Due to the fact that autism is still relatively new in Lesotho and in Africa, teachers and school staff often find themselves in a difficult position where they do not know how to deal with problematic behaviour, especially in inclusive schools. Often times it takes experience and knowledge to really understand why a child is behaving the way they do, so that they are given the necessary support. According to Autism speaks, an inclusive-minded, informed administration sets the stage for a successful inclusive school. When school administrators and principals have a positive attitude about their students with special needs, their attitudes establish expectations and the tone for the entire school staff and students. This tone can have a profound effect on the potential outcome for the student and on the entire student body developing a lifelong consideration for people with special needs.
Considerations related to staffing, planning and training:
- Provide introductory and on-going staff training and awareness, ranging from raising the skill levels of special education staff, to supporting general education teachers, specials providers, bus drivers etc in their understanding and knowledge of autism and their students.
- Support the exchange of information and promote collaboration among departments and staff, to support each student across settings. When the team collaborates to share success and trouble shoot problems, everyone benefits.
- Include 1:1 or classroom paraprofessionals in trainings, IEP meetings, related therapies (speech, OT, etc.) sessions and positive behavior support planning and evaluation; they often spend more time with a student with autism, across settings, than any other staff in the school. They can provide valuable knowledge about the student and ensure effective implementation of programs.
- Promote opportunities for regular team meetings and open communication.
- Be proactive – support the IEP team in developing positive behavior plans with an emphasis on providing supports and interventions necessary to AVOID behaviors.
- Encourage the school staff to think creatively – recess can be an ideal time for a push-in intervention from the speech pathologist or occupational therapist, who even once a week could model strategies and set up games staff (and peers) could continue over the rest of the week.
Considerations related to the individual student:
- Prepare in advance for transitions. Invite the student to view a new classroom or school prior to the first day so that he has time to take in the new surroundings (and staff, if possible) without overwhelming sensory stimuli.
- Get personal. Friendly greetings and a sense of acceptance can help to make a student feel comfortable in the school. Encourage the use of the “About Me” information sheet so the student’s family or someone who knows the student well can provide helpful information. Use it to get to know relevant facts about each particular student’s likes, fears, needs, etc.
- Learn something about each student to form a personal connection, and celebrate successes with behavior specific praise (for example, “I like how you are walking in the hall so quietly!”)
- Be mindful of a student’s communication challenges; ask the student’s special education staff to give you guidelines for communication. Understand that you may need to give the student additional time to respond to a question or he may need to use an alternative communication device or communication strategy such as picture exchange.
- Be cognizant of the student’s need to develop living skills, and promote opportunities for inclusion in the school community and steps toward independence as possible.
- Allow opportunities for staff to practice skills outside of the chaos of certain situations so that the student can develop a skill without all the confounding sensory and social issues (for example, allow a child to go early to dress for P.E. in a quiet locker room or to practice using a tray or ordering lunch a few minutes before classmates arrive, with the goal of eventually being able to generalize these skills to the regular time schedule when possible).
Considerations relating to students with autism and their typical peers:
- Be aware of the vulnerability of students with autism and their propensity to be victims of bullying – proactively build a school culture where bullying is not acceptable through awareness building, peer sensitivity, strategies and procedures.
- Students with autism are not socially savvy; therefore, if a student is being bullied or tortured quietly, he is likely to react or respond – but may not do so in a way that seems appropriate or is easy to recognize. Consider the student’s communication difficulties and make every attempt to fully understand the situation before reaching judgment regarding fault or behavior. Recognize that the stress of a difficult situation may make it even more difficult for the student with autism to express himself and that his desire for peer attention may make him reluctant to report or confirm bullying behavior.
- Ensure that students with autism are part of the school community and informed of school events and opportunities – this is often overlooked for students in specialized classrooms who might not participate in homeroom. For students with autism it would be helpful if emails or memos were sent home to the child’s family if announcements are made during school regarding important school information; students with autism may not go home and let their family know of announcements that they have heard in school.
- Promote opportunities for social interaction and development – find ways to include students with autism in school productions, extra curricular activities and clubs.
- Consider peer groups for social skills trainings, and peer buddies to support and shield a vulnerable student.
- Provide peer supports and training. Considerations relating to the student with autism’s family
- Be considerate of the family’s needs and expectations. Be sure to include them in all meetings and discussions involving the student.
Considerations relating to behavior problems and incidents:
In many schools, when a student exhibits a maladaptive behavior that is seen as aggressive, dangerous or refractory to other interventions, the principal or another administrator is called in to the situation. In these instances, it is essential to remember that behavior is a means of communication, and not necessarily an overt desire to inflame or harm others. It is rare that an extreme behavior just occurs one day. More often an extreme behavior occurs when there is a pattern of inappropriate supports and interventions and the student builds up frustration over time.
If called in to assist:
- Be familiar with the details of the student’s positive behavior support plan.
- Remain calm.
- Take care not to embarrass or reprimand the child immediately and in view of others.
- When addressing the student, use limited verbal directions. Less can be more.
- Excessive talking and agitated adults can escalate a situation and overwhelm the student and impede his ability to understand and comply with directions or communicate to his best ability. A few minutes of quiet followed by short, simple sentences can help everyone.
- Use established guidelines for communication and be prepared to wait for a response.
- Give choices to help engage the student and de-escalate his sense of being pushed around (for example, ‘Do you want to talk about this in the nurse’s office or in my office?’).
- Use written input/visual choices/cartooning/social narratives to investigate the student’s perspective, feelings and interpretation and to teach why his actions were unacceptable.
- Sending the message to the student that the team is working to understand his perspective and trying to figure out why he exhibited maladaptive behavior (and then following up by instituting appropriate supports and preventive measures) may be more helpful to changing the student’s behavior than a consequence such as suspension. Remember that the goal is to halt the behavior and prevent it from occurring in the future.
- Obtain the facts relating to the situation from a variety of sources, remembering to gather information on the behavior, as well as the events and conditions leading up to the behavior (especially sensory issues that are often not considered) and the consequences typically employed for similar behaviors that have occurred previously (responses or inadvertent rewards for maladaptive behaviors can increase, rather than reduce, them).
- Recognize and consider that interventions and strategies currently in use, even if well-intentioned, may be contributing to the development of the behavior.
- Take care in interacting with the student’s family, who generally dread reports of behavior. Remember that this happened at school, and while the child is their responsibility, the conditions that led to the behavior were outside of their control. Be mindful of their perspective and insights in working as a team in understanding the underlying cause of the behavior and developing a plan for promoting effective replacement behaviour.