My Director of Studies was instrumental in offering us a chance to do some SPELL training for Autism as CPD.
We seem to have been getting some children and adults at school in recent months who needed careful handling and we wanted to do our best for them, and the other students in class with them.
So: Thursday evening, 6.30-9.30 pm, 13th November was finally fixed as the date, and all teachers who were interested turned up.
What does Spell stand for?
It is an acronym for Structure, Positive approaches and expectations, Empathy, Low arousal and Links- and nothing to do with Harry Potter!First of all we were given some background information:
Autism is a spectrum of neurodiversity. Interestingly, it is a developmental disability, but it is not considered a Mental Health issue. It is a question of using different neurons to complete tasks.
An individualised, personalised approach is necessary as, although most, if not all, engage at some time in the behaviour that characterises autism, the difference will be in the degree, severity and the ability to inhibit a 'normal' lifestyle.
Some are better at knowing how other people work- and can read the atmosphere in a room with ease.
Some understand how things work- and are great with gadgetry.
Some work well with the 'big picture'.
Some are better at detail- and some are good at more than one , or are in between.
The Autism SpectrumThere is disagreement over the words used to describe the spectrum. Is it a condition- or a disorder?
It was described scientifically in 1943, by Leo Kanner, in America and by Hans Asperger, in Vienna, in 1944.
At the most severe end, classic autism can vary in the severity and IQ, where some have an above average IQ and can function extremely well in some areas. Language and communication are more likely to be affected.
It is thought that possibly 85% of the workers in Silicon Valley are at the other, Asperger's, end of the spectrum. Here we find people with a normal or high IQ, who may present most of their issues with social behaviour and conventions.
It was always believed that the ratio of Males to Females was 4:1 for classic autism and 15:1 for Asperger's. Today it is thought that the ratio is equal, but the girls present differently and are often misdiagnosed as : for example, having an Eating disorder or bipolar disorder.
Of course, this then means that the support given does not help the underlying problems, and could even make the condition worse.
How is it Diagnosed?
There is a triad of impairments used for diagnosis
How can we, as teachers, benefit our students with this knowledge?
First of all, we need to consider our classrooms. In many ways the classroom is structured, so is a good environment , but it can be filled with sensory stimuli which is like noise which can't be turned off. WE also need to consider that students take things literally, and reflect before we speak.
- Structure: this is important as it makes the world more predictable and reduces anxiety. Give plenty of notice before changing activities. Limit choices- don't remove them completely, but understand that open choices cause anxiety. The concrete is better than abstract. Allow processing time; typically 25 seconds is required for someone with autism to process a question. As teachers, we don't often give enough time, and sometimes paraphrase, making the problem worse. One way to help is to give everyone 30 secs thinking time before they can answer a question. This also means that the quicker students in class don't always answer the questions.
- Positive approaches and expectations: do not leave the student to his/her own devices. Provide structured tasks. Enhance self-confidence and self-esteem through praise and encouragement.
- Empathy: develop an understanding of how the person communicates with the world. Be aware of the lack of intonation- it doesn't mean no sense of humour! Have respect for the individual's right to be different. Who says our social norms are correct?
- Low arousal: remove distracting stimuli. Keep the atmosphere calm and focused. Be aware of the sensory impact of the classroom: noise, colour, lights, white noise, and mess. Consider the effect of the black, or blue, pen on the whiteboard- use green, or better, put the tasks on green or pink paper.Use pictures as a guide to structured instructions. Think about planning or rehearsing any aversive event, such as a fire drill. Plan, plan, plan! Develop a non-confrontational style of interaction.
- Links : build partnerships with anyone who has contact with the individual to ensure a consistency of care and a continuity of behavioural norms. Eg. There are some classrooms where the students can use their ipods, which help them concentrate and focus on their work. What will happen if the next class bans the ipods? Everyone needs to sing from the same hymnsheet. This will help inclusion in mainstream activities, but a high level of consistency is necessary.
There are problems in simple things such as going to the toilet. We have all seen funny toilet signs, but imagine a person who thinks literally: the female in trousers would use the male toilet, and as for the 'funny' ones- sometimes WE don't know which one to use!
To summarise:The SPELL framework attempts to understand and respond to the unique needs of the individual with autism by applying holistic principles of what is understood to be best practice in treating autism.
It creates an autism friendly environment which will generally be helpful for everyone:-)