The role of a mental health lead in a school or college includes providing early prevention for at-risk children and young people.  Autism is a developmental condition which affects how people interact with others and the world. Autism is not a mental illness – autistic people can have good mental health – but autistic children and young people are at higher risk of mental illness and can find education more difficult to access than their neurotypical peers. 

We recently caught up with Jasmine Miller, neurodiversity specialist, professional coach and newly appointed academic director of Al Kharamah Training Institute in Abu Dhabi, to discuss how schools and colleges can develop their ethos and culture of wellbeing to be more inclusive for autistic pupils and students. 

What sort of practical early interventions can you recommend, to help schools to support autistic students and reduce their risk of developing mental ill health?

Autistic individuals can be more sensitive to their surroundings and find it difficult to deal with change or not knowing what is coming next. It is key to consider how inviting a school environment might be for pupils with autism. Having clearly labelled spaces and classrooms – labelled by pictures and associated objects not just words (for example a wooden spoon on the door of a cooking room) can help support autistic pupils, as can colour coding spaces. 

In a school, sounds as well as sights can be overwhelming.  Our environment affects us all and for autistic individuals, environment can be critical to feeling comfortable in a space, and supporting their wellbeing. For those who are planning a school refurb, think about rounded walls, doors with glass panels to allow pupils to know what is coming next and using materials which absorb sounds that echo, such as wooden panelling. 

Transitions are an important opportunity for early intervention 

Putting wellbeing at the centre is the key to everything. Transitioning into and from school (at any stage) is really important – spending time with the child or young person to support the transition. Letting them see where they’ll be, online if it won’t work in person, or by sending a transition booklet with photographs of the spaces they’ll be in so the young person knows what to expect – this is much less scary and reduces risk of anxiety. Invite parents into your school and let them assess the environment so they’ll notice anything that might trigger their child’s stress and anxiety and can suggest ways to support them. Parents/carers know their children better than anyone and working together with them is vital to support the wellbeing of the child.

Have you any practical tips for staff in terms of their interactions with autistic children and young people?

Be clear about what is happening next and when – transitions can be extremely challenging for an autistic individual, so clarity makes things a lot easier for them and reduces stress and anxiety. (The levels of stress and anxiety in autistic individuals is already higher than neurotypical individuals).

Breaktimes can be a point of anxiety for many children, but especially for autistic young people who may struggle more with social situations, may find it hard to start conversations and are more likely to feel lonely and isolated. Working with children and young people on relationships and how to build positive relationships with people can be very beneficial. It’s important staff observe children in the playground to assess how they are getting on. 

Schools having close relationships with families and parents is very important – autistic children and their families have been through so much on the road to school and need to be given the time and space to talk about how they’re feeling, and parents can share things individual to their own child that will help the school support them. 

Have you any tips for school/college leadership teams in terms of embedding support for pupils/students on the autistic spectrum?

Stress reduction for staff needs a lot of attention and needs to be included in staff training – staff knowing what triggers their own stresses and how to manage this as well as knowing how to help reduce the stress of pupils. Helping staff and parents to be aware of their own stress levels and strengths and how that impacts on the individual who is autistic can really help. Schools need to focus resources on enabling access to learning and what motivates autistic learners.

Working on strengths is important – it’s fundamental to a wellbeing approach that we’re enabling students to see what they do well, to experience success.  Experiencing success is so important in school and as an adult. A wellbeing culture puts strengths and positivity at the core. Strengths need to be talked about with autistic individuals and highlighted as well as their passions and interests. Finding a child’s passion can help staff find new ways in which a particular child can learn. For example, I once taught a child who had a pair of trainers which he focused on all the time and would take them off and look at them and found it difficult to engage in learning. I took photographs of his trainers and made learning resources from them, and it really helped him engage!

Parent ambassador schemes can work really well, where parents of autistic pupils and students support each other. Schools can be fundamental in helping set up such support, which can help reduce the risk of loneliness for parents and carers of autistic individuals and give them a community to share experiences.

Would you like to add anything?

I think schools and colleges would benefit from assessing existing strategies they have – to ask themselves, ‘do we enable all children and young people to be themselves,’ to continually ask ‘is this working?’ and, if not, then adapt processes.

Find out More and Next Steps

As you can probably tell from this Q&A, Jasmine is passionate about supporting autistic children and young people and ensuring they have access to education. If you’d like to hear more insights from Jasmine or ask specific questions, come along to the discovery workshop on 14th of June

All discovery workshops, past and present, are available in the Wellbeing Club content library. Come and see! There’s so much content there – and we’re adding more for you all the time – to help you support the mental health of your pupils and students. 

References:

Young Minds

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/01/210119114358.htm

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