Autism touches millions of families in the UK every year. A hidden disorder that is incredibly hard to diagnose, sufferers can feel alone and isolated in a confusing world. As part of Autism Awareness Month, Lydia Fallon finds out more about how schools are catering to pupils with the disorder.

Autistic children can feel isolated and alone in a confusing world

Education is a primary concern for parents with children on the autistic spectrum, and the challenge is to find the right methods and techniques to help children get the most from their learning.

Autism is the term used to describe all diagnoses on the autism spectrum including classic autism, asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism.

It is an incredibly serious, life-altering disorder that causes sufferers to feel extreme isolation from the world around them. There is a huge range in symptoms and severity and every case is different.

There are three main areas that those who are autistic often have trouble with; sometimes referred to as the triad of impairments.

Social understanding is one of the main problems; they see the world in a completely different way with no obvious boundaries. They are usually unaware of what is socially appropriate and find it difficult to form relationships, not understanding the need for chatting and small talk.

The second area is communication, sometimes there will initially be problems with speech as well as difficulties judging and understanding reactions when speaking to others.

Children with autism are also likely to have problems with creative play; they are often of sound intelligence with a particular flair for subjects such as maths and engineering but find thinking creatively difficult.

When coping with imagination impairment, it is important to remember that they don’t necessarily have a lack of imagination, but the issue lies in social imagination so they will often have trouble with things such as making plans and imagining the future.

Autistic children like structure and may get agitated when plans change. Ensuring a structured and familiar routine will help them make sense of a world they find confusing. “Visual and multi-sensory elements of teaching are both important, a picture diary has proved to be an effective method, so that the child has a clear visual symbol of what they might be doing that day,” says Heather Rhodes of the Cambridge branch of the Autism Society.

Children on the autistic spectrum also have difficulties engaging in both verbal and non verbal communications. Some children may think of conversation as purely factual and not a way of engaging socially, they will often have difficulties understanding things such as irony and sarcasm and others may have issues in understanding facial expressions and body language.

Heather Rhodes recommends the picture exchange communication system (PECS) to aid with communication. “This is a symbol-based system, which involves the child exchanging a picture for the thing they want, for example if they want some Hula-Hoops they would find the picture of that thing and give it to a member of their family or a teacher in exchange for the object or activity they want, in this case a packet of Hula-Hoops. This is proven to gradually improve the child’s communicative ability.”

The social understanding impairment means it can be difficult for autistic children to understand what we consider social norms. They may behave inappropriately and fail to relate to other people's emotions and feelings.

They often wish to engage socially with other children but lack the skills to do so in an appropriate manner. It is important a teacher encourages interaction amongst peers and provides awareness of the child’s own emotions. Creating jobs for the class, such as tidying the book corner is also an effective way of increasing awareness of the need to do things for others.

With the right guidance and support, many autistic children cope well in mainstream schools. But even if there is a high level of academic understanding, bullying and isolation can still be major issues.

“I think the school chosen depends entirely on the child’s own individual needs,” explains Heather. “Some facilities in specialist schools may be more beneficial, for example the Castle School in Cambridge has a hydrotherapy pool, a sensory room and specialist teachers with lots of experience in dealing with disabilities, but many autistic children go to mainstream schools and cope incredibly well with the help of a teaching assistant.”

Autism is often seen as a relatively unknown disorder but Heather believes there is a growing understanding. “I think over the last 10 years there has been an increase in awareness particularly in schools, teachers are now aware of the importance of giving the child their own space and using visual learning,” she explains.

“There is a higher level of knowledge of the somewhat strange behaviours that are often associated with autism; there was recently even a character in TV show Waterloo Road who had the disorder, this will help continue raising awareness for the future.”

For more information and support on coping with autism and effective teaching techniques visit the website of the Cambridge branch of The Autism Society at www.cambridge-autism.org.uk or emailcambridge@nas.org.uk.

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