Mak­ing us autism aware

He­len O’Cal­laghan on the AsIAm school pro­gramme

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Parenting -

WHEN AsIAm founder Adam Har­ris was di­ag­nosed with Asperger’s aged four, very few on the autis­tic spec­trum at­tended main­stream school and many peo­ple hadn’t heard of the con­di­tion.

“Now, every­body’s heard of it – most peo­ple can point to some­one on the autis­tic spec­trum – and 86% of chil­dren on the spec­trum at­tend main­stream school,” says Har­ris, who founded the na­tional autism char­ity five years ago.

With one in 65 pupils di­ag­nosed as on the autis­tic spec­trum, there’s still huge work to be done around un­der­stand­ing autism/Asperger’s and hav­ing mean­ing­ful in­clu­sion in schools. “We’ve main­streamed peo­ple into schools quite quickly in Ire­land, but sup­ports and ex­per­tise aren’t universal.

Some schools are fan­tas­tic – teach­ers have done ad­di­tional train­ing, the en­vi­ron­ment’s been made right and huge work done to en­sure the school com­mu­nity is very ac­cept­ing of autism. Other schools haven’t done this,” says Har­ris.

Chil­dren on the spec­trum rely on a sup­port­ive sen­sory en­vi­ron­ment to get through the day. “They process the en­vi­ron­ment dif­fer­ently – busy class­rooms, crowded cor­ri­dors, hec­tic lunch­rooms can be very chal­leng­ing.”

AsIAm of­fers schools pro­grammes to help fos­ter autism un­der­stand­ing and is work­ing on a schools frame­work with Ir­ish Pri­mary Prin­ci­pals’ Network and the Joint Man­age­rial Body to en­sure schools are sup­port­ive and autism-friendly. A child-cen­tred ap­proach is vi­tal – each child on the spec­trum is dif­fer­ent. “One might need ac­cess to move­ment breaks through­out the day, an­other ac­cess to quiet room if things get too much, an­other might need to leave class five min­utes early so they’re not caught in a crowded cor­ri­dor.”

Har­ris finds many schools un­able to iden­tify en­vi­ron­men­tal trig­gers for chil­dren with autism – trig­gers like level of light­ing in class­room, noise of writ­ing on white­board, feel of school uni­form. “Just as we con­sider whether a school’s wheel­chair-friendly, schools need to do a sen­sory au­dit.” has sen­sory check­list, look­ing at ev­ery­thing from light­ing and colour to smells in the en­vi­ron­ment from an autism per­spec­tive.

“A child might need to wear sun­glasses/base­ball cap if light­ing’s too much or ear­phones to re­duce back­ground noise. Chil­dren with autism need to be able to cre­ate their own en­vi­ron­ment,” says Har­ris.

TAK­ING CHARGE: Adam Har­ris says chil­dren with autism need to be able to cre­ate their own en­vi­ron­ment.

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