As an outcome from Welsh Government consultation with engagement groups and technical groups the new Code of Practice uses the following terminology:, stating: ‘The terms Autistic Spectrum Condition, autism and autistic people will be used interchangeably for individuals on all parts of the autism spectrum, including those currently described as having Asperger Syndrome. Where Autistic Spectrum this will continue within the Code.’ In these pages we will likewise use the above terminology in recognition that the autistic community have varying views on this.
How autism affects learning
What is autism?
Autism is a neurobiological difference. Autistic people experience differences with regard to: interaction, social communication and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. They can often hyper focus on subjects that are interesting to them, this would appear to be restricted behaviour to non-autistic people. These areas of difference are experienced by all autistic people to some extent, but their individual needs and the level of support required, may vary considerably. Some may have significant learning difficulties and find it difficult to communicate in the expected way, i.e. verbal communication. Whilst others have no obvious difficulty with language. It is however, important to note that whilst we attribute speaking as the gold standard of communication, many non-speaking autistic people are very able to communicate very well using alternative methods of communication.The autism spectrum is not linear and each individual autistic person will be unique as to where they may be within this spectrum and this can also change from day to day.
Socially, autistic children may be isolated or struggle to forge relationships with others. The social intricacies that those without autism may take for granted, such as eye contact and personal space may be not recognised or used by those with autism owing to sensory difficulties. Due to the difference in communication styles, autistic people may find it difficult to forge make and maintain relationships with each other and with non-autistic people and may struggle to find common interests with their peer group. Some children may not seek or be interested in making friends, preferring their own company.
Autistic people may have difficulty maintaining a two way conversation. They may see little point in small talk, preferring a literal, straight forward, honest style of communication. Likewise, autistic people may not like the use of sarcasm, jokes or idioms, for example, as they may see this as pointless and confusing. Many autistic young people have an excellent use of language and a wide vocabulary yet may struggle in some ways, with expressive language (making themselves understood)and/or receptive language (understanding what others are saying or meaning) because non-autistic people may communicate differently or sensory differences may make processing language difficult.
Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests
Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests can mean autistic people are rigid in their behaviour and may struggle to cope with change. They may be preoccupied with special interests or have routines/rituals that are very important to them. They may struggle to generalise information and learning, so it may be helpful to remember that although they have grasped or learned a new skill in one setting, they may not be able to transfer this understanding to a different place or time. For example, they may cope well shopping in their local supermarket but find the same skill in a different shop overwhelming and be unable to carry out the same task there perhaps owing to sensory differences for example. Predicting and understanding the behaviour of other people can be very difficult for autistic people who can find the ever changing world we live in and perhaps also, the unpredictable behaviour of non-autistic people frustrating or distressing.
Sensory processing differences
Sensory Processing Differences causes significant difficulties for many autistic people. The systems through which we process and learn about the world around us: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch, may be perceived differently for some young people with autism. This can mean that everyday sounds, for example, that go unnoticed by the majority of the class may be physically painful or extremely distracting for the autistic person.
It is important to be aware that autistic pupils often experience high levels of anxiety associated with the differences mentioned above. This, coupled with the difficulties of adolescence and academic pressures for older children can be extremely difficult for these young people to manage. It is important to note that they can present very differently at school to at home. At times children will go to school, complete work, appear content and show no behaviour that indicates anxiety or distress. They may mask things at school but get home and become very distressed as they process and calm after a day of trying to behave as others expect them to and ‘hold things together’. It can also work the other way around where all is fine at home but school see different behaviour or attention. Some autistic people explain that trying to conform with expectations from non-autistic people and ways of being is exhausting.
Autism - some key points
- Using clear, unambiguous language and clear instructions to ensure understanding can be helpful.
- Speaking in a clear, consistent way, using literal language, will help people with autism process what is being said.
- Autistic people may need a little longer to process language perhaps because of sensory processing difficulties.
- The way that non autistic people interact and behave can seem a very unpredictable and can be confusing to autistic people. Daily routines, advanced notice of change and ensuring they have a clear understanding of expectations can help autistic people find day to day life more predictable and possibly less anxiety provoking.
- Most autistic people will experience heightened anxiety, even if they don’t show it. Anything that you can do to help them feel calm and in control will help.
- Adaptations such as rest breaks, movement breaks, sensory toys etc. can help regulate sensory processing and help with anxiety.