‘Back to School’ is a stressful time for many students and their families, with the competing financial, academic and emotional demands. However it can be particularly challenging for students on the Autism Spectrum. Students with Autism need routine, struggle with many sensory environments and can find it hard to communicate or socially interact with their teachers or fellow students. A new academic year, brings a new routine, new people, new environments and expectations and new social situations – which are the cause of much anxiety for many students on the Spectrum. Many students on the Spectrum will have found a previous academic year difficult, maybe because they were misunderstood, perhaps because they were bullied or struggled to keep up with the curriculum or demands of the school day—this will also have an impact on their anxiety levels as they settle into a new school year.
However, a new school year can, and should, also present an opportunity for students with conditions on the Autism Spectrum, and their families. While new teachers, curriculums and students are a cause of anxiety and a change to routine, they are also symbolic of a new start; a new opportunity to build up understanding of the student and condition among teachers, a new opportunity to get structures and approaches in place to support the student with their strengths and challenges and a new opportunity to educate other students about the condition.
When we discuss education and Autism, we usually are talking about financial support or the provision of services, and this is a very important discussion to have.
However, we also must raise awareness of the vital role individual teachers, SNAs and fellow students make, in supporting a student with Autism in school. The greater awareness among these groups, the better a school experience for a student with the condition. This isn’t about reading 100 books on Autism or discussing the detailed science behind the condition, it is about a) having an understanding about the day-to-day, practical challenges students with Autism face at school, and b) realising that no two people with the condition are the same, and that we must see a person, and their abilities, before we see their label or disabilities.
We are in a challenging environment to achieve this. Teachers are now presiding over larger classes than before, often with several students with different special needs or disabilities and with limited training to understand and support them. Autism is an invisible condition and it is all too common for students to see other students with the condition as simply ‘strange’, ‘weird’ or ‘odd’. However, our experience is that when we reach out to teachers they are often keen to learn and when students are exposed, at a young age, to the ideas of difference, diversity and inclusion they are quick to buy into it.
AsIAm.ie is Ireland’s online support and advocacy service for individuals and families affected by Autism and their professional supporters. I set up AsIAm.ie, because I was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome at the age of 5, was fortunate to benefit from early intervention and wanted to give something back to the Autism community in Ireland. AsIAm.ie aims to empower those with Autism to reach their own potential and speak for themselves, while reaching out to the public to educate them about Autism, and the difference they can make in the life of a person with the condition.
We recently launched a series of ‘Back to School’ handbooks for teachers, parents and students (with high-functioning Autism), in an effort to help make the process easier, increase understanding and encourage best practise approaches. Our handbooks are not a magic wand or a scientific document; rather they provide an insight into the challenges students with Autism frequently face in school and suggest approaches which have worked for others, which individuals, their parents and teachers can consider.
We passionately believe that every person with the condition is more brilliant and, indeed, more complex, than any definition or explanation a book can give. Indeed, a teacher could read 100 books on the condition and still end up with a student on the Spectrum who presents unique challenges. To that end, we have published two other handbooks All About Me and My Child for students and parents to share relevant, personalised information to teachers, about how the various challenges and strengths associated with Autism present in their case.
All these handbooks are available to download for free from our website and we are delighted with the response we have received from all stakeholders to date. This is part of a wider schools programme our organisation is preparing to launch, which will see us reach over 100 schools all around Ireland this year with our autism awareness workshops for students and also our outreach training for teachers.
Why does an organisation wanting to change whole society attitudes begin with schools? Because, the better an experience a person with Autism in school gets, the better the opportunity they have to achieve their own personal potential, to get a job and to not require as much support from the state in the future. We currently live in an Ireland where people with Autism are still excluded and left behind in work and school, are still misunderstood and do not play as full a part of society as they can, and would like to. By educating people are a young age, we are literally educating the future and hopefully making the next 100 years in Ireland, better for students with Autism.