Gill D. Ansell has over 14 years’ experience of ASDs, and previously worked as a teaching assistant, both at schools for children with Autism and Asperger Syndrome, and in a mainstream primary school.
Here, she answers some questions about her new book, Working with Asperger Syndrome in the Classroom: An Insider’s Guide.
Tell us about you, your background and your role in the day-to-day life of students with ASD in mainstream education.
I started working in pre-schools when my own children were young and got the most satisfaction working with the children with challenging behaviours. However, it wasn’t until I moved back to Hampshire (UK) and worked in another pre-school that I worked with a child on the autism spectrum who also exhibited challenging behaviours. Finding it an interesting condition, I visited a local school which was autism specific and, soon afterwards, started working there as a Special Support Assistant and within months transferred to a school which was Asperger Syndrome specific. I spent five years there and got a good understanding of the condition and how students with it can be affected before moving to a mainstream school working as a Teaching Assistant with children with special needs, including Asperger Syndrome (AS).
I wrote this book because I realised that over the years I had accumulated a lot of knowledge about working with students with AS and wanted to share what I had learned. It was also because I realised that, although there are many books out there with vast amounts of valuable information in about AS, there were limited books that were written in simple English which could be accessed and read quickly. I know that many teachers and TA’s do not have the time to read lengthy non-fiction books with technical jargon in – I get so frustrated when I start to read a book and need a dictionary next to me to translate as I go along. It doesn’t flow and I find it harder to digest what I’m reading. Therefore, I wanted to produce a book that could be read and understood easily and the strategies put into place as soon after reading it as possible. Another reason I wrote the book was because I wanted to show that with a few simple strategies a child with AS has a better chance of accessing mainstream education successfully.
How did your position as a Teaching Assistant enable you to find the most effective strategies for communicating with students with AS?
As a Teaching Assistant (TA) I felt able to work closely with the students with AS; to get to know them as a person; to get to see the world the way they see it and from there develop strategies to help individuals. Sometimes, I tried new strategies which in reality were just ideas I had which I thought could work with a particular individual – that’s why it is important to know the student as an individual.
I’m a firm believer that just because I know a student with AS it doesn’t mean that I know every student with AS. They are all individuals and deserve to be treated as such and what works with one student won’t necessarily work with another. I think what has helped me develop strategies has been that I have changed the schools where I have worked and, as well as doing in-house training, I made sure I went out and did external training and discovered new ideas and methods used by others which I could take back and use in the school I was at, at the time. Personal development is important to me and that’s why I felt it was important to work in different places and do external training – I would never have learnt all that I did if I had stayed in the same place.
Why is consistency in the classroom so important for students with ASD?
It’s important to work as a team, so the child understands that everyone is working together. If you’re not working as a team the child’s anxieties can rise and result in negative behaviours. These negative behaviours could be reduced with staff working together in the best interest of the child. That’s not to say you can’t be an individual because you can and you can also work independently but the fact is, you are still part of a bigger team. Any team not working together will be unlikely to achieve successful results and it will be their own doing. Working in a team means you may have to compromise sometimes, but if you’re all working together for the benefit for the child then it will be worth it. Also, when you’re working as part of a team you can share ideas and continue your own learning, developing ideas together.
Which of the strategies in the book are your favourite or most effective?
I have a couple of favourite strategies which I made up on the spur of the moment. The first one is the ‘Strategy Book’. A child I was working with kept using the ‘f’ word in the playground when he got upset with peers and he really didn’t know any other thing he could do instead. Well, that’s not entirely true – when I asked him what he could do instead he said ‘I could punch him instead!’
So, we found a new exercise book and I explained that we were going to teach him some new strategies which wouldn’t get him into trouble. I drew a cloud shape on a clean page and in the centre of it I wrote ‘Instead of swearing I could …’ then gave 3 things he could do instead. I talked him through the strategies and then we role played them. We would then read through the strategy book each morning, to reinforce his learning. Over several years we built up a bank of strategies for him to use for different problems. Eventually he was able to use the strategies without looking at the book each day.
Another favourite is the ‘Good Book’. Again, it was a spur of the moment idea and was so easy to implement. It would take me only a few minutes at the end of the day to write something positive in the book. If I’d had a particularly bad day with the student, I would ask another staff member if they had noticed something positive the student had done, and there was always something to write in the book. It is such a simple but useful tool, not only for the student but for parents and staff to look at as well.
What advice would you give to teachers and TAs who might be having trouble with a student they suspect is on the autism spectrum?
I’m no longer a TA and now work a lot with parents so I know that they often know their child is different long before the school do. I feel it’s important to work with the family, find out what strategies work at home and try to understand that many children with AS can manage to contain their anxieties at school for a number of reasons, but then when they get home they release these anxieties often in an aggressive and disruptive manner. It is important to understand that this is not down to bad parenting – the child needs to be understood at school and given opportunities to speak, in confidence, with staff about what they are anxious about. Many of these students are academically able and their needs are not always recognised by school staff. Transition times can be traumatic for many of these children, as can breaks and lunchtimes as they are unstructured times.
If staff suspect a child has an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) observation is crucial, not just in lessons but in unstructured times. Learn about ASDs, limit language and check the student’s understanding. If staff can make a diary of behaviours which are giving them cause for concern it can help build a better picture of the child and this could involve speaking with other staff that work with the child, including the dinner staff, maintenance and playground staff views are important. The sooner these children’s needs and difficulties are recognised the sooner the strategies can be put in place and the more chance the child has of learning more positive behaviours before negative behaviours become entrenched. It can also be helpful to have written evidence to support the parent if they take their child for a diagnosis.
Read Gill’s article: ‘How Educators Can Help Students with Asperger Syndrome Relieve Anxieties at School (and Avoid Meltdowns at Home!)’
Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.