Autism is a lifelong condition that affects how people communicate and how they experience the world. When working in early years, you are likely to come across children that are on the autism spectrum. Diagnosis is often made at a very young age, therefore, as an early years practitioner, you may find yourself in the important role of supporting families that have only recently discovered that their child has autism. You may also find that there is a child in the setting whom you suspect is on the spectrum, however a diagnosis has not yet been made. Either way, many of the steps that you can put in place to support a child with autism, are beneficial for all children, so by making your setting as autism-friendly as possible, you will be ready to meet the needs of lots of different children.
It is important to understand that there is no one typical child with autism. Individuals can display different features of autism to different extents. The following points, therefore, may be relevant to one child but not to another. Here are some ways that you can support a child that is on the autism spectrum in your setting.
- Be aware of your language and speak very clearly, keeping words to a minimum. Individuals with autism often take things literally so expressions such as ‘hop in the car’ or ‘break a leg’ can be confusing.
- Don’t expect this child to understand your body language. Elements of social communication such as these don’t come naturally to people on the autism spectrum.
- Allow processing time. Say something, then wait. The child needs time to process what you have said, and prepare their response. If you give an instruction in one tone of voice, then give it in a different tone of voice a few moments later, the child may have to go back to the beginning of their processing, hence delaying a response.
- Use visual aids and any other non-verbal communication. Children with autism find it hard to understand spoken language and are often visual learners. Using clear, simple signs such as Makaton or Signalong, can be really effective and there are short courses you can do to learn these.
- Display your routine and where possible, stick to it. People with autism love routines. A child can find it really distressing to not know what is happening in their day. Use something such as a visual timetable to show children what is going to happen in the day in order to ease their anxiety.
- Following on from the above, deal with change sensitively. Again, this is where your visual timetable comes in handy. Whilst changes are sometimes unavoidable, you can help the child cope with this change by showing them visually what is going to happen.
- Recognise behaviour triggers (such as change). If someone is struggling with communication, they are likely to feel very scared, frustrated or angry at times. Try to recognise the causes so that you may be able to relieve or prepare the child for the upcoming trigger.
- Have a safe/calm place for your child to go if life gets too much. Recognise that it is not wrong to be angry, but that our job is to teach the child the most appropriate way to express that anger.
- Get to know any special interests that the child has. I’m sure they will make you aware of them! Using these special interests is a great way to get them to learn or to join in with something that they might otherwise not want to. For example, if a child is really into trains, then put numbers on the trains to support recognising numerals. Pretend to be a train when lining up with other children. Serve meals on a train place mat if that means that the child will feel more comfortable joining in with meal times.
- Be aware of any sensory needs that this child may have. People with autism experience things differently to others. It could be that they really can’t stand the feel of a certain material on their skin; they may not feel pain as easily as someone else would; they may not be able to cope with a particular noise that was otherwise unnoticeable to you, such as the hum of a light or the whine of a radiator. If you can recognise these needs, then you can help eliminate distress.
- Use social stories – this is a short story that teaches a child how to deal with a certain social situation. You can find out more about these here.
- Teach awareness and acceptance to others – use your circle times to talk about the fact that everyone is different, that we all need help with different things, and that this is OK.
- Build good communication with the child’s parents or caregivers – perhaps a home/school diary so that you can be aware of anything that may have bothered the child at home, and so that you can share the child’s ups and downs whilst in childcare. Be aware that the parents may be on the autism spectrum themselves.
- Try to provide a calm environment.
Besides following the steps above, the most helpful thing that you can do to support someone on the autism spectrum is to demonstrate empathy – try to understand the world from the perspective of that child. That way you will find yourself in the best possible position to support them.
To find out more about autism and related conditions, I recommend you visit the National Autistic Society’s ‘About Autism’ page.
About the author
Gina Smith is an experienced teacher with experience of teaching in both mainstream and special education. She is the creator of ‘Create Visual Aids’ – a business that provides both homes and education settings with bespoke visual resources. Gina recognises the fact that no two children are the same and therefore individuals are likely to need different resources. Create Visual Aids is dedicated to making visual symbols exactly how the individual needs them.