child is kept to the forefront and so it is done in as positive a way as possible. Have we considered what happens when a parent who isn’t trained suddenly have to restrain their child? The mental and physical agony that both parent and child might experience is perhaps unfathomable. Therefore, it is clear that parents of violent children should be taught to use specific methods to restrain and maintain safety whilst also prizing their child’s dignity and self respect. When restraint methods are used correctly, there is no doubt that the aftermath is less fraught with emotions and bitterness. This is necessary if positive and healthy family relationships are going to be maintained. This should be the outcome that we seek.

Support Workers /School Representatives (SENCOs) should also be encouraged to visit the homes of these students so that they too can be witnesses of these behaviours. It is important here to stress that  a coherent and corroborated view of the child should be made. It wasn’t long ago that a parent lied about a child’s state of health, had the child operated on and tried to stunt their growth because of their lust for money. So, it’s important for these agencies to gain a fully rounded view of the child. If enough trust is build with these bodies and the parents, it is possible that that parent will be less defensive about letting these agencies into their homes. This could lead to more opportunities for outside agencies and the school representatives to witness the behaviour of the child through videos or home visits.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the mental health of young people. CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service) appears to be under a lot of pressure, with waiting lists that seem to be a mile long. These services are extremely important in providing support for parents and helping them to cope with children who display challenging behaviour. In these cases, time is of the essence. If help isn’t given quickly enough, then the challenging behaviour could become a part of the routine and then by the time they get seen it might very well be too late. It is therefore crucial that parents are made aware of these services and provided with details of how to access them.

So yes, it’s been lovely teaching Jekyll Junior. However, it is important to remember that if Hyde is left unchecked, he might just be the future. This should not be left to chance.