Monday, 5 July 2010

On Autism

These are notes which I took for work. I thought I might get to present them in a staff meeting or something but it never happened, so here is as good a place as any to put them. Feel free to skip it. For me it was all a revelation.

“People give each other messages with their eyes, but I do not know what they are saying”

Person with autism. Asperger Syndrome or High Functioning Autism, ed. Eric Schopler

Theory of mind: the ability to attribute thoughts and feelings to others, and to understand that others have perspectives that are unique and different from our own. Theory of mind has been referred to as “the capacity to mind read.” There is evidence that this ability is impaired in people with autism. Discussion of theory of mind has made us aware that there is a system of unspoken communication which carries essential information, but which people with autism do not have access to.

Carol Gray also makes the point that confusion and feelings of being overwhelmed and misunderstood are not just felt by the individual with autism, but also by parents, professionals, friends, etc. To improve social communication, methods and materials must address both sides of the social equation... She encourages parents and professionals to “abandon assumptions” – we interpret people’s behaviour through assumptions based on common social understandings, but a person with autism may be perceiving events very differently.

The result is a shared social impairment – two people interpreting the same event differently. This makes it difficult to understand one another and interact. Parents or professionals become frustrated if a child responds “inappropriately” or “without apparent reason”, but the child with autism may view the statements or actions of others as out of context, illogical and overwhelming. To them, their response makes sense.

Social stories and comic strip conversations were tools developed by educator Carol Gray to help people with autism with social interactions, and to bridge this communication gap. Conceived by Carol Gray in Michigan in the early 1990s, they are used to translate these “secrets” of social interactions for people with autism.

Asperger Syndrome or High Functioning Autism ed Eric Schopler

Sensory perception. I went on a course at a fantastic special needs school where they told us about sensory perception and about developing a 'sensory profile' for each child. Everybody has over or under sensitivity to the senses - for example, whether you prefer a very strong massage or a gentle one tells you whether you are over or undersensitive to touch, or if you prefer to study in silence or listening to loud music tells you about your over or undersensitivity to sound.

Children with special needs such as autism give cues to understanding their sensory perception in their behaviour - if a child rocks themselves, for example, this may be connected with their proprioception or vestibular senses (sense of motion and sense of balance,) and they are trying to calm themselves and hype themselves up at the same time - to find their 'window of optimum performance', as the nice lady on the course described it. It may seem puzzling behaviour but in fact they are trying to deal with their senses in the best way that they can.

We all do this to a greater or lesser degree, but if you imagine that many children with autism cannot speak or communicate easily, these behaviours driven by their individual sensory perception can communicate their thoughts and feelings clearly, if people are aware of them and can learn to read them, and it opens up the pathway to communcation and understanding.

I was working with a little boy with autism all this year. He has been a pleasure and a delight all around, but it was a challenge... When they cut the budget for special needs (or marshall all the special needs kids into special schools away from the normals - like much else about Tory policy, it is all thoroughly thought through and consistent - where is the money going to come from for special schools, which require a ton of money, greater staff to children ratio and specialist resources & training, if they are cutting the special needs budget in mainstream schools along with everything else?) and these kids lose their one on one support, it is going to be fucking terrible.


  1. Yes it will be terrible for pupils and their already struggling families. As for incredible professionals who do so much and spend long periods of time being poked and prodded by inspectors....don't get me started.
    This is my sister's school:
    You might find the Sensory Curriculum interesting. It's a marvelous place.

  2. It looks fabulous Arabella - I like the Forest School too. Mainstream schools should take their cues from special schools I think, a lot of it is just good practice. (Right. Bowleserised told me about a special school which was criticised by Ofsted for not teaching modern foreign languages, when most of the children couldn't speak at all, they communicated with Makaton...)

  3. Yup... Where my friend's mum worked.

    I'm fascinated. Earlier this year I watched an autistic boy riding really rather well for a beginner, which is interesting as horse riding is all about minute physical signals and communication. True, he was on a leading rein, but he was "posting" (rising at trot) better than a lot of the nonautistic kids in the class. I wonder how he'd do if it were possible to have more lessons.

  4. Intriguing. I did see a documentary on savants with autism, you know how some children or adults have a gift in one area (like drawing, or numbers) - one theory is that they are able to filter out everything else and concentrate just on that one thing, in a way that people without autism can't do. It seems to go hand in hand with the obsession with one specific thing that some people with autism have.

  5. I've read great things about autistic kids surfing and horseriding, partly because in both activities you are so exactly "in the moment" physically, that everything else is blocked out. Maybe that helps them too?

    Have also heard amazing tales of horses that work with people with all sorts of problems from emotional to physical to mental. I met someone who used to have a RDA pony when he had his "holiday". For most of the year he slowly and carefully carried disabled kids. Then he went to stay with her for the summer, and he galloped everywhere, threw her umpteen times and generally they had many rip-roaring adventures. As soon as he went back to the RDA centre he was quiet as a lamb.

    One woman who used to work for Riding for the Disabled said that they had a pony which was certified to carry kids with grand mal epilepsy.
    If the child had a fit on its back, the pony would just stop and wait. No panic (imagine that in a prey animal which fears something terrifying on its back). No bolting. Just stopped and waited.
    Horses bond by oxycontin, same as humans do. I think there must be a little cross-species transmmission of that hormone.

  6. be aware, tories also do things in a sly way. When my son's school was under threat they didn't openly cut cash but more children were mainsteamed, starving the scholl of it's intake and therefore reason for being. A letter was sent to all parents of special needs asking for their thoughts on mainstreaming but as a parent of 1 spec needs and 3 others I took the letter to their mainstream school and asked why they thought I wasn't being asked my opinion in that direcion too? Mainstream school not happy and scheme got publicity it wasn't expecting. Good luck!

  7. B, that is amazing. I did pass on the info about riding school you gave me to our PE teacher, but I guess it would need someone more passionate about it (and more enlightened management than we have) to push it through. Oxytocin? I never knew about that before. Intriguing.

    Hello Anonymous - they are dead sly. I hope your son's school manages to survive, and good on you for challenging it...

  8. Yes, yes. I think anything that a teacher has a passion for will help. Could be horses, or surfing or... But it does take a lot of support from the relevants to get it off the ground.

    These peeps are great too (maybe more relevant than Hoof?):