Autism in the classroom – Why outbursts don’t amount to insolence

Photo of an expressionless teenage boy

Debby Elley examines the challenges that can arise when stressors provoke students with autism into exhibiting seemingly ‘bad’ behaviour…

Debby Elley
by Debby Elley
FREE, BITE-SIZED CPD Great ways to help autistic pupils

When people advised him on his schoolwork, my son used to sometimes snap, ‘I know, I know, I KNOW!

On the surface, this might seem like a classic teenage variant of, ‘Don’t tell me what to do!’ But it wasn’t. My son, now 18, is autistic. When he was 13, he sometimes appeared discourteous, when usually – perplexingly – he was polite and respectful.

A sudden ‘snap’

When it comes to educating autistic teens, it pays to be mindful that apparent non co-operation, obstinacy or rudeness aren’t simply down to disobedience. If you think I’m being an apologist for ‘bad’ behaviour, then you’re absolutely right – I am. Your behaviour policies should make an exception for autistic reactions in the face of distress, otherwise you’ll be dishing out punishment unjustly.

Sometimes, autistic youngsters genuinely can’t help their responses – and here’s why.

In autism, there are two key factors underpinning a sudden ‘snap’. The first is the experience of overload. This has many causes, which vary between individuals. We all have a breaking point; the difference with autistic people, simply put, is that their brain’s alarm system is quite sensitive, leading to an easily triggered survival response of fight, flight or freeze.

The second factor underpinning that ‘snap’ is that autistic people have difficulty with self-regulation. So there’s a double whammy at play – they’re more likely to get overload in the first place, and be less able to modulate their responses when it happens.

Fear of overload

Overload can happen suddenly, as a result of an overwhelming environment, sudden change or pressure. (To witness overload in an instant, spring a ‘surprise’ test).

Smaller stressors can also accumulate over the school day to create overload – hence outbursts over something seemingly insignificant. How prone you are to overload also varies according to levels of sleep, diet, health and all the other things that affect our mental resilience.

What teachers may witness therefore won’t be insolence, but the result of an autistic youngster operating in survival mode. Unfortunately, when it comes to their ‘fight or flight’ response, the latter is typically limited within school settings, leaving them with a ‘fight’ response that often translates into physical or verbal outbursts.

A lack of awareness of these factors is damaging our mainstream autistic population, who are often inappropriately punished, or try to suppress their panic responses rather than show ‘unacceptable’ behaviour. Fear of overload is enough to prevent pupils from performing at their best – or indeed at all, in some instances.

Identifying stressors

So, that’s the bad news. The good news is that we can all help to prevent overload – even if we’re not autism ‘experts’. Find out what a pupil’s stressors are, and then share them with staff they’re in daily contact with. Not just teachers, but also support, admin and canteen teams, too.

When identifying a person’s stressors, collaboration with families is essential. That’s partly why I joined forces with education advisor Gareth D. Morewood to produce the book Championing Your Autistic Teen at Secondary School, so that teachers might benefit from parents’ experience.

Once those stressors are identified, divert the pupil’s daily path away from them. Adaptations can be as small as a pupil’s seating position in the classroom. Maintaining a calm and predictable environment, with plenty of warnings and preparation when it comes to change, will always be helpful for your autistic pupils.

A stress support plan

Gareth Morewood was a SENCo at my son’s school, where he devised a ‘Stress Support Plan’ alongside carers and pupils to identify potential obstacles and tailor-make strategies to suit each autistic student. That might sound involved, but it saved considerable time in the long-term.

Consider the social and environmental stressors (excess noise, warmth and crowds are particularly common), but don’t forget that teaching styles can also have some bearing. Staff who make quite forceful demands on pupils without leaving room for negotiation, for instance, can cause particular distress.

Why? Beacuse rigid thinking is part of autism. Teachers who meet this rigidity with a brick wall of non-negotiation can be subject to outbursts. It’s far preferable to instead to give your autistic learner warnings and choices, rather than battling rigidity head-on.

This is particularly important when it comes to facing sudden change – one of autism’s biggest enemies. Handing back some control can reduce the fear and anxiety connected with change, and therefore aid flexibility. My son, for example, would find non-curriculum days difficult when they were supposed to be fun.

To help him cope with the change in routine, he’d be given early detail on what to expect and also given a choice. He could stay, or if he couldn’t cope at any point, there was a back-up plan detailing what to do instead. (The alternatives weren’t punishment, by the way – that’s not the idea.) This made Bobby far more likely to give things a go. He could see an escape route, and having that choice made all the difference.

The ‘flight’ option

When presented with ‘fight’ responses, the logical answer is to try and prevent a student’s stressors. If you can accept that there may be some you haven’t predicted, make a ‘flight’ option available. Can autistic pupils go somewhere for peace, quiet and calm when things get too much, without the rigmarole of asking for permission each time?

Processing auditory information at speed is often overloading for autistic pupils, who tend to be more visual learners. The solution here is to have alternative, more visual options for reinforcing lessons at a person’s own pace.

I have a theory that mainstream autistic pupils can have quite a jagged academic profile. When some skills come swiftly and naturally whilst others don’t, the temptation can be to assume that you’re either good or bad at something, with no in-betweens.

It therefore helps to explain the concept of practice, showing autistic pupils examples of where it’s led to improvement among the most successful people. The field of metacognition, or ‘thinking about thinking’, is really important for autistic learners, for whom the why is often as important as the how.

Presentation of feedback is also important. Asking for a person’s thoughts and reflections as a problem-solving collaborator, rather than simply issuing them instructions, will give them valuable processing time. It also allows pupils to ‘hook’ new ideas onto existing ones, rather than try and digest brand new information. For this reason, tying a youngster’s own interests into learning can make information a lot easier to absorb.

The good news is that with maturity and insight, autistic teens can learn to predict and avoid their own stressors. But in order to do that, they need a supportive setting where staff understand the challenges they face, and can adapt and help them to manage their own environment.

The transition factor

There’s an additional factor that can make outbursts more likely among your Y7s. Having recently moved out of a nurturing primary school environment and into entirely new school surroundings, there’s a good chance that:

• They haven’t yet noticed that their stress response is different from others, as it hasn’t been fully tested

• They haven’t learned how to recognise and communicate when things are getting a bit much

• They may need support to develop self-calming strategies

Debby Elley is the co-founder of AuKids magazine (@aukids) and a parent to twin sons, both with autism. Browse more resources for Autism Acceptance Week, including our autism in girls checklist.

Championing Your Autistic Teen at Secondary School, by Debby Elley with Gareth D. Morewood, is available now (£14.99, Jessica Kingsley)

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