Having worked in specialist schools for several years, I have been reflecting on how the needs of students are met within the classroom. Over the years there has been much debate amongst educationalists as to what kind of class grouping works best for students; whether grouping should be based largely on the students’ ability or age. However, on thinking about meeting the needs of students on the autistic spectrum, there is perhaps more to consider. This article aims to discuss some of these considerations and provide food for thought for practitioners working in schools.
For young people at what might be referred to as the severe to moderate end of the autistic spectrum, there are many factors to take into consideration when placing them in a class. Many students at this end of the spectrum, described as what many refer to as ‘classically autistic’ present with attributes that can be challenging for any class group.
I have worked with many students over the years who have experienced noise sensitivity yet have generated lots of noise themselves as a result of the nature of their autism. Their noise has appeared to increase around one another in what has appeared an attempt to block out one another’s sounds. Such noises have included the constant repetition of phrases and sounds which have frequently accompanied ‘flapping’ and what can be described as the re-enacting of footage and clips from favourite DVD’s and computer programmes. As a practitioner I have at times found it difficult to try and teach a group of students who are generating so much noise as individuals yet are incredibly noise sensitive to the sounds of each other. Many have struggled to tolerate one another, becoming distressed at one another’s sounds. As an adult who isn’t autistic I have found the noise at times overwhelming, so for students who are acutely noise sensitive as part of their autism, the experience must feel unbearable. Indeed, this may well be the case when I think about some of the behaviours that are exhibited; students lashing out at the member of staff working with them, cowering when they see a particular student who is particularly noisy, biting their hand in what looks like frustration and anger. We could argue that they may be exhibiting such behaviours as a result of other triggers, yet it would appear from observing the behaviour of the students and their constant desire to hold their hands over their ears, that the noise is a major contributor.
So what is the solution? Perhaps a more mixed class grouping is appropriate. In mainstream schools it is uncommon for students to be grouped in mixed year groups. Some primary and early years settings offer mixed groupings however once students reach secondary age it is unlikely one would find a group of year eleven students being taught in a group with year nine’s. However, in special schools there is often scope to group students in a way which reflects a range of factors that are taken into consideration as opposed to simply age.
Autism represents a diverse spectrum of need. It is this spectrum of behaviours and traits that I believe needs to be thought about with closer inspection. Some questions to ask might include which students can tolerate being near to one another regardless of their academic ability? Which students create a lot of noise and which don’t? Which students are verbal? If so, what is the extent of their functional language? Which students enjoy interaction and contact with others? It is important to note here that although there might be a stereotypical view of people with autism not wanting to engage with others, this is not true in my experience. I have worked with plenty of young people with autism who have actively sought out contact with others, have been affectionate and have enjoyed interacting with another person.
On first thinking about how students should be grouped, it may seem an obvious choice to group several students together who are of a similar age and who present with a similar level of need and academic ability. However, it would appear that this model results in some class groupings which offer a climate we might argue is conducive to learning, and groupings which offer the opposite. Having worked in schools that have catered for students with a range of special needs and those which are designed specifically for students with autism, I have taught and seen a range of groupings; some have been very diverse and reflected a variety of needs and ages, others less so. This has led me to draw my own conclusions as to what does and doesn’t work in creating an environment conducive to students learning and in particular students with autism.
Think of a large organisation or business. There are many different roles that need to be filled, each with a different job description. There may be similarities between roles and multiple positions however generally workplaces reflect a variety of personality types and talents. There are extroverts, introverts, leaders and followers to name a few. A team wouldn’t be conducive to succeeding at the task in hand if all the members had the same skills and personality type. It’s a similar result when thinking of students learning in a classroom. A group of noisy, noise sensitive students, who each need lots of individual support and attention, are not going to work well together in succeeding at achieving their individual targets and goals, particularly if there is a limited number of staff available to support them. A group which contains quiet, and what some may regard as ‘high functioning’ autistic students, where sensory difficulties are less of an issue, are more likely to succeed.
So why not mix? I have experienced teaching large groups of students with autism with a range of needs and abilities and with a limited number of staff. The significant factors that contributed to the group working were as follows;
The majority of students were quiet and did not generate a lot of noise or flapping.
The majority of students were not noise sensitive and could tolerate the sounds and noises of some of the other students who were.
Students who made a lot of noise and flapped were in a minority. Being in a group where the majority of students were quieter appeared to decrease the tendency to be noisy and flap in the students who did at times exhibit this type of behaviour.
Staff were more easily deployed as not every student required one to one support. Students who did require support to help refocus them could have a member of staff working closely with them. Students who were able to work alongside one another could be comfortably supported by one member of staff.
There was much differentiation required in the planning of lessons in order to engage each student and enable them to reach their individual learning goals. However, students were able to sit close to one another whilst working on individual pieces of work. The range of abilities also lent itself to small group activities and peer work. Having a limited number of staff didn’t matter as students weren’t trying to drown out one another’s sounds through their own sounds nor were they attempting to silence one another through aggression. Such behaviours have been apparent with smaller groups of students where the needs have been less diverse.
As mentioned earlier, this article is not intended to outline a set of criteria for what makes for a successful class grouping nor has it been written with the intent to criticise and blame in any way, schools and practitioners. It is intended as food for thought based on my experience in the classroom. That said, a group of students who are each noise sensitive yet very noisy themselves, struggle to tolerate one another and become aggressive, who have a limited number of staff working with them, is what we might call a recipe for disaster.