Joe Fautley wants everyone to understand autism.

I’m passionate about using my voice and lived experience to help inspire autistic people to be confident in who they are and embrace their identity, while also educating professionals to help them improve and develop how they engage with and support children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.

It’s essential for everyone in society to understand that autistic people face many extensive challenges because the social world is not designed for us. We are not broken, we are unique. Autistic people have many important strengths and great potential to succeed through their own personal talents, with the right support from people who take the time to listen and understand our own individual needs.

For many autistic people like me, the world we live in is often unpredictable and confusing. We find it difficult to process information at a fast pace. Although everyone on the autism spectrum is unique and have varying levels of support needs, we all face many challenges with communicating and interacting with others, managing sensory processing and fatigue, coping with often extreme anxiety and adapting to changes in routine and unfamiliar environments.It’s helpful to view the Autism Spectrum through four key areas of difference: understanding and using language, thinking flexibly, understanding and getting on with others, and sensory processing. All autistic people are impacted by these key areas to a greater or lesser extent. It is paramount that staff have the tools to ensure all autistic people are supported throughout their education. These important points will help you with teaching and supporting autistic learners.

1. Don’t underestimate anxiety
Anxiety is a powerful emotion and should never be underestimated. Personally, I encounter anxiety on a daily basis and this impacts on my everyday life. Autistic people are more likely to experience higher levels of anxiety daily as they must navigate a complicated and often confusing sensory and social world. Anxiety can be triggered by a variety of factors which include difficulties with communication and social interactions and finding it hard to predict or adapt to certain sensory situations. For me, extreme anxiety often leads to ‘zoning out’—a coping mechanism of the brain for dealing with stress which makes me switch off from what is happening around me. It’s important for your autistic students to have access to a dedicated quiet space where they can de-stress. Having a ‘time out card’ to alert staff that they need to have some time out of the room when their anxiety increases is a useful idea. Not all autistic people may be able to speak or articulate how they are feeling when their anxiety becomes too high. It’s important to make the most of visual tools such as alert cards to describe different emotions.

2. Give time to process information
Autistic people have difficulties with interpreting both verbal and non-verbal language like gestures or tone of voice. We also have difficulty ‘reading’ other people—recognising or understanding others’ feelings and intentions—and expressing our own emotions. It’s essential that you give plenty of time for your autistic students to process information. We find it difficult to filter out all of what is being said to us. If there is too much information, this can lead to sensory overload. It’s important to be aware of the sensory environment when you are speaking to your students as sensory differences may be affecting how much someone can process. For example, is it too crowded? Is there lots of background noise? When giving information to students, it helps to speak slowly, not ask too many questions at once and pause between words and phrases to give them time to process what you’ve said, and to give them a chance to think of a response.

3. Don’t forget autistic fatigue
Fatigue, and then subsequent burnout, can happen to anybody. Autistic people, however, can find both more challenging, due to the pressures of everyday life, having to navigate social situations and sensory overload. Trying to cope with these pressures can lead to exhaustion (autistic fatigue) and over time this can lead to autistic burnout. For me personally, managing fatigue can be a difficult process especially when I have had a stressful day. Extreme fatigue can be caused by a variety of factors including sensory overload and dealing with social situations. To support your autistic students, it really helps to allow time for rest breaks and encourage different ways for them to de-stress including, for example, mindfulness and breathing exercises. Ensuring time for activities or interests that re-energise and promote relaxation is key. You can help them to plan and balance their activities and energy over a day or week to try and manage stress limits.

4. Avoid making assumptions
I find many people often assume that if an autistic person has succeeded in education, then they do not need any other support. From my experience, even though I have done well with my academic studies, I still need a lot of support with everyday life skills. It’s important for people to avoid making assumptions: a person who is intelligent may still have significant needs impacting on their daily life. No one person is the same—take time to listen and find out what reasonable adjustments they might need. Understanding what works best for your students as individuals is essential. For example, an adjustment could be to enable the student to leave the room slightly earlier so they can avoid the crowds. Small changes to your environment can make a big difference.

Joe Fautley

Joe Fautley works at the National Children's Bureau. He is an advocate for neurodiversity and is autistic himself. Joe features in an NHS video on Autism:
youtu.be/MDkPO8VGMv8.

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