Are schools autism friendly?

I have come to realise that Chris Packham really is a national treasure such was the outpouring of support and praise for him following the airing of   “Aspergers and Me” in which he talks candidly about his own experiences as an autistic person.  If you haven’t seen it I can’t recommend it highly enough – it’ll be available on BBC iplayer for a few more weeks.

I knew that I would find the programme interesting but it went far above and beyond my expectations. It was so insightful to hear from an autistic adult who was able to communicate very clearly and powerfully about some of his experiences.

At one point during the programme Chris visits a school in America for autistic children. They are receiving a treatment called Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) which is a method of modifying behaviour through a system of rewards and punishments.  It’s an intervention designed to try to help autistic children adjust their behaviours so that they conform more closely to those of typical children. There’s a lot of controversy about ABA as a method of “treatment” for autistic children with many autistic adults claiming that the practice is abusive. However some autistic adults report more positive experiences of ABA. Like I said, its controversial.

For our situation ABA was never a proposed intervention for Edward and he’s managed perfectly well without it. I don’t think he’d have tolerated this type of approach – he’d have needed a lot more rational reasoning and explaining to help him decide whether or not he wanted to try to modify any of his behaviours.

I don’t want to get into the pros and cons of ABA here as I haven’t looked into it in enough detail.

What did strike me though was Chris Packman’s observation of the school environment.

The actual design and environemnt of this school for autistic children proved to be a very uncomfortable place for Chris.

It was loud.

The lights were bright.

There were too many patterns and random images on the walls.

There were a lot of people all doing different things in the same space.

Busy. Loud. Bright.

Too much information.

If you were overwhelmed in a situation where you got too much information too quickly but were unable to leave, how would that make you feel?

Imagine it. Your heart rate increasing, breathing quickening, head pounding. Panic.

If you were an autistic child in this situation how well do you think you’d be able to control your behaviour?

During the programme Chris was also filmed in his own home.

Goodness – he keeps an immaculate home and I didn’t get the impression he’d had a quick whip round chucking random items into cupboards to give an appearance of order which is exactly what I’d have to do if a camera crew rocked up at my house.

His home was tranquil, ordered, calm and quiet. The walls were pale, the blinds were white and rolled down to prevent too much visual distraction from the outside world.  For Chris it was his sanctuary; his place of retreat.

It made me think about schools and autistic pupils.

So many autistic pupils are expelled from school each year due to behaviour problems that the schools say they cannot manage. I wonder if creating more autism friendly environments could help pupils stay calmer?

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what a school designed by an autistic architect could look like?

Someone who understood how important it was to carefully consider the lighting, sound proofing, temperature, noise, lines of sight, visual surroundings….. I’m sure the list could go on.

Don’t you think that kind of design could actually suit all pupils very well?

I posed the question, “Why don’t we have autistic adults designing schools to make them more comfortable for autistic children?” on twitter during the programme and of all my tweets this one gained by far the most interest.

I’ve learned a few things as a result.

There is a website called Architecture for Autism which gives lots of ideas about how to make a school environment more autism friendly.

the Royal College of Art are starting a programme called Design for the Mind in an attempt to make environments better for neurodivergent people (anyone with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia). If you consider yourself to be neurodivergent they would appreciate it if you would complete their short online survey. Click here.

I met an autistic teacher who tries to make her school as autism friendly as possible and she’s recently written a post about her school here.

As a non autistic person when I viewed the school in this film I only noticed the distress of one of the boys who was having an ABA session. I didn’t notice any of the myriad of things that were making Chris Packham uncomfortable.

I’d love to see what a school designed for all pupils, including the autistic ones, looked like, wouldn’t you?

One of my favorite quotes from the film was by Steve Silberman, author of the brilliant book Neurotribes.

He reflected that “We have to start redesigning society rather than redesigning the individual.”

I couldn’t agree more.

I’d love to know what you thought about the programme if you watched it. Feel free to leave a comment.

If you liked this post you might also want to read my post, “Accessibility – it’s good for everyone!”


Spectrum Sunday



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