What can we do as professionals in education to psychologically support children with diagnoses along the autistic spectrum?
Margaret Mead (1935:218)
If we are to achieve a richer culture, we must recognise the whole gamut of human potentialities and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse gift will find a fitting place.”
Recent developments in the field
Next week is Autism Awareness Week and there has been much recent coverage of this topic in the media. The latest developments in the conversation around autism and autistic spectrum conditions have touched on a number of interesting topics, including late diagnosis in adults and under-diagnosis in girls, with both these phenomena likely rooted in the historically male biases around our understanding of what autism and ASC (autism spectrum condition) are. Notably this week, we have also seen a new cast member on the classic children’s television programme, Sesame Street, a girl called Julia, who has autism.
Julia’s puppeteer is Stacy Gordon, who is mother to an autistic son. She has expressed her joy at having such a high profile character in a position to educate large numbers of children about differing ways of being and modelling a positive acceptance of the condition.
With all of the spotlight on this subject, it is important to illuminate some of the realities of living with a diagnosis of autism and the ways in which individuals can be supported to thrive and flourish within educational settings. Dr Stephen Shore famously said, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”; due to the highly personalised and differing needs of this population, there are several ideas around how to be responsive to these emotional and educational requirements. Indeed many new developments are happening in this area, with research projects and academic enquiries providing hope for better understanding of this complex set of conditions.
At the recent One Education SEND conference, I had the pleasure of listening to talks on a range of diverse issues relating to SEND learners. Amongst these talks were fascinating explorations around legislation, engagement and empowerment within SEND populations in our schools. I was particularly interested in a lecture by Barry Carpenter OBE, CBE, PhD who talked about the development of the Engagement Framework for Learning, a strategic change in pedagogy to focus on and foster engagement in SEND pupils. His words, “teaching is a relational occupation”, made me consider my own work within therapeutic services for Emotional and Trauma Support at One Education.
Relating to engagement
I realised, as I reflected, that the concept of engagement being necessary for learning is what therapists working in education wrestle with every day. We are motivated to engage with the young person in our session so that they are able to develop a containing, relational experience. We hope this allows them to return to their educational environment feeling more settled and secure, emotionally and psychologically better able to learn. Often a therapist will meet a child for the first time when it seems that nobody else is able to engage them.
This stark level of disengagement from people and education can occur for many reasons; it could be that there is a crisis of sorts and perhaps the child has shut down completely, refusing to engage at all and taking on traits of selective mutism. Conversely, perhaps the young person’s challenging behaviours, seen in explosive meltdowns and outbursts, could have become so severe and worrying for the people around them that that the child is similarly isolated. Both of these milieus can happen within the classroom and both these situations can be helped by targeted psychological support through therapy.
A closer look at therapy and autism
As each child is individual, so are their specific educational needs regarding support. As we know, the emotional needs of the child need to be met before learning can be accessed and educational attainment achieved (Public Health England, 2014). Emotional and Trauma Support (ETS) work with a number of children with diverse SEND profiles, using the creative expressive therapies to engage them in exploration of their own emotional reality. One such child with very complex needs has been supported by a One Education Dramatherapist to journey from a position of feeling very negatively about their diagnosis of autism, to one of acceptance and greater understanding.
This child was able to access this position of peace with their diagnosis, by using drama techniques within the therapeutic relationship to explore his feelings about the label of autism he has. By taking on different roles of professionals from his specialist school, he was able to experiment with preconceived ideas which he held about his diagnosis. Additionally, he was able to reflect on what he felt about the attitudes of others towards his label. In the exploration of these ideas, the child was able to identify and question some of his previously held thoughts around what it meant to be autistic and begin to develop a narrative around what his autism meant for him.
Find new ways to communicate through creativity
The need for safe experimentation and play is important in terms of engaging these young people, whose special educational needs may mean that verbal communication can be particularly difficult. For this reason, the expressive creative activities; art, drama, dance, horticulture, music and play, are fantastic ways to foster avenues of communication between a young person and the professionals around them, especially when it comes to learning and education, where engagement has been shown to be of paramount importance.
Autism need not be a block to educational success and achievement. Schools can choose to work with their SEND children holistically, as full and valuable human beings, playing a part in assisting them in developing their self-esteem and confidence. The specialist educational establishment is a prime place to be creative and supportive in response to the needs of their pupils. There is much to be gained from this kind of inclusive and wholly supportive outlook, which considers the richness that can be found in a sensitivity to the whole spectrum of human experience.
Every child has their own educational trajectory and their own emotional reality, regardless of the complexity of their needs. They deserve individual, personalised support which is tailored to their particular needs. These children also benefit greatly from having access to safe spaces in which they can engage with this kind of individual support. By assisting the most vulnerable and hard to reach pupils in school, we can develop innovative psycho-educational approaches, engaging each individual by being understanding to their specific needs at moments of interaction and allowing them to develop to their maximum potential and flourish in our care.
Carpenter, B. (2015). Engaging learners with complex learning difficulties and disabilities. 1st ed. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Carpenter, B. (2016). Revisiting Engagement. SEND Magazine, pp.26 - 28.
Carpenter, B. and Tutt, R. (2017). In: The Complexity of SEND. One Education.
Mead, M. (1935) Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. Morrow: New York.
Public Health England, (2014). The link between pupil health and wellbeing and attainment. A briefing for head teachers, governors and staff in education settings. London: PHE Publications.
Wild, S. (2016). Empowering Autistic Girls. SEND Magazine, pp.28 - 29.