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Autism: Environmental Barriers to Transition

Getting Stuck: How the School Environment can Prevent Pupils Transition

Autism can create barriers to inclusive education, we as teachers can also unwittingly create barriers to including pupils and making their education as effective as possible. We must take a moment to consider our actions and decisions in terms of how they may create issues for those we are responsible for educating. The environment is also a source of barriers for some of our students. As educators, we must be thoughtful about how our words, actions, and environment can unintentionally exclude or hinder students – especially those with autism who may face additional psychological barriers. A few things for us all to reflect on:

Environmental barriers: Consider sensory issues like fluorescent lights/noises that are tolerable for most but agonizing for others. Providing calming spaces and flexibility in setting/seat locations can help autistic pupils feel secure.

Social barriers: Be mindful that literal thinking common in autism may result in misunderstandings perceived as willful misbehavior by peers. Teaching empathy and awareness prevents isolation.

Communication barriers: Keep in mind differences in social skills/ processing that may come across as rudeness but instead reflect a need for clear, concise instructions free of sarcasm or implied meanings.

Rigid thinking barriers: Recognize signs of anxiety, inflexibility in autistic students challenged by unexpected changes in schedule or teacher. Provide advance notice of variations to alleviate distress.

Behavioural barriers: Understand behavior may communicate need rather than defiance in those unable to articulate feelings verbally. De-escalation and positive redirection work better than punishment which risks shutdown.

Audio Narration here:

Barriers in Transitioning Around The School

A lot of these barriers are caused by the need to transition, transition is change. Whether this be a change in location, activity, staff or students in the room. All of these things and more are a source of uncertainty and anxiety.

To give an example the picture below is the doorway between two rooms. There is no actual door so no physical barrier, right? Well not for most of us, not even for most of my students all of whom have a diagnosis of ASD. However for one young man this represents a barrier as real to him as the second image would for me. It is a visual barrier that he processes as real.

Example of a boundary that may create a psychological barrier for an autistic pupil
Example of visual barrier
Physical Barrier to Transiton
How it Feels To The Child

I have previously taught a young man for whom the doorway itself was a huge barrier, he wanted to go outside but had to seek reassurance from staff for up to 20 minutes to prepare himself for the transition. He had to stand in the doorway, walk up to and back from it repeatedly. We used symbols, a schedule and verbal support. This support was as essential to him as a key would be for us to open a locked door. I am only using my experience as evidence for this but the biggest support was his trust in us that nothing would change when walking through the doorway.

See also  AAC Game: Frustration

Knowing the child you are working with is essential in supporting them through these transitions. I have had children who won’t transition between areas because they are hyper sensitive to the fluorescent lights or the hum of the fridge. Some of our students are able to verbalise their thoughts and concerns, others are not yet at this stage. I remember my first encounter with this different way of processing sensory input – I am not going to use sensory processing disorder in this case because it opened my eyes to the fact that what I presume are the distractions are, well, nothing more than presumptions. The young man said to me “listen to the helicopter”. This was in the middle of a busy, noisy classroom with music on. I couldn’t hear a helicopter so after a minute or so of  straining to pick up the sound I heard the faint whirr of the rotors. Soon it flew past the window. 65% of people with a diagnosis of ASD are sensitive to noise.

Helicopter putting out a fire fire

How many of us think that by standing at the front of the room talking makes us the centre of attention? If as special education teachers we think this we really deserve to be ignored.

Joe White SEN Teacher
The Author in standard teacher at the front mode.

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  1. Reminds me of when I was teaching a boy with ASD who kept making random squawking noises which was frankly quite frustrating when others in the class were relatively calm. It wasn’t until a few months later while I was walking in the woods near my home and I heard the exact same noise. Looking around to see if I could see the boy, I realised it was a bird in the nearby tree. It amazed me how well he had copied this sound, one at the time I have never heard before. Now whenever I go walking in the woods and I hear this squawking it reminds me of this boy with ASD.

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