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A day in the life at an English school for learners with Special Educational Needs

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Recently I had the privilege to spend a day with the brilliant teachers and wonderful pupils at the St Christopher Academy Trust specialist school near Southend in the UK who work with children at both primary and secondary level on the autism spectrum with a variety of communication and interaction needs.

Though this school is not a mainstream ‘regular’ school it very much follows the UK national curriculum. A number of the children go onto further education and the focus is on developing life skills for all whatever the learning challenge using a variety of child centred learning approaches. More detailed information on the school is available at

Learners on the Autism spectrum

All learning difficulties and special educational needs are on a spectrum and learners with autism (often known as the autism spectrum disorder or ASD) may function quite effectively (often children described as having Asperger syndrome) in a learning context or may have what is understood as ‘classical autism’ where they are unable to function independently with little or no language/ communication skills and are likely to need to be looked after all their lives. It is not clear why a child may be autistic but what is clear is that there is no ‘template’ on how to work with learners on the autistic spectrum. Like all learners, they are all individuals and require individual approaches in developing their skills.

Do you recognise these behaviours and are these reactions typical of some teachers in your context?

  • “He is just manipulative”
  • “She acts like she cannot hear”
  • “He is inconsistent”
  • “She is very distractible”
  • “He is off in another world”
  • “She does just what she wants to”
  • “He doesn’t pay attention”
  • “I know she understands – she just doesn’t want to do it”
  • “He seems to have obsessive behaviour which I can’t deal with”

These feelings and reactions may be immediate reactions to difficult and inappropriate behaviour by learners with ASD but it would be helpful for us to begin to understand what the causes of such behaviour are and then how we can effectively manage such behaviour in both ourselves and our learners.

Learners on with ASD are likely to have difficulties with the following;

  • Processing and retaining verbal information
  • Following instructions
  • Organising and planning
  • Seeing the bigger picture
  • Focus or motivation
  • Coping with change / unpredictability
  • Working co-operatively
  • Processing sensory information
  • Difficulty understanding and expressing feelings

The main challenge for learners with ASD are social and interaction needs and essentially is an issue that they think and function differently in social situations. Because of this, they need to learn in different ways and to develop appropriate social skills and behaviour in order to function appropriately in ‘our world’ . Sadly, most school curricula are not ‘autism friendly’. Learning difficulties may arise from:

  • An excessive high sensitivity to sensory stimuli;
  • Inability to understanding abstract concepts such as, goodness, fairness, metaphor or humour;
  • An inability to understand appropriate behaviour in social contexts;
  • How to make to friends.

Children on the autism spectrum are ripe for bullying at school and, unfortunately, usually are.

The gift of autism

Learners on the autism spectrum are, however, usually expert in a favourite subject often with strong interest in technology or the creative arts. They are also, especially if more able, have a very clear self-awareness of their personal strengths, challenges and gifts. Given the real challenges with both verbal and written language – usually essential as part of any communication – a visual approach to presenting information is often essential.

So, how can I support learners with ASD in my classroom?

Of course, the ideal situation is where professionals such as speech therapists, educational psychologists and other professionals are working together with any school across the curriculum. And the more teachers have an understanding of the ASD and the needs of learners the better. However, good practice methodology is often going to be ‘the difference that makes the difference’.

In my day at St Christopher’s I saw great examples of really good teaching and classroom. These included:

  • Ensuring learners had a clear understanding of the timetable of the day through a visual timetable of what would be covered and when
  • Planning lessons where subjects such as numeracy and literacy would be earlier in the day and more creative subjects such as arts in the afternoon
  • Offering individual education plans to ensure that while the focus is on access to the curriculum for everyone and interventions are targeted to specific individual learning needs
  • Integrating ‘whole brain’ activities through using drawing, music, songs and games into all lessons
  • Demonstrating practical application of subjects with hands on experience so learners can discover for themselves
  • Delivering subject knowledge in meaningful ways but also ensuring an approach to consistent behaviour in the classroom – knowing when to listen to the teacher, when and how to be on task and structures such as putting up hands before answering questions or asking before moving about the class
  • Ensuring different types of assessment – including self-assessment.
  • Explaining behaviour and the consequences of behaviour through social stories as one of the main challenges with learners with ASD is in not understanding appropriate behaviour. This is a really powerful technique
  • Providing a safe room where a learner can go at any time for a calming environment or for release of stress/ anger away from others

Inclusion in practice

While St Christopher’s is a specialist school and not an example of a mainstream school I hope you can see that the school is a great example of ‘inclusion’ as they i) do follow the national curriculum; ii) a significant number take GCSE’s or do vocational and other training; iii) It’s a really good example of how and where best to place learners based on their individual needs.

While a general approach to inclusion means all learners will benefit from learning in a diverse classroom this should not mean there is a single ‘one size fits all approach’. The needs of individual learners should always be the priority ensuring access to the curriculum and quality of education for all.

Essentially, what I experienced in the school – through very targeted child centred approaches for learners with complex communication and interaction needs was very good teaching and learning methodology which could be applied in various ways in any school.

I can only thank the teachers and pupils for letting be into their life briefly and helping me to understand their needs so much better. I have learnt so much from them.

Phil Dexter is a teacher development adviser for the British Council with responsibility for primary, secondary and special educational needs. Phil manages the delivery of the new TeachingEnglish special educational teacher training course.

The New Social Story Book, 10 Anniversary Edition, Carol Gray, Future Horizons, Inc, 2010