In the same way that a football team has to constantly work and train to stay on top of their game we as a charity have to do the same.
The team at West Ham has put in three great games to lift themselves up the table, Hooray! They are above the relegation zone now, however, they know they have to keep on working hard to keep that position. If they rest on their laurels it is easy enough to slip down the table again, so, they really can’t take their eye off the ball!
As a charity within Autism the same is very much true for us. A great campaign and a couple of events can leave a mark but to keep that positive momentum and awareness raising going we have to keep taking to the pitch. If we want to make a difference to the lives of children and adults within Autism then we have to keep scoring goals.
‘Give us a Break’ is a campaign that the AKO team have to keep working on for promotion. A sad situation that has to be faced around Autism at this time is the amount of misunderstanding, anxiety and bullying that is often faced by children on the Autistic Spectrum within mainstream schools.
For many of those children on the autistic spectrum who are placed into mainstream education there can be a number of challenges to be faced. They may well be able to handle the actual education work placed before them with the right support, however, are they able to hand the structure of the day?
The majority of us looked forward to break times and the chance to huddle together for a chat round our packets of crisps. Some of us headed straight for the playground sandwich in hand ready to score like Hurst or Cottee in a goal painted on a brick wall. Simple and enjoyable days with the sound of ‘Have you scuffed your shoes playing football again’ ringing out in the air. We enjoyed our break times and sat with our mates in class. It all made sense.
The problem for many children on the Spectrum though is that often the very nature of Autism demands that they NEED a structure to feel comfortable and safe within. The school day is to a great extent structured until you reach those break times, the doors open, and anything can happen. ‘Anything’ is a big issue. ‘Anything’ is not structured or necessarily planned. Suddenly those children who do need a ‘structure’ to feel safe within are dropped into a very painful hell. Many on the autistic spectrum have described those times in school as being similar to someone pushing you off of a cliff. One minute you feel safe and stable, the next that stability is pulled from beneath you. The resulting anxiety is obvious to understand and the negative knock on effects from that. Suddenly someone who is capable of working very well within the class is no longer able to. They may shut down and then not cope. Often that anxiety becomes a fear that is then expressed through challenging behaviour when the child gets back home. A happy home can quickly become a battlefield.
Another big problem is bullying. All too often this isn’t actually about bad children but actually confused children who don’t understand what another child is doing. Each child tends to have a set expectation of how their friends will behave and act. They share those crisps together, sit talking together and often play games together with that expectation of how everyone should socialise or act. When you introduce to that group or break time environment a child who doesn’t maybe act in a way that other children expect then problems can occur. It is not that the other children set out to bully or be horrid to this person. They themselves are actually inside questioning ‘why’ that person is acting in a way that makes no sense to them. Why will they not sit and talk with us? Why do they walk round the outside of the playground keeping away from everyone? Why do they not understand our games? Why are they silent? Why when they do approach do they stand too close to us? That is only a few of the questions and things that children often feel. When children are unsure and don’t understand something they either keep well clear and avoid or will rebel against and push away.
Now imagine you are that child on the Autistic Spectrum. You are stressed and anxious at the removal of your much needed structure. Children around you either keep away or do something horrible to you. They tease you and taunt you just for being who you are. You have done nothing wrong. You only want to be accepted.
I think we can all understand the very negative circumstances that arise from those situations. Children who give in and shut down unable to cope any longer in an environment that seems to HATE them. Life has suddenly become very torturous and pointless.
This is all very sad, however, the good news is it can actually be countered very easily without the use of a quango or millions of pounds. Yes, there may be a small cost but if done properly and sensibly it won’t be much. This is where ‘Give us a Break’ swings in to action. Very simply we are asking all schools with pupils on the Autistic Spectrum to consider making available a club, haven or activity for those children to use. Break times are meant to be enjoyed and a time to relax so those clubs really can be anything from Lego club to paper aeroplane club! All we are asking is that a space is indentified where those people who will struggle with the unstructured nature of break times can go and feel safe. There is little or no extra cost to such a provision as the school is already open and staff are already present. All that is required is something simple that just brings a little structure. Sometimes just a ‘haven’ for those children to take themselves to and do their own thing is enough.Next, the education system trains some teachers to understand those children with disabilities or special education needs. Some are trained to a level of responsibility to ensure that the needs of all SEN children are met. Teaching Assistants are brought in to give extra support to those children so that the class structure can continue and they too are given a level of awareness or training around those disabilities. The idea is that those coming into direct contact with that child on the Autistic Spectrum or with any disability are all AWARE and UNDERSTAND that child.
Have you spotted what is missing here yet? Yes, the other children within the school. Each child with not just Autism but any disability is surrounded by hundreds of other children. Those children are with and around them in the same enclosed environment for five days a week. They work and play around them. If the other children DO NOT have a basic awareness of why someone maybe acts in a different way to them then how can we ever expect them to understand them?
By providing ‘Awareness’ talks and assemblies for all age groups, teachers and even other parents linking to the school environment we are able to make positive and significant changes very simply. By helping the other children to become more aware of the differences faced by someone on the Autistic Spectrum, or with a disability, we remove that element where they fear and push away what they don’t understand. Suddenly children go ‘Oh I see!!!’ They understand and feel more comfortable around just letting that person be. In some schools we have been to pupils have then taken it upon themselves to form their own ‘Buddy’ systems. They actively WANT to make sure those who are maybe struggling in some way around them feel comfortable and safe.
Parents suddenly learning why some of the behaviours and things they have witnessed take place realise they too need to be that little bit more supportive to those fellow parents and not judge them.
With a club or haven in place, bringing structure to those that need it at break times, and awareness being raised throughout the school as a whole, what was a very negative and frightening environment for some very easily becomes a more positive one.
It really doesn’t take much to make this difference and lot of it when you think about it is actually common sense.
The long term benefits from such actions are easy to understand as well. Youngsters who are happy and find education a positive experience are more likely to succeed and do well in life so let’s all make sure we are there to help them on that first rung of the ladder.
As ever we are proud to have West Ham United supporting us in all that we do including our ‘Give us a Break’ campaign especially as we work with so many families in that area. David Sullivan is always checking in with us for a ‘match day’ report on how we are doing and Mark Phillips has given up a great deal of time to support us at our events as well as training some of the pupils from our own Autism Specific education settings.
To make a difference in life we all have to come together so it is great to have West Ham at the heart of a community trying to reach out with us to help others.
Written by Austin Hughes, Senior Behavioural Support & Training Officer.