Photo: Jude Ragan

The NAP report gives us the current evidence base for what works for autistic people, what can help them to manage and improve their lives as well as making economic sense.

The future that I think we need to see in autism education is one that focuses on teaching functional, pertinent, meaningful skills in a motivating way to autistic children and young people. NAP looked at the evidence base for early educational and social skills interventions which tend to be ways of teaching rather than teaching content.

The teaching content of the National Curriculum (NC) is by no means the rigid tool that some schools fear it to be. It is adaptable as well as broad and balanced. When I started in special needs teaching in the late 1960s, children were taught dull, repetitive, boring tasks in a highly medicalised setting. These were unstimulating for both child and teacher and bore little relevance to the child’s day to day life. As a student, two of my three teaching practices were in mental subnormality hospitals, where practice was shameful compared to our present knowledge base and practice. Things have improved, but not as much as they might. The NC is a vast playground in which our children can explore, learn and play. We can take any aspect of the individual education plan of an autistic child and find in the NC a myriad of ways in which we can teach that particular aspect in a manner that is meaningful, interesting and varied.

The recently aired “Life, Animated”, (http://www.lifeanimateddoc.com), a charming story of Owen Suskind’s joy, interest and reliance on Disney cartoons as a script for his life, tells us nothing new about autism but tells us everything about how autism affects Owen. It was not presented as a blueprint for autism education, but as the trigger that worked and still works for Owen, and his parents’ dedication to making that meaningful for him. Those of us who teach autistic children and young people would be remiss not to take into account their own special interests, and use them as a way into the curriculum, and as a motivator and reward for progress. There is no one way, there is no one curriculum. The NC allows us to take that framework and differentiate it carefully for each child so it is meaningful for them.

There is no one way. There is no one curriculum. However, I do observe practitioners who restrict themselves, and thereby their pupils, to a rigid curriculum taught in a rigid way. I often observe adults who clearly believe that their way is the right way for the child, but I see something different. I see a bored child, a child for whom the task has not been made intrinsically interesting, as it should be. I see them having to repeat tasks in which there is little meaning or relevance to the lives they are leading in the school in which I visit them. Their regime appears to isolate them from the other children rather than integrate them. I see constant reinforcers used (food, loud and frequent praise, high-fiving etc) that appear to be prompts that will be hard to fade. I see fidgeting or any form of self-stimulation discouraged – hands, albeit very gently, being placed back in laps or flat on tables. I often see children whose compliance in sitting for long periods of time enduring such repetitive boredom amazes me. I sometimes see less gentle practice, where children try to escape from the repetitiveness that they are clearly not enjoying, and are then physically brought back, physically placed again in the chair, and sometimes held in that chair.

My teaching philosophy has always been quite different from this. My belief is that we can work in classrooms with open doors and that it is our responsibility to make the classroom and what goes on in it enticing for the autistic child. I do not underestimate the enormity of this task, the hard work, preparation and imagination required to have meaningful activities to hand for a child with a limited attention span and very limited interests, but I have seen it done successfully, and I have been lucky enough have led staff in four special schools who are prepared to put in the work necessary to achieve this model. What this practice showed me was that this can often be a very joyous model. Not the false praise of mechanical and frequent high fives, but the real joy that comes from seeing a child engaged, motivated, entranced even by an activity prepared for them, at their level, within their interests and having a meaningful impact on their lives. This model is highly intensive, and expects staff to work extremely hard in preparation and delivery of the curriculum, and to constantly observe the child to gauge their levels of interest and arousal, being always ready and prepared with the next task, whether more or less demanding depending on their emotional regulation. It does not provide the constant 1:1 teaching that can often be thoughtlessly cited as the holy grail; it builds into it the capacity to teach the child some independence skills and to help them to see themselves as successful independent learners. It also builds capacity in social abilities, helping the autistic child to work alongside and ultimately with their peers for some tasks.

Above all, in my experience, when well done, this model, so often disparagingly called an eclectic model, is a gentler model. Not gentle in terms of pace of learning, far from that. But, when well established with the child, gentler in terms of needing less physical contact with the child, less need to bring them back to their seat – this instead is done by the enticement of the activity itself, or is managed by staff who have noticed that this activity is no longer motivating and it is time to move on to the next. It does not expect compliance. It instead expects to present the child with an offer that they will enjoy entering into. It should never be the educator’s intention to enforce their will on the child, nor to make children conform. We want them to learn about themselves, what makes them feel relaxed and happy, what they are good at, and how to master the tools they need to live their lives.

This model, when well applied by staff who are well trained, and are able to observe, record and assess the child’s academic and social/emotional progress, has no interest in reducing autistic behaviours. It has no interest in making the autistic child appear less autistic. It is only interested in reducing the at times crippling anxiety that autistic children suffer, helping them to achieve a calm-alert state in which they are able to learn and socialise and thrive, and in time helping them to manage their own autism-induced anxieties.

Jude Ragan,
Autism Education Specialist
June 2017

If you have any comments you would like to make in response to this short essay please send them to editor@nationalautismproject.org.uk. We will select and publish those which we believe at our own discretion contribute positively to this discussion.