This week’s blog will combine the previous two weeks. I will be talking about how the school environment can be too much for some children with ASC.
As a child I didn’t notice the environment too much, I can’t remember feeling anything going into the school hall or when using the school toilets. There was always a curious feeling of ‘not being allowed here’ when I had to go into the school staff room, and a feeling of being ‘in trouble’ when I had to go and see the head teacher. But that’s about it for me. When my children went to school again I didn’t give the environment much notice. I didn’t know what to look for and was more interested in the education of my children than the environment. I suppose that is true for most parents and children who do not experience the environment in the physical way that ASC children can.
During my time working with adults and children with ASC I have learnt how important the environment can be. I have also seen how a mainstream school that tells parents they understand the needs of the child don’t always understand the environmental needs. They may be referring to the educational needs (learning and teaching methods) and the social needs (friendships, rules, logical thinking). In mainstream education teachers are taught and encouraged to use bright displays to support children’s emotional wellbeing by displaying their work. There are displays covering every piece of wall space available, usually in bright primary colours. They may have pieces of work nicely mounted onto contrasting paper which are then placed on boards in a random pattern. Or they may have lots of photographs of children on an outing or doing an activity, again these are usually displayed on irregular angles. Many of them look very impressive and have taken some dedicated TA’s a long time as well as the children. For a child with ASC these beautiful and well constructed displays can be an assault on their vision. The colours can be too distracting, the placement of the work too disorganised, the contrast in colours too harsh, the whole thing can be painful to look at, but so bright that they cannot avoid looking at it. All of this can then cause a child to have a autistic meltdown, but the teachers cannot see a trigger as they are not aware that it is the room its self.
The same can happen in school halls. Generally these are large halls with high ceilings and sound echoes around the room. Children are expected to sit in this space and concentrate on the teacher or a speaker. Many children find this difficult, just sitting still during an assembly can be difficult. The child with ASC will have the added difficulty of the compounded assault of sound in their head due to the echo and acoustics of the room. Again this can lead to a meltdown with no obvious trigger. Alternatively if the room is empty the child may enjoy spending time in the room playing with the acoustics, shouting, spinning, running, stamping hearing the different sounds reverberating off the walls and ceiling. During this time the assault on his hearing is not painful as he is in control of it and he is not expected to focus his attention onto the speaker at the front. If the hall is used for PE then teachers can have the same problem trying to get the child to concentrate due to sounds bouncing around the space. Another use for school halls is for lunch times, this time the noise level and the acoustics play a big part in the affect the space has on the child with ASC. Depending on the sensitivity of the child’s sense of hearing and the power of other senses (taste, smell, sight) this level of noise may not be a distraction, but if the child is not interested in food or understand the importance of food or the feeling of hunger the noise may be too distracting to enable him to eat.
Speaking of smell (scent) again these can be very distracting for some children. If the classroom is close to the kitchen then the smell of cooking food may be the cause of a meltdown, or if the toilets are even slightly smelly the child may refuse to use them, resulting in pain and discomfort. If the teacher or TA changes her perfume or personal scent in any way this can create a difficult situation for the child who is trying to understand how she looks and sounds the same but smells different. This again can be an assault on the child’s sense of smell and cause a meltdown with no apparent trigger.
There are so many environmental factors to consider if your child has ASC. Flickering lights, sun through the windows, temperature, sounds, smells, routines, and changes. It is difficult to imagine the effects all of these have on a child (unless you went through it yourself). As a parent you will understand the consequences of getting it wrong, but it is still difficult to comprehend how it might affect the child, and yet some children thrive and cope in these ever changing environments, and we expose children to these environments forgetting how much impact they may have.
It is difficult for any school, classroom, home, shop, station or anywhere to adapt the environment to meet the needs of everyone, some children need a high level of stimulation to enable them to learn others need very little stimulation, and there is no way to accurately balance it. but as a parent you can understand the difficulties and ensure that the school your child attends has some understanding before they start.
When you visit a school don’t just ask about learning styles, teaching abilities, access to alternative curriculums, availability of support, training and understanding of the condition and behaviour policies (these are all important) but you also need to know if the toilets that are cleaned every morning and evening, but used by 60 children throughout the day will still be smelly, if the area your child will be working in is highly visual, remember it can be distracting or even painful for your child to work in that space all day, if he is expected to eat his meal in a very noisy and crowded hall, this could mean he may not eat at all. Go into the toilets towards the end of the day on a classroom visit and experience the aromas, ask to go into the hall to experience the acoustics, make sure the school can provide a time out space for the child so he can self regulate his senses overload when needed. Ask if the lighting can be adjusted as bright lights can be painful.
They are simple alterations that can make a big difference to your child’s ability to learn. Don’t be afraid to ask.