Clare Lawrence is the author of the new title Successful School Change and Transition for the Child with Asperger Syndrome: A Guide for Parents as well as How to Make School Make Sense: A Parents’ Guide to Helping the Child with Asperger Syndrome, both published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Clare Lawrence is a teacher and mother of two children, one of whom has Asperger syndrome. She is a graduate of Oxford, York, Northumbria, Sheffield Hallam and Birmingham universities. She has a University Certificate in autism spectrum disorders and a post-graduate certificate in Asperger syndrome. For the last four years, she has been working closely with schools and exploring practical solutions on how to make school make sense for children with Asperger syndrome.
Your new book focuses on transition. Why is moving school a particularly daunting prospect for children with Asperger Syndrome and how can this transition be made smoother?
Moving to a new school can be a pretty daunting prospect for any child – I think as adults we may forget just how daunting! Unfortunately, for someone with Asperger syndrome it can be doubly (or triply) difficult. Changing schools means losing the familiarity and routines that have been so carefully and painstakingly built up and plunging back into the unknown. Instead of familiar teachers and support staff whom he (or she) has come to know, at the new school a pupil with AS may be faced with four or five different teachers a day, each delivering a different subject and having different styles, expectations and rules. Instead of a familiar environment, he may be faced with the challenge of repeated movement from place to place, from room to room. Each room will have different lighting, different smells, different background noise. In each, he has to work out where to sit, what to do and to try to predict what will happen next… and that’s after he’s actually found the room! He may lack the communication skills to be able to say he is confused or be able to ask for help and he is unlikely to be able to tap into the kind of ‘collective understanding’ that his peers are using. He has to deal with break times and lunch times when it may be far from clear what he is supposed to do with himself, and he may have to deal with a less than kindly attitude from some of the other pupils. Everything about a new school may be very daunting indeed.
This transition can be made smoother if he is given time (which is a scarce commodity in most schools), space (ditto!) and plenty of opportunity to prepare. Accepting that the transition may be a challenge is a great place to start. If the child with AS, his parents, his current teachers and his new teachers and support staff all accept that there may be problems they can begin to take the issues seriously and, most importantly, they can all work together to come up with solutions to make the transition smoother.
The Lamb Inquiry has called for greater parental involvement in education. As both a parent of a child with Asperger Syndrome and a teacher what are your tips for parents wanting to become more involved with their child’s education?
Keep trying! Yes, it is hard and many parents do feel ‘shut out’ of schools (particularly if their own experience of being at school was not a particularity happy one), but the more they can get involved the more they can ‘interpret’ for their child. Often all that is needed to head off a problem is for someone to spot a misunderstanding and sort it out before it gets out of hand.
One of the great things about current times is that communication is so much easier, if we just use it. An email about an incident is quick and easy to send, and much less official than a letter used to be. A child with AS can text a parent or support assistant if he needs information or advice urgently. A teacher can email a homework assignment home, or send early warning that there will be a different teacher taking a class the next day. AS may involve a communication difficulty, but the technology is there now to help overcome it.
What do you think are the main challenges for teachers working in a mainstream environment and what are the rewards?
In both cases, meeting the needs of the pupils. There are many and varied needs of different pupils – the gifted, those with English as a second language, those special educational needs, those with disabilities …those with all four! Pupils needs don’t fit neatly into boxes, and it is a hugely demanding job meeting all of their needs, and getting the learning across as well. On the other hand, like a circus performer spinning twenty plates, what a buzz when you get it right! Our understanding of what ‘inclusion’ means is becoming so much more sophisticated. In the old days a child with a difference or a special need was expected to fit in as best he could, to be integrated into the school as a whole. Now it is understood that a school has a duty to differentiate to allow for the needs of various children and to adapt its ways to accommodate different pupils (and staff.) The personal rewards for getting that right are enormous.
How has support given to children on the spectrum changed since you first started work as a teacher and what are you hopes for this in the coming years?
I don’t think anyone had even heard of the autistic spectrum when I started – certainly no-one ever mentioned it to me! That has changed, I hope. I think all staff in schools are becoming more aware of the spectrum and better informed about how to help pupils with ASDs. However, there’s still a way to go. My hope for the coming years is that this first generation of adults who were diagnosed young and who have had a chance to grow up understanding their own condition are given an opportunity to be heard. They are the ones who can tell us most about how we can avoid the pitfalls and about how education can be made better for pupils with autism and Asperger syndrome, and we need to listen to them.
What are you currently reading in your spare time?
I don’t know if it counts, but I’m reading the Jeremy James stories by David Henry Wilson to my son with Asperger syndrome at bedtime (my daughter is getting too old for bedtime stories, but I believe she listens through the door!). They are absolutely brilliant, very subversive and they make him chuckle! For myself I’m treating myself to yet another re-read of The Go Between by L P Hartley. I try to make myself take three or four years between readings and then eke it out in thimblefuls to make it last. It is such a beautifully written little book.
Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010
Successful School Change and Transition for the Child with Asperger Syndrome: A Guide for Parents is released this month and is available to order. See the below link for more details.