I first began working with Alex three years ago and it came about quite by chance. Following a week-long special educational needs training course in Trinity College, I came across an ad for a home tutor to work with a young boy (Alex was just six years of age at the time) with autism. Filled with enthusiasm for a new challenge, I thought to myself, ‘that would be an interesting opportunity’—never realising that I would still be working with him in 2005.
Alex is now nine years of age (nearly ten) with a diagnosis of mild/moderate autism. Originally in ICANDO—an ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis) school—for two years, Alex is now in an outreach class in an Educate Together school. His home programme, which was originally put together by his parents and tutors, has evolved to suit him and his needs. Initially, Alex had two home tutors, but I have been his sole tutor for the past 12 months. I work with him for a two-hour session twice a week after school, following a similar pattern every session.
What we do
As everyone experienced in autism knows, routine is all-important and it is critical that we stick to the routines we have. Using a picture timetable which supports both his need for predictability and his visual strengths, Alex would usually choose 12 tasks (from a wide variety of choices) for his two-hour session. Based mainly in his bedroom (but sometimes we go to the local park or the shops) using trampoline, ball play, jigsaws, games, toys and books, we concentrate a lot on language, since Alex has a severe receptive and expressive language delay. These tasks would include working on both gross and fine motor and sensory tasks, using occupational and play therapies. Play activities include turn-taking, following rules, pretend play, etc. One of Alex’s greatest strengths is his reading ability, so we do some shared reading, concentrating again on turn-taking, describing scenes and answering ‘wh’ questions, some of which Alex has difficulty in interpreting.
A speech and language therapist has recently assessed Alex in his school and the resulting report highlighted areas of weakness for us to focus on. Sequencing, attributes, time and many other areas of language are covered in Alex’s sessions and outside of term time, we work on writing and maths skills. Alex likes to know that his work with me is different to that of school, so we differentiate the work when necessary.
It can be a challenge to find different approaches and ways of using materials in a lively way in order to keep Alex focussed. One example of working on information-carrying words (ICW) might be by using choices: ‘Alex…turn over the third card in the second row and if it is a club put it in the pink bowl.’ Then, on the expressive function, he could take a turn and suggest: ‘Linda…turn over the last card in the first line and if it is a heart, put it in the green bowl,’—thus working on his language processing and concentration.
Three years on, I have gained so much from my work with Alex. I know his traits and foibles so well now—I know better than to make the sound of a train, for example, as this could upset him greatly. Or I know not to ask what he finds so funny when he is laughing away to himself, because he will just tell me that ‘we will not laugh.’ And I will treasure the little gems such as ‘No, you are not turning the timer on. We are putting the shapes in the puzzle,’—when I want to go again with a particular game!
Sometimes the work can be quite isolating, and without the support of Alex’s parents and siblings, it could be lonely work! Outside support from speech and language therapists and occupational therapists would be hugely beneficial, but that is not always possible, as everyone with such needs knows.
However, in conclusion, adequate preparation and appropriate training can lead to the wonderful experience that is working with children with autism. And I would hate to give it all up!