Be SKEPtical When Teaching Autistics – Safety, Knowledge Structures, Executive Function and Processing

By Nanny Aut

The statistics show that many autistics do not do well with the current school system. That the current tickbox behaviourist model does not suit our neurology well. The article ‘Time to Turf out the Toxic’ explains why.

That is not what this article is about – this is about creating a learning system that suits autistics to enable them to access learning in a way that fits our neurology.

Being an ex-teacher, I love a good acronym. So, here is mine to help you remember what autistics students need to learn to their best – SKEP – Safety, Knowledge Structures, Executive Function and Processing.

Safety

The most fundamental aspect for ANY student. We learn best when we are calm and focused. When we feel safe. I have talked about safety before and what can affect it for autistics. This article relates it to the classroom specifically.

And the majority of autistics do not feel safe in a classroom. Not just because of the bullying because they are different, but because a standard classroom set-up and culture challenges our nervous system, putting it under stress and causing our anxiety to soar. Not least because our natural way of being is seen as ‘bad behaviour’ – so if we seek to reduce our anxiety we are punished for it.

Some teachers feel that the solution to this is to single out the students with an IEP and tell the rest of the class that the rules do not apply to this student – but they apply to everyone else. And then wonder why the other students resent the student who is ‘allowed to get away with it’ and why the student who has the exemption chooses not to have a target painted on their back and doesn’t use the exemption if at all possible. Even though not doing so increases their anxiety levels massively.

Here are key ways that anxiety is increased for autistic students that many teachers are unaware of.

  • We are asked to sit in ways that are uncomfortable and can challenge our sensory needs, particularly proprioceptive and we are not allowed to move to regulate.
  • We are often put in challenging sensory environments with busy classroom displays, noise from other classrooms, clanging bells or alarms every hour, chairs where we can’t put our feet securely on the floor, noise, activity and emotions from 30 other students around us. And we aren’t allowed to stim to regulate or to exit the classroom whenever anxiety starts to increase.
  • We are expected to wear clothing that is often sensory hell, scratchy shirts and jumpers, biting collars and waistbands, socks with seams, shoes that constrict our feet and stop proper proprioceptive feedback etc. And modifications only single us out – because ‘Uniforms are the rule’.
  • We are put under direct threat. Both from our peers who have been taught to bully difference, and from the teachers who actively punish our natural behaviours, and label them, and by extension us, as bad. We also fear the loss of rewards, lost for things outside of our control, and get frustrated with ourselves for being unable to manage the skills that we don’t have, haven’t been taught to us but are still expected to use.
  • We are given no space or time to decompress and re-set throughout the day. Playgrounds and dining rooms are battlegrounds of noise and chaos and social challenge and failure. Awash with unwritten rules that no one bothers to explain to us.
  • We’re not given the autonomy to manage our environment to prevent overload. The more autonomy you can create in the classroom, the safer the student will feel.
Infographic by @kwiens62

Now imagine if you were living under this level of severe stress, six hours a day, five days a week – for years. How well do you think you would be able to focus and learn? How long would it be before you were no longer able to hide your distress any more and stress behaviours became evident? And how would you feel, if every time you were unable to suppress your expression of distress you were punished for it? How long before the stress levels became so severe that you experienced panic attacks at even the thought of walking in the school gate? How long before you burnt out completely, no longer able to think or function properly?

And children do not have to suffer like this. This level of severe damage doesn’t have to happen. We can create more inclusive schools that stop causing this anxiety very easily.

  • Allow an exit space for overwhelm. This can be outside of the classroom or under the desk or a tent at the back – if we have a red card so we don’t have to speak to exit, this helps.
  • Keep ‘noise’ to a minimum – no busy classroom displays, allow movement in corridors just before class ends, quiet space for breaks and lunch, no strong perfumes/aftershave/bodywash, allow noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Movement breaks – look up trauma informed movement routines – rhythmic left-right-left, followed by physical activity like jumping, then stretching, finishing with deep breathing – deep breath in, sigh out.
  • Normalise meeting student needs – movement breaks, stims, headphones, safe spaces should be for everyone, regardless if they have a piece of paper or not. Otherwise, it can be seen as special treatment and lead to resentment in the other children. Other children may do these things for , ifthe novelty briefly, but they lose interest quickly and go back to what meets their needs.
  • Create a comfortable uniform – if it is comfortable for autistics with sensory needs, it will be comfortable for all students. All benefit.
  • Drop punishment and reward systems altogether. Look for the barriers to learning and address those.
  • Create quiet areas that students can rest and re-set throughout the day – access to the library, a teacher’s classroom or even a garden area.

There are times when a teacher accidentally overloads a student, creating an overwhelm that if not managed properly can quickly escalate into a meltdown. And then can often pour gasoline on the fire by treating it as ‘bad behaviour’ and trying to establish control.

These are better ways to manage it:

  • Talk to your student when they first join the class. Ask them what they find helps calm them down when they become anxious.
  • Keep an eye out for signs of distress and anxiety and offer the student the chance to exit to regulate when you see the early warning signs.
  • Allow the student to exit to their safe space without challenge if they just get up to go.
  • Have ways to shut out the sensory environment in the safe space – earplugs, eye-mask, chairs that offer full-body support.
  • Be calm – don’t act calm – be calm. Autistics can pick up and mirror emotions from others around them – so if you feel anxious, even if you present a calm front, that will amplify their anxiety and can push them into meltdown.
  • Recognise that during an overwhelm, phrases like ‘Use your words’ can make things worse, pushing an overwhelm into a meltdown. Plus, we may not have words to use at that point. Help us get to a safe, quiet, supportive space – don’t shut us away in a terrifying isolation room.
  • Do not restrain or attempt to restrain. If you are concerned for other student’s safety then get them out of the classroom. Fight is one of our autonomic protective mechanisms. It is pure reflex. Trapping or restraining us is going to make us panic more and fight harder to free ourselves. The ONLY exception is if the student has told you beforehand that deep pressure hugs calm them. Then you can ask if they need a deep pressure hug. If they give consent, then, and only then, is it ok.

It is really important to remember that meltdowns don’t come out of the blue, even if the teacher did not spot the early warning signs. They are a response to severe stress – caused by immediate threat, processing or sensory overload.

Remove the stressors and the meltdowns stop. If the meltdowns aren’t stopping – then you haven’t removed the stressors.

One last point on safety and anxiety. We are familiar with identifying an aggressive or excessively active child as struggling – even if we don’t correctly attribute it to anxiety. However, that is not the only presentation you need to look out for to identify whether a child is feeling unsafe. Fawning – excessive people pleasing – is a protective mechanism that many are unaware of. That excessively helpful child, the one keen to answer every question and receive the validation of a correct response is as anxious as the child bouncing around the classroom. Flop is another that many aren’t aware of – the child becomes excessively passive – zones out or disconnects. That child who sits quietly in the corner and doesn’t engage but doesn’t bother anyone is also likely to be struggling with anxiety. Just because the second two don’t disrupt the classroom does NOT mean that they aren’t struggling and don’t need support. If a parent comes to you with concerns, listen, they are seeing what you are missing.

Autistic Brain Connectivity

Knowledge Structures

Autistic brains thrive on connectivity. However, in school, these connections are rarely provided. And a student who perpetually asks ‘Why?’ is seen as disruptive and a troublemaker rather than someone seeking the connective information that they so desperately need to be able to learn.

We need to understand the ‘why’s’ around the facts to correctly build the knowledge structure. The more abstract the concept, the more the connections around it need to be explicitly explained.

The good news is, that once that knowledge has been fitted within the structure, it is pretty much there for life. While we can rote learn and built ‘muscle memory’ for facts, these facts are often pretty much useless to us, because they are not properly connected into the structure. Repetition and rote do not help us with genuine learning. This means that this is a method of learning that our brains try to resist because, with all the extra work the brain is already doing, effort for no gain is wasted energy when we have none available to waste.

However, once the knowledge is built into the structure and cemented in with connections, then they allow us to do what we do best – pattern-spotting. We can surf the strong inter-connectivity between apparently unrelated areas and see how they combine. What we often can’t do, is that first step – identifying the connections between the knowledge we already have and the new information coming in.

This is why teaching to an autistic student’s interests can be so helpful. First, because it makes the new information interesting to us and therefore, important and worth learning – this is important for everyone but more so for us, because adding new knowledge to the knowledge structure takes time and effort. Effort that we don’t really have available to waste if the knowledge has no value to us.

Top teacher tip – if you can’t answer why this piece of knowledge will benefit a student’s life and will have value for them – ask yourself – ‘Why you are trying to teach it?’

Second, because this is where the strongest connections lie. Teach to our interests and you are basically adding fixtures and fittings, rather than trying to build a whole new house from scratch.

When creating these connections, it is also important to remember than many autistics also have aphantasia – the inability to mentally visualise. They will need to physically see the connections laid out through techniques such as mind-maps, or concrete physical examples of maths problems. If you are teaching squares or cubes – have physical squares or cubes to work with.

One of the debunked teaching theories that is still prevalent in schools is that students have a specific learning style – visual, auditory, read-write or kinaesthetic. While it is true that individuals will have a preference, building strong connections requires that all four are put into play in your lesson plans.

Connection building is essential for most autistics to be able to access learning. However, research shows that ALL students have better retention and understanding of the material they are working with. Highly recommended reading for all teachers should be ‘How Learning Happens’ by Paul Kirschner and Carl Hendrick.

Here are the top tips for building connections.

  • Remember, most autistics do not learn effectively through imitation, repetition or rote. We observe and make connections and build knowledge structures.
  • Teach to our interests – not in a tokenistic way but using our interests to establish meaningful connections.
  • Respect the ‘Why?’ – we need the answer to effectively build connections. Be able to answer the ‘Why is it important for me to know this?’
  • Wherever possible teach from first principles to create a secure foundation.
  • Make connections explicit and concrete. Mind-maps, diagrams, flow charts, models.
  • Vary your teaching modes – try to include a combination of visual, auditory, read-write or kinaesthetic in every lesson. If you can’t manage all four, then make sure you at least have good visuals as part of the lesson.
  • Put that knowledge into practice testing the security of that structure. Teachers need to provide the input – modelling, educational games and programmes, opportunities to explore, pattern create and sense make. But don’t expect us to ‘parrot’ it back unless we feel like testing out our knowledge structure.
Image from @livedexperiencecounsellor

Executive Functioning

This is a challenge for a lot of neurodivergent students, not just autistics. Executive functioning covers a lot of areas but the area that is often the biggest issue in school is planning. With good executive functioning, a person sees the target goal and successfully chains back to have a mental list of tasks to follow to get to the goal. When executive function is poor, not only do we have only a vague awareness of what the goal is meant to be, we have no idea how to get there. So we stall. Given a vague instruction such as ‘Write a paragraph about x’ we may be unable to start, even though we actually know a lot about x. We need to know how to structure the paragraph, how to identify and present the key points, and what a great example looks like. And we may need this support every time we do this task because out brain may not retain the routine.

This inability to see the steps can also apply for some of us in expressing our reasoning, particularly in subjects like Maths. We can know the answer – somewhere in the backs of our brains, our subconscious has all the steps and applies them. However, we can’t explicitly identify how we got there. In addition, moving the process from automatic to manual creates a huge amount more effort, so even if we do learn to write out the steps, our brains may fight us over doing so. For many students in this situation, it is better to allow the answer to go down first, and then, as a separate exercise to go back once the paper is complete and fill in the steps. Retro-fitting in order to meet exam criteria.

It is all very well teaching ‘Can’t yet’ to establish positive mindset, but it genuinely may be ‘Can’t ever’ if we aren’t first given the map and guidebook to get there.

Infographic by @kwiens62

The other area that executive function trips us up badly is homework. Our brains tend to be very location specific with tasks. So school is for learning and working, home is for rest and relaxation. And our brain will fight trying to do a task in a place not correctly linked. Think how you would feel eating your food off a dirty toilet – that is the feeling. Plus, after all the sensory and processing overload we have experienced in school, we may not have the energy to go back to schoolwork in the evening. We need that rest and recuperation time to be even partially ready for the next day.

Given that rote and repetition do not help our learning, fighting our brain and risking burnout to do homework seems like a lot of negative for a very small (might I say miniscule) positive. Making homework part of the term grade can seriously discriminate against ND students.

So how can you support students with poor executive function?

  • Provide examples of good, better, best so we can clearly see the end target.
  • Make the steps to get there clear and understandable, break it down into the component parts, and have them available as a check sheet or on the board every single time.
  • Provide clear guidelines for expressing reasoning and allow students to ‘retro-fit’ the steps if they need to.
  • Ditch the homework. If this isn’t possible, try to find a way for them to do their homework in school, such as providing a homework club. Ask yourself whether it genuinely supports the student’s learning or whether it is more to provide evidence of their progress. If it is the latter, then think of other ways to achieve this that does not have so high an energy cost for the student.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Processing

The very first article in this series discusses our processing demands and how to support it in great detail. The key points are:

  • Many of us have less processing capacity available for tasks because more is allocated to managing senses, decision making and processing background information. The more you reduce those extra demands, the more processing we have available for the task at hand. If our capacity is already at max, even the slightest extra processing required can push us into meltdown.
  • In order to increase processing capacity, our brains work best when we are able to enter flow. We have been shown the goal and the steps to get there and we can then lock into the task. When we are in flow, the brain shuts out external noise and focuses all its processing on the task at hand. When we have completed the task, we can leave flow smoothly then transition to the next task. Unfortunately, in school there often isn’t sufficient time given to complete which means our brain is stuck trying to complete the old task while the new one is started. Which can cause an overload.
  • Many of us experience processing lag. We hear someone say something – it goes into processing and we ‘hear’ it a few seconds later. If someone repeats something before we have processed or moves on to a second instruction that first information is lost. This means if you give us three instructions, without pause, we will only register the third instruction. You don’t have to slow your speech, but you do have to remember to pause between ideas.
  • Decision making can cause a processing overload, especially if we are expected to respond quickly. We don’t tend to shortcut our decisions using our emotions in the way that NTs do, we have to calculate out all the parameters and potential outcomes to identify the prime decision based on the data provided. Even if the actual answer is either yes or no.
  • Because we have less spare capacity, we often struggle with unexpected changes. Having something sprung on us causes out brain to go into full decision making mode. And it causes an overload to the system. Plenty of advance notice and we can adapt as we have time and space to run our options.
  • One of the ways we can shut down the extra processing going on is to do a ‘mindless task’ such as using a fidget spinner, fidgeting or doodling. It allows us to focus on the voice we need to listen to. However, if we have to do full body listening, the chances are we will not hear a word – all our processing is focused on sitting still and maintaining eye contact and not on what is being said.

The steps you can take to support us with this:

  • Remove as much background processing as possible – see notes on noise in the ‘Safety’ section.
  • Give instructions one at a time with a pause in between. Also, put them up on the board so we can refer back to them.
  • Give us time to answer. Best practice is to ask us a question and say you will be back in five minutes or ask us while going around the class and say you will ask again in the plenary. Rushing us can cause an overload and risk a meltdown.
  • If we are beginning to show signs of stress or frustration when doing a task then remind us to take a break and regulate before trying to address the barrier. At that point, we will be unlikely to have the processing capacity to hear or process what you are saying and trying to do so could push overload into overwhelm into meltdown.
  • Plan tasks that we can complete before we transition. If that isn’t possible, then giving a new stop point five minutes before the end of the task will help create a new completion point. ‘Five minutes left – just two more sentences / one more sum etc.’ Give a pause before switching to the new task so we can close down the task ‘app’ properly and open the new one. Remember – more than one ‘app’ at a time can crash our whole system.
  • Allow us listen in whatever way that helps us focus. Stop requiring whole body listening – it is setting us up to fail. This resource from awekids is a much better alternative.

In school, what we are taught and the way we are taught can have a lifelong impact. It can teach us how to learn and instill a lifelong drive to learn or it can completely kill our love of learning. It can build our confidence and help us lean into our strengths or it can destroy our belief in our abilities. It can develop our sense of autonomy and resilience or it can teach us compliance and passivity.

Sadly, given the current school structure and focus on behaviourism instead of support, along with the exceptionally poor training in SEN that most teacher training courses provides, many autistics end up on the negative side of this – either being excluded from education for ‘behaviour issues’, unable to attend because of severe anxiety or simply leaving considering themselves a write-off and a failure. This is not good enough.

(Note to training providers – 1 to 2 hours in a year long course is NOT enough, and training created by people who don’t have that particular neurodivergence is often wildly inaccurate. Plus – stop teaching harmful behaviourism tools as behaviour management – this research is FIFTY years out of date. Teach how to identify barriers and remove them instead.)

Many parents decide, because of the current toxic nature of schools, that home-schooling is the healthier option and autistics often thrive in this more personalised environment. Online schools and accessible online courses make tailored learning much more accessible, allowing students to learn through their interests. It allows for a less formalised style such as unlearning. Some parents work together to launch Sudbury Schools that support self-directed learning.

These are all valid choices, but parents shouldn’t feel forced into it. If more was done to create schools like Sudbury schools as a state funded option, or to create a more inclusive and supportive environment within the current state funded school system, autistics would have a much better chance of achieving their full academic potential. It is time to make that change.

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