The importance of early years intervention in autism education

Posted on 1st Jul 2016 in National Autistic Society, Autism

Gemma McCarthy, specialist teacher at The National Autistic Society’s Radlett Lodge School, discusses how autistic children can profoundly benefit from early intervention in school...

Pupils on the autism spectrum don’t experience the world in the same way we expect of most children who are in the Early Years stage of development and learning. It’s therefore critical that each pupil has a regular, predictable and structured learning environment in order to set them up for success as they move through school life.

In the Early Years Foundation Stage, autistic pupils often:

  • do not absorb and acquire skills or learning through observing others
  • need each skill, developmental step or type of play to be taught explicitly
  • need visual cues to understand what is expected of them
  • have limited success in learning through discovery and experimentation, as they may lack the imagination and flexibility of thought to do so
  • demonstrate poor organisational skills
  • struggle to predict how long an activity will last, so are unsure when to start and finish an activity – often repeating it as they’re unaware it has ended
  • have no way of knowing or anticipating the order in which demands will be made.

For these reasons, amongst others, early intervention for autistic pupils is vital. To cultivate the best learning conditions for each child, it’s important to help and teach them to interpret their environment in ways that are meaningful to them, as this reduces levels of stress and anxiety. While many are able to develop and learn to at least the same level as their non-autistic peers, they will need differentiated support tailored to their strengths and difficulties.

Teaching children basic skills as soon as they enter the classroom enables them to live a more independent and more socially acceptable life as they grow into adults. As a class, much of our time is spent toilet training in the first few weeks of a child’s education. We put a toileting programme into place and the psychology team analyses the data collected, complemented by meetings to monitor progress and make adaptations when necessary. This has continually proven to be a successful way to introduce pupils to an important stage of their development.

Young autistic pupils find having targets in place highly supportive – for example, using a cup to drink or using a spoon and fork to eat their food, or how to sit at a table in order to eat a meal. Incorporating a large number of opportunities throughout the day to enable the children to practise dressing and undressing, including putting on their shoes and coats, helps to seamlessly introduce another important development skill. 

Many of our pupils start at school still needing to learn skills such as sitting on a chair, tolerating the proximity of another person, concentrating on a task for more than a few seconds or ‘shared attention’, which is in fact important for many aspects of language development. Attention Autism is a programme in the Early Years setting which teaches the children how to share attention. Starting with learning how to sit and look at what the adult is doing alongside their peers, the child is gradually able to watch an activity then try it themselves. The children get excited to join the group and want to take part in their activity without adults prompting them to sit and look. We understand that the children need to secure these ‘learning to learn’ tools before they’re able to utilise the more formal types of ‘educational experiences’ available to them. Ultimately, we aim to foster the development of each child’s independence and self-control, and the ability to express feelings or communicate in a way that’s understood by others. 

At Radlett Lodge School, we are all specialists. We are practised in the full range of approaches to teaching autistic children, which is so important as it enables us to select the combination that best supports individual progress. We closely follow the framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage but adapt it in a way our children can access. Due to autistic children having an impairment of social imagination, social communication and social interaction as well as a range of sensory issues, we don’t follow child-initiated learning in the traditional sense. Instead, we spend time teaching children basic play skills and then show them how to generalise these skills. For example, if a child enjoys spinning a ball, we would teach them other things you can do with a ball, and give them a range of toys and items they can spin to address any sensory issues. 

We follow the TEACCH programme (Treatment of and Education of Autistic and related Communication Handicapped Children) and its three main principles: structure, visual clarity and consistency. It’s important for every child to know what they’re doing, how they are told what they should be doing and how the environment is organised. TEACCH underpins how we modify the environment, structure our teaching and focus on emerging skills. We know that the earlier a child can benefit from this structured the support, the more receptive they are to developing these skills which they can continue to build on through their lives.

The SPELL framework (Structure, Positive approaches and expectations, Empathy, Low arousal, Links) as a basis for training and teaching is fundamental when supporting autistic children in education. Structure makes the world a more predictable, accessible place, and aids personal autonomy and independence by reducing dependence on others. Equally important is establishing and reinforcing self-confidence and self-esteem by building on natural strengths, interests and abilities. Praise and positivity is crucial when doing this. Beginning from the child’s perspective, we gather insights into how they see and experience their world, knowing what it is that motivates or interests them but importantly what may also frighten, preoccupy or otherwise distress them. 

An holistic approach should be taken from the start, so open links and communication between all people involved with the child is essential. Particularly in the Early Years stage, it is important that we take our lead from the children’s parents as to what they enjoy and learn. They’re invited into the class to observe their child and have the opportunity to speak to a range of professionals on site or receive training themselves.

We understand that parents are the most important educators of their child, so we enjoy sharing their child’s learning journey with them. 

With all these early interventions in place, we can ensure that each child feels safe to learn and achieve their full potential throughout their life at school, and into their adult life.

For more information about National Autistic Society schools, click here.