A new online support and advocacy service AsIAm.ie has launched a series of guides to help people with autism deal with the major challenges they face at school. For the first time students with autism, their families and teachers can access “Back to School Survival Guides” to ensure people with autism can deal successfully with the isolation, anxiety and sometimes bullying that can accompany their annual return to school.
Speaking at the launch, Adam Harris, 19 year old Founder-CEO of AsIAm, and a young person with Aspergers Syndrome (right) said: “We hope this schools programme will make everyone involved aware of the practical day to day challenges people with autism face in school. We want to start a discussion between parents, teachers and students on how we can build a more inclusive and supportive environment for those on the autism spectrum”.
With the right approach, people with autism can thrive in school. However concentration, school structure, socialising and communicating are challenging aspects of education for those with autism. A new school year therefore brings change and upheaval which many in the autism community find difficult to cope with.
At the launch today, Carrie Burton, a parent of 3 children with Autism said: “The classroom can be very over stimulating for a child with Aspergers or autism. Noise, a large group of people and their own anxiety of trying to self calm in the room can lead them to become over loaded and not follow instructions. Going into a school can feel overwhelming. If teachers don’t understand this complex condition the child can end up with severe anxiety and low self esteem.”
Simple steps can be taken to make school work for people with Autism, she continued. “Class breaks, meditation in the morning for the whole class, access to a sensory room and a buddy system for yard so no one is left isolated, are all steps our school has put in place which have made a huge difference for our children.”
The former President of the ASTI Sally Maguire spoke of the challenge for teachers supporting people with Autism with limited training in the area. “Most teachers in mainstream schools have received no training in the challenges of students with autism and therefore do not know how best to support them. This is particularly difficult in large classes which may also include students of mixed academic abilities, students with other Special Educational Needs and some who for whom English is not their first language.”
According to Laragh (pictured with Adam above), a student with Aspergers who has just successfully completed her Leaving Certificate with grades in the top 1% countrywide, “School was a stressful, lonely place where I felt isolated, bullied and misunderstood.”
The guidebooks produced by AsIAm.ie aim to start discussion between educators, students and families about the needs of students with autism and how school can adapt and support individuals with the condition. This is the first in a series of initiatives AsIAm.ie will be undertaking in the coming months to try and raise awareness of Autism in Irish schools.
AsIAm Back to School Survival Guides are available to download for free on www.AsIAm.ie
Autism is a developmental condition, with people on the Spectrum struggling with social imagination, social communication, social interaction and sensory processing difficulties. The Autism Spectrum is a wide one with people with the condition affected in different ways and to varying degrees. Many people with Autism also have other learning difficulties or other disabilities.
Some people with Autism rely on a high level of support while others can live independently with the correct supports and interventions.
To give people an insight into what the condition is like Adam Harris uses a “spaceship” analogy:
If you can imagine being sent into outer space, to a far off distant planet, a world not built for you. You find it very difficult to cope with your surroundings – noises, smells and textures you are not used to and which seem to affect you much more severely than anyone else around you.
You meet an alien but have no idea how to begin interacting, even though you want to. You are unsure by his/her facial expression and body language whether he is friendly or threatening, happy or sad. You find fitting in, building relationships and even just instigating conversation very challenging.
In this strange world, all you can do to cope is to try and observe your surroundings and make “black and white” judgments about how the world should work – if you can plan what happens and control your surrounding through routine and schedule, you can stay calm but if something changes you can get very anxious as you do not know what this strange world with throw up next.
Maybe if the alien population had a better understanding of Autism they could support you – help you in school, be a friendly face and support you in getting a job. That is AsIAm’s mission.