by Graham Hall
I’m a qualified teacher for children with special needs and have been involved with children with autism for almost 30 years. I have never stopped learning from the children and I’ve always tried to look for the best ways to support and inspire them. I have tried to summarise some of the things I have learnt in a book so I can share them with other people that are involved with children and autism.
I teach children with autism and believe it is the most rewarding job in the whole world. It is challenging in many ways and it is not always obvious what is best for a child, sometimes behaviour can be dramatically difficult and until you tune into the logic of autism, it can be very frustrating trying to reason with an autistic person. However, when you get things right the difference it makes to that child is extremely positive and life changing. I have tried to get it right with all of the children that I have taught, but it isn’t always easy.
I found reading a bit of a problem with some children, in one class where all of the children could read each other’s names, but they couldn’t read anything else. It took me 18 months to solve the problem and work out a method, another year to understand what was happening and several years after that to develop my methods further.
Communication can be very mysterious. At one point I noticed that if I embedded the answer into a question, a group of autistic children in my class were unable to respond with the correct answer.
“What colour’s this red ball?”
“Blue? Green? erh! I don’t know Graham”
There’s a lot of children who will respond in this way and it is because they have only partially processed the answer. It took me years to work out what was happening and I found the answer many years later when I’d made a concerted effort to study how the human memory works. I did this by going into the library at Exeter University and having a look at their books on psychology and the human memory. It seemed like they’d got about 3000 books on the subject but one book stood out from the rest because they’d got in the order of 20 copies of it, so it must have been a good book on the subject. Having had a quick look, I went out and bought my own copy of the book. It gave me a massive insight into how the memory works, but it was one of the hardest books I’d ever read. The impression the book gave me was that in processing the answer to a question, different parts of the brain may be referred to in order to get the right answer. It’s obvious to me that a crucial part of the process is to remember the original question and the behaviour my children were displaying was that of forgetting the question while processing the answer. I had noticed that the answers were given with a lack of confidence with some of the children and that some of the children were even aware that they had failed to work an answer out.
When you encounter problems like this, it’s obvious that these children need a specialist approach in learning.
I have suffered from the effects of dyspraxia which has given me an amazing insight into what it is like to be different in school and to experience both catastrophic failure and amazing success when the only thing that had changed was the teacher. These personal experiences have always led me to believe that it is myself as a teacher that carries the responsibility for the children’s learning and that if anything is going wrong, it’s my responsibility to try and sort out what. With me it’s quite personal and I have always worked very hard to make sure that nobody fails in any way.
Paradoxically this has got me into an awful lot of trouble at times because I’ve refused to do things which I think would harm or certainly not be in the best interests of an autistic child. These things are usually standard approaches that are generally of benefit to children with autism, but nothing will work with every child. For example you will get the occasional child who hates using visual timetables, even though they are a very useful tool to many children. The trick here is to be flexible and try and workout each individual child and look to see what best supports them.
I am of the opinion that children with autism are good at communicating, socialising and being imaginative, albeit on a concrete level. I have also noticed that children with autism are very good with physical activities, as long as it is also on a concrete level. Activities such as learning to ride a bicycle are easily achievable by most children with autism and are best taught without the use of stabilisers. Other good activities are roller/disco/ice Skating, swimming, running, walking. All of this I’ve tried to explain in my book.
If I had to sum up my book in one short sentence I would say it was about how Autistic people feel, think and learn in a holistic/pragmatic way with references to the psychological processes that are taking place.
I feel the book is unique and gives an amazing insight into some people with autism. After reading my book one parent wrote “really inspiring book, great ideas”.