Reflective Practice: Working with Autistic Children

calendarJune 14 2020

Robert Corish talks about how he changed the way he viewed children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and became a better teacher for it.

A Eureka Moment

The journey that I have found myself on this year, began when I questioned my ability to support a student with autism.

Despite having ten years of teaching experience in Dublin and Abu Dhabi, I found myself failing to effectively support this student in my mainstream class.

It was time to be proactive.

As an experienced primary school teacher, one of the most difficult things I had to do was stop and reflect on my knowledge and skills. But doing this allowed me to accept that I needed help to support a student with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I was able to swallow my pride and seek the necessary professional assistance required to improve the educational opportunities of a student with autism, as well as the other students I was teaching.

Asking for help

I decided to consult with experienced colleagues and seek educational support from a training centre specialising in autism. This led me to focus on autism training while completing my master’s degree in Special and Additional Learning Needs. Through my experience this year and the research I conducted, I witnessed first-hand the significant educational benefits which practical training in ASD can have for parents, educational professionals and critically, children with ASD. By engaging in professional conversations about the difficulties I encountered, I was able to change my practice for the better.

Changing your approach

1. Parent Voice

Do we as educators ever pause and simply ask, “How are you doing?” “Are you finding it difficult to support your child at home or with their education?” “What can we do to support you?”

These simple questions may be all that is needed to open up a collaborative, working relationship between parents and the educators of a child with ASD.  An area of major significance for me in working with parents of autistic children is to fully establish a partnership in education. Creating a consistent message with common goals is extremely important in developing trust, openness and effective programmes. Once these are in place, children can grow and access all areas of curriculum.

2. Pupil Voice

Have we taken the time to allow pupils with ASD to express their fears, worries and explain their anxiety triggers? Autistic pupils can have significant communication difficulties. This does not mean a child with ASD cannot communicate.

A typical occasion in which autistic children can become isolated is if they shout out in class and disrupt what may have been ‘quiet time’. Or they interrupt while somebody else is speaking or reading aloud. It may be that this was not an episode of negative behaviour, but the result of this child’s anxiety peaking. Perhaps due to an earlier incident where sensory overload may have been reached.

3. Remember your A-B-Cs

The key for us as advocates of young people with autism is to try and piece together the jigsaw which led to the problematic event. To do this, we need to look at the A-B-Cs: Antecedent (what happened before), Behaviour (of the child) and Consequences.

I like to minimise any unnecessary paperwork because if there has been an example of an autistic child struggling with behaviour, I need to identify the most significant events in the fastest possible time. I then need to act quickly to de-escalate a potentially unsafe incident from occurring whilst also calculating the best course of action for all people involved.

A useful checklist to go through is:

1. Information from parents/guardians: How has the child slept the night before? Did he/she eat their breakfast? Is there something happening that they are anxious about? Was the child happy about coming to school?

2. The Sensory Environment: Has this been changed in any way leading up to this event? Has the lighting/sound/furniture/heating changed? What steps have we made to ensure the sensory environment is adaptable rather than forcing a child with ASD to adapt?

3. Teacher Triggers: Have I raised my voice? Did I give a complicated ‘whole-class’ message which has been mis-understood? Perhaps I spoke sarcastically, or made a joke that the children didn’t understand?

4. De-escalation strategies: Are you familiar with the positioning of furniture/potentially hazardous items in the immediate vicinity? Do you have access to calming sensory equipment that may reduce some of the heightened anxiety the child is feeling?

5. Limited/Non-Verbal Communication: It is crucial to limit the amount of ‘teacher-talk.’ The use of non-verbal communication methods may help to de-stimulate the situation for everybody in the room. Use hand-gestures or look in a certain direction to lead the child away from where the incident took place.

6. Follow-up consequences: How can we as educators flip a difficult situation whereby an autistic child may have been at fault? Can we use it as an opportunity to instruct future positive behaviour? This is where we need to ensure our children with ASD are aware of something they have done wrong and that there are consequences. A fresh start must then occur with immediate effect on the next day to create an achievable target to prevent the incident being repeated.

Moving Forward

As an educator the journey I began last September has taken me to places I never thought possible. By reaching out and seeking professional guidance and support, I was able to not only improve the educational experiences of a autistic children but those of their mainstream classmates too. I urge all parents, carers and educators to ask themselves some of the difficult questions which allowed me to change the lens I had looked through for some time. It can make a massive difference to the lives of those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as well as to their advocates.

About Robert

Robert Corish has been a primary school teacher for ten years. He has spent seven years teaching in Dublin and three years in Abu Dhabi. Robert has a lot of experience in teaching children with SEN. He has completed a Graduate Diploma in Learning Support and Special Educational Needs and a MA in Special and Additional Learning Needs. Robert is passionate about improving the personal, social and educational outcomes of young people with autism. You can view Robert’s LinkedIn Profile here:

A head shot of robert cornish. He is clean-shaven and wears a sparkly bow tie.
Robert Corish

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