Autism: trauma in the classroom

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In the second part of the story of her son’s autism, a mother reveals how a nightmarish start at school was overcome by some simple good practice

School has never been easy for Callum. He attended a private nursery school but wasn’t really able to settle there. I put this down to what I saw as his wilful personality. Callum was different to the other kids in ways that I couldn’t quite explain, but, as this was before his diagnoses, I thought it was just a case of him calming down and learning the social rules and boundaries. I also blamed myself and thought that somehow, I should try harder at home.

During his first  two weeks at school, I asked his teacher “How’s he been today?”, only to be met with the response “Terrible! He’s one of those kids that wear the teacher out by midday”. As time went on, I became wary of asking how Callum’s day had been, as it was rarely positive. It wasn’t long before he was on the School Action Plus programme. Additional support was quickly arranged, but Callum failed to make significant progress and his reports described him as being easily distracted and displaying emotional and behavioural difficulties and attention seeking behaviour. The biggest difficulty, at this stage, seemed to be his out of seat  behaviour; he touched everything and often emitted high pitched noises.

During Callum’s first year at infant school the Educational Psychologist became involved. She noted that he was very easily distracted by almost anything: sounds and activity within or outside the school, the pictures on the walls or even the tiniest speck of dirt on the floor. His mind flitted from one subject to another, regardless of the conversation, and he left his seat on numerous occasions, often jumping up and blurting out socially inappropriate comments.

Callum limped on through infant school, slipping behind academically, lying on the floor during lessons or wandering around the room interfering with other pupils work. There was also the occasional major outburst or attack on other children when they teased him, or if his senses were somehow overwhelmed.  A steady stream of letters concerning his behaviour came home, some with threats of exclusion.

By the time Callum came to make the transition to junior school, he had been diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia and other complex learning difficulties. However, within a month of starting at the new school, it was obvious that the change was too much for him to bear. The approach to education and the rules and regulations had changed, and a playtime had disappeared. Callum’s behaviour deteriorated rapidly as he struggled to cope, and it was clear that the school simply didn’t have the necessary knowledge and expertise to cope with a child like Callum. In fact, the chaotic responses of staff members only served to escalate the problems.

Exclusion after exclusion followed, and I watched as my little boy’s self-esteem plummeted. Every day it seemed Callum fought the children who teased and mocked his inability to fit in, and every day he seemed to fight the staff who didn’t understand where his behaviours came from. After all, this little boy looked “normal” and often conversed at a level beyond his years (thereby masking his underlying language problems), yet he failed to understand the basics of social interaction (many children with ASD often make poor eye contact, don’t face the speaker and don’t like raised voices, and some don’t like touch).

Callum’s aggressive behaviour soon became entrenched and it seemed we had reached a stalemate. Thus, after much consideration, the difficult decision was made to change his school. A new school agreed to take Callum in as a child in crisis and the SENCO and I decided to act quickly.

A week later, I took Callum to his new classroom, as arranged, and his new Teaching Assistant (TA) was waiting to meet us. She asked if there was anything I thought she should be aware of regarding Callum generally. Immediately, I noticed that she was softly spoken and I knew that this would be a good thing for Callum, who didn’t like loud voices. I explained that he had huge difficulties with writing and that, if he couldn’t meet the expectations placed upon him, he would rapidly become anxious and fearful. He would become very tense physically and this would often show in the way he gripped his pen. I also explained that raised voices and touching were best avoided due to his sensory problems. The TA assured me not to worry.

Callum’s first day got off to a promising start and he appeared to cope well in his new environment. At the end of the day Callum and the TA were waiting to meet me in the busy reception area. Suddenly, Callum pushed back at the other children as their bags connected with him as they made for the exits. I explained to Callum that the children weren’t purposefully hitting him and that the corridors were just busy. However, Callum responded by suddenly pushing me back forcefully, causing me to fall into the wall, as he blurted out the accusatory question: “What, you call this not pushing?”

On his second day at the school, as I arrived at reception to collect him, I soon noticed the SENCO stepping around Callum, but not touching him, keeping him hemmed into a small area and away from other children. I couldn’t help but register the fatigue on her face; she looked worn out. Callum was climbing onto the chairs, touching the walls, and trying to get around, past or underneath her.

As the SENCO began talking to me, Callum slipped by us and grabbed another child around the neck, causing that child to look bewildered. The SENCO immediately spoke softly to Callum, getting him to release  the child, whilst explaining to the other child that Callum didn’t mean to hurt him, that he just wanted to make friends but wasn’t sure how to. With that, we all went upstairs to talk in a room filled with soft furnishings and toys. I knew that the design and layout of this room was no accident, and I felt relieved, as Callum had a history of head butting things and throwing objects when fearful or anxious.

The SENCO explained how she had taken the morning out of her usual class in order to observe Callum, so that she could decide where best to place and educate him within the school. All was going well until play time when, suddenly, another child ran up to Callum and shouted loudly at him. Callum responded by lashing out, two other boys ran up to help their friend, and Callum began fighting them all as the SENCO rushed over to intervene. At this point Callum bolted away from everyone.

The SENCO soon found him shut away in the toilets, and she sat outside patiently and calmly, eventually persuading him to come out. Upon opening the door, Callum burst into tears and asked “Have I got to move schools again now?”
“No Callum”, the SENCO replied, “we want you here, and we are going to help you so that you do not have to leave this school.”

The SENCO went on to tell me about her observations of Callum earlier that day. She explained that she had seen a little boy who wanted to socialise, make friends and play with others, but whose ASD rendered him socially awkward. His attempts at communication were frequently inappropriate, lacked the usual social graces and broke the unspoken rules of interaction.

She described Callum as a “complex” little boy, who had to contend with ADHD as well as ASD, and his physical activity levels meant that it was difficult to keep him in his seat long enough to educate him. His ADHD exacerbated his ASD so that his social skills and approaches were not only out of sync. with other children, they were also impulsive and bewildering.

This was Callum’s first week in his new school, but I am happy to report that school life has completely changed for him. Callum’s, almost daily, outbursts have all but ceased (he had three a day, on average, at his previous school). He no longer retreats under the table or squashes himself into small places, and the head butting and hands on ears have ceased. Nor does he remove himself from the classroom everyday, and thus from education.

Callum’s self esteem is much higher now; he frequently comments on how the teachers must really like him because of the special little things they do for him and the ways in which they talk to him. Within three months of joining the school, Callum had a major part in the school play and his sense of self belief and his pride were clear to see.

Today, the untrained observer would find it difficult to pick Callum out from most other children in the classroom. But for me, the most precious gift of all is that I now have a little boy who says he loves school. This is something that I never dared to dream was possible.

I believe that this transformation has been achieved because of many areas of good practice. Crucially, the entire school staff seems to have a solid understanding of Callum’s SEN and how they impact upon his perceptions and behavioural patterns.

The day is staggered to take account of Callum’s difficulties with crowded areas. His TA meets him at the door and hands him over at the end of the day. This also ensures that Callum doesn’t get into fights, which he equates with failure and exclusion, or get bullied, which he equates with being different and disliked. The less these perceived failures occur, the more confident and successful Callum becomes.

Callum has 25 hours of one to one support within the classroom and is supervised during social breaks.  The one to one support moves with him as he progresses through each year, so Callum has time to develop relationships with his two softly spoken, calm and patient TAs, who both understand his specific difficulties. This support is monitored on a daily basis by the SENCO, who is on hand to support and advise should a crisis threaten to occur.

Such crises are, however, generally avoided by good management of Callum’s environment, to avoid the stresses which can provoke a child with ASD. For example, when Callum states that he can’t concentrate because of normal noise levels or other sensory issues, he is taken to a quiet area where he continues his work. This means that Callum now stays within education rather than retreating into small “sensory safer” places, or removing himself from the classroom.

Callum is given “ability appropriate” work, so that he can experience success, rather than work at which he is doomed to fail, given the entirety of his SEN. Although his writing is inevitably poor, due to fine motor dyspraxia and dyslexia, he is encouraged and praised for his attempts, so his fear of putting pen to paper has diminished, and the outbursts that used to accompany literacy problems have ceased.

The rules have been relaxed in order to take account of Callum’s idiosyncratic behaviour. For example, it was found that his “special interest” in mathematics calmed him down at times of anxiety, so staff went with the flow, rather than enforcing routine work expectations.

Other little “obsessions” are dealt with as they arise. When he began folding paper at every opportunity, he was helped to restrict this compulsion to break times, rather than being punished for it. If he attaches to an object, he is not denied it, but is allowed to keep hold of it whilst continuing work. Callum is protected from situations in which he can become over excited, and from interaction with particular children who can provoke this reaction in him.

Callum is discouraged from social isolation. For example, when he initially withdrew from PE, in an effort to protect himself from failure, this was not challenged and he was instead allowed to pick out a small group of children with whom to interact in the soft play area. As a result, Callum’s confidence has grown to the extent that he now participates fully in PE.

When a social problem occurs or his senses are overwhelmed by close proximity and he lashes out (an occasional occurrence these days), staff members provide a careful response, explaining that he is not in trouble but that they need to talk with him. Therefore, Callum doesn’t see himself as having failed, and he is emotionally available to discuss alternative responses and to learn to understand himself.

Callum is capable of following the curriculum, so, instead of an Individual Education Plan, an Individual Behaviour Plan, taking into account his disabilities, was drawn up. This plan states that “sanctions are inappropriate”.

When Callum has to experience new activities, such as swimming, staff relax the school rules to take account of the impact of his SEN. For example, his dyspraxia renders him clumsy and he is slower at undressing, getting dried and dressing, so he is allowed to wear tracksuit trousers on the day, and no one fusses if he doesn’t put his socks on. However, as Callum learns to adjust and grow socially and academically, the expectations upon him increase.

This approach of tweaking the school rules to enable a child with SEN to fit in, rather than demanding that he should be treated identically to those without disabilities, has made the difference between Callum being included in mainstream schooling, rather than being marginalised by the education system. The relief and gratitude I feel about this is indescribable, and it is not something I take for granted. Each and every day, Callum and I thank our lucky stars.

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 44: January/February 2010.

Eve Wilson
Author: Eve Wilson

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