Making us autism aware
Helen O’Callaghan on the AsIAm school programme
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.”
https://asiam.ie 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.