In a primary school, due to the consistency of classrooms, class mates, class teachers, TA's and so on, this may be a relatively simple process. The child will need at least one adult who they build a relationship with, and at least one space that feels safe to them, be it the school office, or a cushion in a corridor, or the INCO/SENCO base.
All school staff should be made aware that this particular child has every right and need to decompress and regulate themselves, and the child should not be challenged if they are using these places appropriately. Changes to consistency need to be considered – supply teachers or PPA time, off-timetable weeks, own clothes days, plays and rehearsals, sports days – these are all different from the norm, and with prior knowledge, and child will have more chance of navigating them safely.
Lots of masking children can find it almost impossible to know when they are masking. They don't have any other reference points. For a school professional working with the child, guided by conversations they've had with the family, to identify safe places and people can be the first steps in establishing trust with the child and giving them a framework where they feel comfortable and confident to express their true selves.
Knowledge removes fear and misunderstanding. We need children from reception upwards to accept and embrace difference, simple lessons as part of PSHE that are age appropriate. Society will become more tolerant of all difference if we gain knowledge and learn about acceptance. If an adjustment is made to meet a specific need, for example a foot stool, explain to the class why and how it will help the child’s sensory needs. There are some amazing books available online that can be class appropriate to all age groups.
Support around transition times can be very helpful. My son’s school operate a soft start routine, children are greeted at the gate by two members of staff, one is usually the Head Teacher and they walk straight to their classroom. This means cloak rooms aren’t overcrowded all at once and children come into school in a calm orderly fashion. Or let them come in early, let them settle in the classroom before everyone else is even at school. Leaving lessons a few minutes early will avoid the corridor crush and make transition less stressful.
Encourage regular sensory breaks, this is something the whole class can be involved in. Recently there has been a promotion on the golden mile, encouraging children to get more active and research shows it encourages greater engagement, activity can help regulate sensory difficulties too.
Equally important can be a quiet space or table where children can work without the overwhelming sensory input that a table full of other children would give. The table or space should be open to all children who want to work/learn quietly. This could also be applied to lunchtime with the option of a quiet room to eat lunch instead of the bustle of a busy lunch hall.
Decompression time at the end of the day. A break from the classroom for the last 15 minutes, where the child can read, draw, play Lego - do something that makes them feel safe and comfortable and allows them to have an identifiable break between home and school that is not the ear-piercing ringing of a school bell.
This will be a controversial one, but decompression days too. Sometimes it gets too much and a day of not being at school can be enough to make an incredible difference mentally.
Create a sensory box for the class, include some snugs, fidget aids, different sized pen and pencil supports, coloured paper and gels and putty. Introduce the box at the beginning of the school year and let all the students test things. By making the box available to all, it removes stigma and will support lots of children. Occupational Therapists are great at offering some really useful advice, and there are some amazing resources on Pinterest around making and using sensory toys and aids.
Think about the classroom environment, how stimulating is it. Leave a wall without a display to create some balance with the rest of the walls. When using projectors, make sure multiple tabs aren’t visible as they can be distracting also try using different colour gels, the white screen can become overwhelming for some children. If possible, create print outs for children who need them. Ensure lights aren’t flickering or humming as these can be distracting and when computer screens aren’t in use close them down. Ensure all displays are firmly secured so they don’t move in a breeze.
If the classroom environment does become overwhelming a time out card can be useful, allowing a child the time and space to self regulate is beneficial. Ensure all staff members who teach the child are aware they have a time out card
A positive and honest home school relationship is key to supporting any child in school. A simple email address attached to Reading Log/ Homework Book/ Planner, gives an excellent way to communicate concerns from both home and school without the dreaded post mortem on the playground at the end of the day.
A masking child will be keen to get home as soon as possible to decompress in a safe environment. If a parent comes to you with concerns, suggest a pre-arranged call or meeting without the children present, which gives both parties an opportunity to give thought out responses as opposed to the playground pounce!
It’s different in secondary …
In secondary schools, more thought and planning will be required. A KS3 or KS4 student is exposed to a multitude of other students and adults and spaces throughout the day, travelling through crowded corridors and navigating not just the school site, but also the social landscape.
It is critical that the student has safe adults; it is vital that they have safe spaces and that they are helped to access support from pastoral teams who can deal with them in an appropriate way and can see notes about the best way to support that child as an individual. With or without a diagnosis, there will be knowledge that the parents and other teachers have brought to your attention, and these should all be stored in the pastoral notes.
At the end of an academic year, and again at the start of a new one, helping the student understand changes will give them the very best chance of success. Meeting who the teachers are in advance and getting to know them, will give some comfort for the student. Knowing who else is in their group – most subjects past year 7 are mixed through the cohort – will be really important.
Knowing what the overall plan of the year is can give a sense of scale and appropriateness. For a child who masks, as has been described above, the scenarios of what might happen in any specific situation are run again and again through their minds. Any concrete information that can be provided by the school in advance will go some way towards helping them have a framework to restrict the unknown.
Schools who run two week timetables should take extra effort to ensure that an autistic child is very aware of WHICH Monday it is, and to be kind when mistakes are made. As you know, many autistic children have cognitive processing difficulties and issues with executive function which are not in line with their academic abilities.
It might be useful, for instance, to be particularly vigilant if a child moves ability set in year – they could perhaps meet the teacher in advance, be introduced, and have the chance to choose their place on the seating plan so they know where they are sitting in advance. Also to know what the group have already covered, and where their previous set compares.
Take time to look at absence days and where certain subjects fall. If a pattern is found, perhaps a trail of an alternate lesson in place of that one could be undertaken. PE is an area of difficulty for many autistic children, with the noise of the sports hall and the experience of the changing rooms intolerable. Participation could be adapted to ensure that they are comfortable at all times.
Secondary schools often place great focus on behaviour, uniform and even eye contact. These are mine fields for autistic children, many of whom are desperate not to come on the radar for any reason at all – to blend and camouflage.
School uniform can be area of concern and extreme sensory overload for an autistic child, and it would make an enormous difference to ensure that the child is comfortable and that reasonable adjustments can be made. Factors that you might not consider could be that the student is self-harming and are conscious of their scars. Or that they simply cannot tolerate having bare skin. That the student cannot regulate their temperature in the same way as neuro-typical children and may be too hot or too cold. That the school tie feels like it is strangling them. That the school shoes do not offer them enough support and make walking difficult.
I’m not sure that we need to discuss eye contact too much: it is clear that for an autistic child it is totally unacceptable to force them in to eye contact situations, and any punishment for this inability is wholly inappropriate. Look for the children who find eye contact difficult. Nurture them. Support them. Protect them. There are so many other ways to engage with adults and teachers, any of these are what should be explored. Otherwise schools are directly contributing to causing severe emotional and mental harm.
This information was provided by a teacher with 40 years experience in both mainstream and specialist schools.
These are suggestions which can make life more comfortable for ASC pupils in the class. There may be others in the class with particular sensitivities who would also benefit from the suggestions.