Kathy Smith, Specialist Teacher for ASC, takes time out from her amazing work to offer her tops tips on working at home with children with Autism Spectrum Conditions. Since the first lockdown, Kathy has been speaking with parents and teachers supporting children and young people in our strange new world, offering practical strategies on ways to help learning in the home environment.
Supporting your child with learning at home
Home is home and school is school – especially for children with an Autism Spectrum Condition. They like everything ‘black and white’.
To be able to learn, your child needs to be in a calm, alert state. Alert enough to focus, but not too much so they’re distracted by every little thing. Children who have an Autism Spectrum Condition find it really hard to self-regulate in this way.
This is because they experience the world differently, with very different sensory responses and difficulties in making sense of our social world and how we communicate.
“I experience the world in hyper-reality. Sensory overload is a constant distraction. I’ve just been for a walk in the woods, and it was very different for me than it would be for you – the sights, the smells, the sounds.” He frowns. “But we need to go to the supermarket later, and I’ll do anything to get out of it because supermarkets are a swamping of the senses. The lighting is hideous, it’s crowded, and the complex of smells is overwhelming.”
(Chris Packham, 2017 – source; interview, Radio Times)
So, formal learning at home can be quite a challenge.
Every child is different, and families know their child best, but these general principles can help.
Try to make a space for schoolwork separate from other things going on in the house. If this is not possible, try a table cover on the kitchen table – especially if it’s his / her favourite colour! Only use this for school-work time
Try to meet sensory needs in their working space – ask yourself:
o Do they prefer the curtains closed rather than bright light?
o Do they prefer silence or a little background noise?
o Do they work better standing / kneeling / barefoot?
o What time of day are they most receptive?
o Can you make a table screen out of cardboard if the rest of the room is too distracting?
Give a reason for doing the task or activity. Set limits on the time you will spend on that activity and show them what the finished piece might look like. Have a separate box to put finished work in.
Have a visual timetable of tasks which can be moved along the line - this does not have to be professional looking. You could use stick men or words depending on your child’s understanding. Perhaps they could help to make it. School might also be able to provide your child’s familiar visuals to use at home.
Fit the tasks around your child’s ability to focus on what they are doing. This will be longer if they are enjoying the task!
Divide larger tasks into small sections to avoid it being overwhelming.
Make sure there are plenty of downtime moments in the day – what does down time look like for your child? Healthy snack breaks can also be helpful.
Physical activity can be very calming and grounding – walking, running, scootering, trampolining, commando crawling, carrying heavy things, wall press-ups. Avoid anything involving spinning around as this can be arousing.
Getting the Right Balance
“Build on our strengths, work with our abilities and our interests; and that’s hard because sometimes we have some very odd interests, but I would encourage people to try to find a way to work with our interests and not take it away.”
(Wenn (Wendy) Lawson Interview with Ilona Roth, 2011, OU.)
What are the non-negotiables in your house? Start with keeping everyone safe, comfortable and fed! You might have to lower some of your expectations in other areas. Your child may only manage part of the work list.
Talk to school if there is just too much work or if the work is not at the correct level. Some children get very distressed if they can’t complete everything. With others a huge amount of supervision and support will have to go into completing tiny amounts.
Remember, learning happens all the time. ‘Catch’ your child learning something new. Introduce their spelling words as part of a game. Don’t refer to school at times like this.
If they are struggling with their formal learning, helping weigh the baking ingredients, reading the packet, meal planning, shopping, mapping the route of your walk, all provide opportunities for learning and can be shared with school.
Build learning around that special interest if you can.
Remember also, teachers are professionals with years of training and experience. You are mum, dad, gran etc. first and foremost. Do your best.
Family mental well-being has to come first. A happy, relaxed child who has learned some of their own self-regulating techniques will thrive when they go back to school. Take time to have fun, help your child understand themselves and what helps them relax and feel calm. Give them time to safely pursue their special interests (and use that bit of parental downtime to relax yourself!)
When is starts to go a bit wrong…
Distract – if you have things at the ready (physical and in your head) for when you see signs that your child is getting agitated, you might be able to distract them with a favourite activity, item, song – or just saying something odd or pointing out something outside the window - whatever works to get their thoughts into a different direction.
If the special interest fits, try; ‘Sponge Bob would be really pleased if you finished this’; or ‘Professor Brian Cox would be impressed with this work’ etc.
Some children like a cuddle, back rub or hand massage.
Redirect – try a complete change of activity (see above: downtime, snack breaks, physical activities)
Give them extra time to think and process what you are asking.
Renegotiate: use the visual timetable to offer an alternative – give just two choices.
If you can’t rescue the situation
Appear calm (even if you are not!), use a low voice, move away and give them space.
Make sure your child has a place of retreat: such as under a blanket, in the garden or in their bedroom.
Don’t try and reason with them until they are calm again.
Tell them you are sad / disappointed they didn’t manage to finish but praise what was achieved, even if it was only a tiny amount. Give an opportunity to have another go, but don’t ‘push it’.
Above all remember, every day is a fresh start.
Kathy Smith, Specialist Teacher; Autism Spectrum Conditions
If your setting would benefit from Kathy’s expertise, speak with you EP or contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org.