SEND: Teenagers with autism

Written by: Kristina Symons | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Understanding autism can allow teachers to better support students, especially when they encounter difficulties. Kristina Symons looks here at two prevailing traits of ASD as well as the social anxiety that is often common – and offers some practical advice

Teaching older teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be very difficult. On the surface they may appear to be the model student; they are not rude or confrontational (far from it), they are quiet and respectful in class, they work hard and meet deadlines; but underneath their coping mechanisms lie a range of difficulties both complex and intense, which prevent them from achieving their potential at school.

Although every autistic teenager is different, with a differing profile and differing needs, my work with autistic teenagers has led me to conclude that there are two prevailing traits that need to be recognised by all teachers before these young learners can achieve in line with their underlying ability. The first is the emotional and intellectual developmental delay, the second is the importance of routine and structure.

Emotional/Intellectual developmental delay

“I have always felt young for my age, my interests, my social skills. If I just grow up a bit, maybe I will enjoy school more. Maybe over time it will get easier. I am slow to develop.” Sam, 17, Asperger’s syndrome

ASD teenagers enter puberty at the expected time. Physically, they meet the same milestones as their peers, but many specialists believe that their emotional and intellectual milestones will be at least two years behind.

Let’s take the emotional development of neurotypical teenagers. They grow more concerned over appearance and understand the importance of personal hygiene, when to wash and brush their teeth for example. They can be moody and opinionated, but are usually able to recognise and verbalise their thoughts and emotions.

Most teenagers will begin to emotionally move away from their parents and place increasing importance on friendships and will desire to be independent and “out of the house”. ASD teenagers, however, do not reach these milestones at the same time. They still feel the need to be guided by their parents in terms of when to wash and what to eat, and prefer to be at home where they feel safe with their family rather than socialise with their peers.

“In my own time I prefer to be at home where I can explore my own interests. I prefer to be with my family rather than the people I know at school. I know that my friends think my interests are babyish.” Callum, 17, Asperger’s syndrome

Some of my students have admitted that they still play with toys. Alice, 14, with a diagnosis of ASD, still loves to dress her teddy bears, while Zak, 15, also autistic, is “fixated with Warhammer”. It is common to see ASD teenagers become obsessed with one particular interest.

“If I have an interest, I keep it for a long time. I’m not a flexible person when it comes to interests. It has always been one thing at a time which affects me a lot. I have no desire to do anything else because I am so absorbed in this one thing.” Zak, 15, ASD

It is important that subject teachers recognise this emotional and intellectual delay, as this will have a great impact on the ASD teenager’s ability to understand and comment on subject content that requires more advanced interpretation and higher order thinking.

Emotional delay: Advice for teachers

  • Accept that there is a gap in the emotional development of ASD teenagers. Do not expect them to show the same maturity as their peers. This is particularly true of subjects that require inference and analysis.
  • Let them know that it is okay to have their interests. Let them talk about their hobby and show enthusiasm for their knowledge in their chosen area.
  • Encourage them to make friends with like-minded students. Encourage them to share their interest with others so they can develop their social skills. This will avoid them being isolated or marginalised.

Routine, structure and meltdowns

“I had a meltdown on PSHE day when we all had to work in mixed groups in the hall. I couldn’t stop crying. All I kept thinking was when is this going to be over? When can I go back to my normal lessons?” Ellie, 13, ASD

Many teachers will have witnessed an autistic student have a “meltdown” as a result of a break in routine at school. It is important that we understand how routine and structure shapes and manages the ASD teenager’s day and gives them a sense of security and control at school. The repetitive sequence and order of the school day is fundamental to their stability. If their timetable goes even a little bit off schedule, the effect can be devastating.

The break in the normal routine can result in the autistic teenager feeling completely overwhelmed and can lead to a meltdown or shutdown. A meltdown can be very sudden and occasionally violent. It can result in tears, or a panic attack, or shouting and screaming. A shutdown will lead to silence and no cooperation. Either response can be very difficult to deal with and it is advisable that the teacher recognises the importance of routine and structure before it is broken.

Breaks in routine: Advice for teachers

  • Make sure the student has a “normal” experience before the break in routine. For example, take the register as normal in the form room.
  • Make it very clear when the break in routine is going to begin and end. Give set times.
  • Reassure them that they are going to go back to their normal schedule. For example, they will be going home at the usual time or returning to their normal lessons the following day.

Meltdowns: Advice for teachers

  • Be calm. Try not to judge or get angry.
  • Remove the student from the unfamiliar environment to a safe place.
  • Provide them with a safety anchor – a friend or something to fidget with.
  • Take them back in when they have calmed down, but explain clearly what the rest of the day will entail. Would they be happy returning to the venue if they are allowed to doodle or colour in?
  • Agree a distress signal such as showing the palms of their hands, which will allow them to remove themselves from the situation if they begin to feel overwhelmed again.

Reasonable adjustments

Autism is a recognised disability and as such schools need to provide “reasonable adjustments”. It is important that teachers recognise and accept that the autistic learners are emotionally and intellectually behind and that a break in routine may result in a meltdown or shutdown. A reasonable adjustment would be to predict these patterns of behaviour and offer an alternative provision to help the young person cope. Often, what the ASD learner needs most is a kind person who will say “it’s okay” and to accept and understand them.

Social anxiety

“I am not a fan of social situations in general. Other people socialise. I tend to sit on the side in silence. I have always struggled to make friends. It is sad because I have never been in a friendship group. I feel insecure and that people are looking at me.” Sam

It is tough being a teenager, especially when your very sense of being rests on which social group you belong to at school. At secondary school everyone is thrown together in a great social boiling pot and left to “make friends”. This is second nature for some, but for children with ASD it is a time of great anxiety and often the beginning of many years of misery.

Recently, a group of year 10 girls were chatting about the different social groups at school, which they said seemed to fall into four groups: the confident and often image-conscious, the sporty types who define themselves according to the sport they play, the academically orientated and driven, and the non-conformists who break the mould in terms of appearance/opinions.

This led me to think about the small number of students who do not fit into any of those groups. These are the isolated students whose social skills are “a bit odd” and they are often seen alone, they eat lunch on their own and disappear to the library to be alone.

They don’t establish eye contact or say hello when you walk past them. They struggle to make close and meaningful friendships, and are often the last to be included in group or pair work. It is likely that these children who are “a little bit odd” are on the autistic spectrum and are in fact suffering a deep and troubling social anxiety.

“I prefer to be alone because I am emotionally sensitive. When people tease me I cannot understand it. I don’t know when someone is joking. I don’t understand body language and I don’t understand sarcasm. I prefer to be alone. I would like friends though.” Zak

Most children with ASD in mainstream secondary schools are alone because they have been repeatedly rejected from social groups, so isolate themselves in order to protect themselves. The result of this isolation is often a social anxiety so crippling that they are debilitated in any social situation.

At school they fear being judged, rejected or victimised by others, whether it be in class, or the playground. They suffer from a fear of not knowing what to expect from the social situation and a fear of getting it wrong.

Typically, this social anxiety worsens with age. Studies have shown that more than 50 per cent of older teenagers with ASD never see friends out of school, are never invited to social gatherings and are never included in social media conversations.

Some people believe that ASD teenagers don’t want friends, but they do. At the very least they want to be socially accepted and feel that they can come to school without the fear of being judged or excluded.

So what can we do as teachers to help these teenagers feel less social anxiety and teach them to connect with others both in and out of the classroom?

In class: Overcoming social anxiety

Social anxiety in ASD teenagers often presents as an intense fear of speaking in front of others in a classroom discussion. In my experience, this is particularly true of girls with ASD. Not only will this fear of speaking in public affect their ability to fully participate in the lesson, but it will add to their difficulty when making friends.

“I get nervous contributing to discussion in class, so I sit quietly. If a teacher picks on me to speak, realistically there will be 10 seconds of silence before I speak and then I will only say ‘I don’t know’, so the teacher stops asking me to speak in the end.” Sam

In order to help the ASD teenager progress, this situation needs adult intervention. First, it is important that the student spends a few minutes alone with the teacher building this relationship. My advice for any subject teacher with a pupil suffering from anxiety in the classroom would be the following.

Social anxiety: Tips for teachers

  • Let the student know what to expect from your lesson beforehand if it entails group work or whole-class discussions.
  • Let them know it’s okay not to speak, but put them in a group with other members who will invite them to speak and value their contributions.
  • Establish a safe sign for when the student is beginning to feel overwhelmed or panic, for example, hold hands up with both palms facing the teacher to indicate distress.
  • Don’t ever force them to speak publicly, if you do then you won’t be a safe person and they won’t trust you. Praise them privately if they do have the courage to speak in front of others.

Out of class: Overcoming social anxiety

It is even more important for the student to establish meaningful friendships with their peers and this often entails adult intervention. The first step to dealing with the social anxiety out of the classroom is for the student to form a positive relationship with an adult at the school and to learn to trust them. This could be a teacher, teaching assistant or adult mentor. Once this trust has been established, the mentor could try the following.

  • Get to know the student’s talents, motivations and aspirations – for example, gaming or animation. Find, or create an opportunity for the student to develop their interest in a social setting. Is there a gaming or film club at the school?
  • On a one-to-one basis, prepare the ASD teenager by telling them what to expect before they go to the club. When and where is it held? Who else goes to the club? Is there a kind student in the club who they could go and talk to? Ask the person who runs the club to welcome the student.
  • Rehearse an initial conversation with the student in a role-play situation. Give them top tips: How can I start a conversation? What should I say during a conversation? How do I know when it is somebody else’s turn to talk? How do I know if someone wants to end a conversation?
  • Give the student positive reinforcement for attending the social event and talk through any situations which were confusing or uncomfortable. Talk about friendship and how friendships work. What can I expect from a friend? How can I be a good friend to somebody?

A safe place

Research has shown that teenagers with ASD are more likely to overcome social anxiety at school if they have a positive tie with an adult who will support them in difficult times, a positive friendship and if they participate in extra-curricular activities. If we can foster these three areas, the school will become a safe place for our ASD teenagers – a place where they can make friends.

  • Kristina Symons is head of learning support at Sydenham High School, an all-through school in south London and a member of the Girls’ Day School Trust.


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