Do you have a child with autism? Do you teach a child with autism? Listen to this interview for some excellent tips and ideas from this wonderful family!
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Education Podcast Network
Welcome, it’s great to have you here. I’m Liz and I’m the host of The Early Childhood Research Podcast. We’re part of the Education Podcast Network so if you’re looking for more podcasts to listen to, pop over to www.edupodcastnetwork.com
Jennifer and Brad Ratcliffe
This is episode 11 and today I’m switching focus from pure research to practical experience. I’m interviewing 2 educators, Jennifer and Brad Ratcliffe, who are also the parents of 2 boys with autism. We’ll be talking about ways to integrate children with special needs into the classroom, the effective use of support teachers, how family life is changed and the extra pressures that autism brings.
I’ve split the interview into 2 parts rather than making one extra long episode. So this is part 1 and you’ll find the rest of the interview in episode 12.
This was Not on the Brochure
Jenn has written a book called This Was Not On The Brochure. It’s a book about how to live a great life even when it has handed you what you didn’t expect. Brad is working on a super useful app and together they’re writing another book, an A-Z of helpful tips for parents of children with autism.
Just so you know, Jenn is no longer in the classroom. She is now a successful businesswoman which started out because she needed to be able to work from home in order to be there for her boys.
Now to the interview!
Jenn & Brad Ratcliffe, I’m so glad you could join me today.
JENN & BRAD: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.
I’ve been really looking forward to this interview because although this is a research-based podcast, and both of you have worked in, or are currently working in education, our focus today is for you to speak to us as parents. To give us an understanding of working children with autism from a parent’s perspective.
You have 2 boys, Cameron and Coby, that were both diagnosed with moderate to severe autism when they were young. At what ages were they diagnosed, and what behaviours did you notice in the lead up to being diagnosed?
JENN: Cameron was around 3 years old when he went for his assessment, on his third birthday actually. I remember that quite clearly because it was not what we were hoping for or expecting. Coby was a little bit younger, he was 2.5 years when he went for his assessment. The reason we took them was, initially we thought Cameron might have had a hearing problem. We weren’t sure if he could hear us because quite often he’d be in his own little world. We’d be calling him but he did not seem to be responding, it seemed like he wasn’t understanding.
So initially we took him for a hearing test and that came back clear, but by that stage we’d started to realise. We’d spoken to different people and had started to think it had something to do with autism.
What we noticed was that he’d go into his own shell and socially he didn’t seem to be interested in other people, or even us. And as parents we tried really, really hard to engage him and it was a very challenging thing to do.
He was very obsessed with his behaviours that he loved, like lining things up, matching things, he’d watch a few videos over and over and over and over again. So, a lot of repetitive behaviours.
He also stopped talking. In terms of expressive language he was pretty much on track and he had picked up quite a few words from 12-18 months. But we noticed from 18 months to 2 years those words, and that language, had dropped off significantly.
That was what we’d noticed with Cameron. Coby was a bit different. We just thought it would be very unlikely to have another child on the spectrum, but that’s not actually the case. If you have one child on the spectrum there’s quite a high likelihood of having another one that’s maybe not on the same place in the spectrum but can still be on the spectrum.
He was developing quite neuro-typically to start. Certainly his personality was that he engaged a lot more with us and other people, too. But again, by the time he was 18 months to 2 years old he also started to regress, went back into his shell, stopped talking. Social situations were too much for him, he’d try to escape from those and he was very much into the same sort of things: obsessive behaviours, repetitive behaviours, lining up, addictions to Disney and things like that.
A lot of people said to us, ‘it’s probably just a learned behaviour because he’s observed his brother, it’s just a modeling thing.’ But no, we knew that even though he was a little bit different in some ways it still looked like the same impairments that are indicative of autism. So we had him tested a bit sooner.
Initially the pediatrician wasn’t keen to diagnose straight away. You’ll often hear that they’re hesitant. But one thing we realized was that if we wanted to get help and to get him into support, and onto lists for services we needed to get that diagnosis. So, he said to come back 6 months later and he was diagnosed as well.
LIZ: That’s quite a long process then.
JENN: Years, yes!
LIZ: When you talk about getting on lists for therapies how long a list are you talking about?
JENN: It can be years. I remember with Coby, when it came time for him to go to school we could not get him into any of the support schools, or the autism-specific Aspect Schools. He had to go to a mainstream school in a support classroom because at that time there were no places.
Mainstream and specialist schools
BRAD: He was only 4.5 when we put him into a support class too, so he was very young to be starting school and in a mainstream school.
JENN: We did that because it was really quite difficult to get continuity with early intervention. He was chopping around doing this, that and the other. Every day was something else. Children on the spectrum do appreciate, and tend to thrive a bit better, with regular routines, so we were trying to get him into something like that.
But it was very hard on him, it was actually all of his Kindergarten year he spent in a mainstream school, in a support class. But it wasn’t really suited to him and at the end of that year they said, ‘look, this isn’t the right setting for him.’ We knew that, he was totally non-verbal at that stage as well so he ended up going over to the Aspect School which is a school for children with autism.
LIZ: Did you notice a significant difference with how you felt about his care and how he reacted to care?
JENN: Yes, once he was in a smaller class with people who totally understood and were trained in autism and who knew how to work with children on the spectrum it was certainly a lot better. A lot of the behaviours that he was exhibiting in the mainstream school that were a challenge, of course, decreased.
He used to wet himself and they said to me, ‘I think he’s got a bladder infection,’ but it wasn’t that. It was that he didn’t want to go to the school assembly. They were doing a practice for the opening. It was a new school, 3 times a week for 40 minutes and he wasn’t coping with that. So because he couldn’t express himself in those early years he just wet himself. It was one way of getting out of assembly.
Instead of realizing that he was trying to communicate with us, or his teachers, they didn’t realise what was happening. So, we thought he might have had a bladder infection but he didn’t. It was just that he wasn’t coping with what was expected of him in that mainstream setting.
Once he changed it was much better because it was a place where he, even though he was in a smaller class in the mainstream school, he was still expected to fit in with the wider school community. That part was very challenging for him.
So moving him to a smaller school, and an autism-specific school was great!
LIZ: Jenn, in your book you briefly mention lots of therapies and diets and classes that you tried with Cameron. I imagine that many parents go on a similar journey in those first few years. And while all kids are different, can you comment on what things you tried that you felt had some positive effect?
JENN: We did try a lot of different things and we still do. I don’t think you ever really try to stop with things you think might be helpful. The first thing we did with both boys very early was speech therapy. We would go to a weekly speech therapy class which was great. It was really helpful to see how our speech therapist, Catherine, was able to engage with our boys and interact with them. That was actually great because then we could come home and utilize some of those techniques.
We tried diet as well. One of the biggest things that parents with children on the spectrum are encouraged to try is a gluten-free, caffeine-free diet so we did that with both of the boys. We didn’t actually notice much of a difference with that. I was really hoping that we would, but we didn’t see much of a difference.
LIZ: Were you caffeine free at the same time?
JENN: I think we needed to up our caffeine! But it’s a hard one because they’re very routine with their diet, very fussy. Even now to this day the boys are very particular about what they’ll eat, what they’ll even try, what they’ll even smell. There are a lot of tests that a piece of food or a drink have to pass before they’ll even get tasted. So this was a tricky one, but we didn’t see much difference but some people do.
Early intervention and preschool
JENN: We did early intervention as well, whatever group or workshop was available. We’d go to autism specific playgroups, whatever we could get into as well as regular preschool, too.
That was interesting, especially with Cameron because he was the first child they’d had in the preschool with autism so there was a lot of learning taking place for everybody there. But I think that was important, too, so that he did have exposure to neuro-typical children as a preschooler. He didn’t always engage in what was happening, but it was still good that he was there.
Currently, right up until today we’re using compression singlets or compression vests. It’s like a chesty bonds singlet but it looks like active wear or something you’d wear to the gym. It’s got quite a firm fit and having that deep pressure can help calm the sensory and the nervous system of children on the spectrum so the boys wear a singlet now. On a recent plane flight to Hong Kong they wore those and they seemed to work well. They have no trouble with wearing them so they wear those.
[Here’s a (non-affiliate) link to JettProof, an Australian supplier of clothing and undergarments for those with sensory needs].
And even supplements, there are lots. We tried essential oils, for calming or for sleeping or for thinking. We’ve got an oxytocin nasal spray at the moment we use before school.
BRAD: There are also gummy bears.
JENN: They’re called manna bears and they actually have some nutritional benefit. They look like gummy bears, though, which is great because it’s not easy to get nutrition into the kids. They’re called manna bears from a company called Mannatech. The kids like those. I’ve tried them, they don’t taste too bad!
So there are lots of different things. We can’t try everything but we try whatever is within our capacity that we think the kids will be open to.
BRAD: I guess the key with all those things is persevering.
LIZ: It sounds exhausting.
BRAD: Yes, it is. Especially if you’re going with the gluten free thing. If anyone has attempted to eat gluten free you know it doesn’t taste very good so to get a child who has limited taste and certain foods, to get them to eat gluten free is quite difficult. But if you just persevere…
JENN: Especially birthday parties, when the birthday cake come out…
BRAD: …and you have to give them that lovely…
JENN: …cardboard cake! It’s probably come a long way since then so I’m sure it’s a lot better than what we tried. There’s been a lot of developments in gluten free since there are so many people now who need that anyway.
LIZ: In the shopping aisle you can see a lot more products that are gluten free than there ever used to be.
JENN: That’s right. So all those things can be helpful. There are other things you can try like chelation. A lot of children on the spectrum can harbor heavy metals in their body like mercury, so there are products to rid their bodies of heavy toxins and heavy metals that can impact on the gut, that has an impact on the brain and therefore behaviours.
Naturapaths can be very helpful as well, but again it depends what you can get into your child. If they’ll take the drops or they’ll take the medicines. You have to use every form of trickery to get some into the food.
LIZ: It just sounds like so much thinking, and so much work, and so much experimentation. It seems exhausting. I don’t think people can understand how much ongoing work this all is.
JENN: Yeah, and it’s not so much that you’re trying to fix the child. But you are trying to help them live their best life, to be as calm as possible and to be as happy as possible, and to be able to experience as many opportunities as possible.
It can be costly, financially costly, as well as time and effort and energy.
LIZ: Emotionally costly.
Applied Behaviour Therapy
JENN: Yes. It’s disappointing when things don’t make an impact when you thought they might, but you’ve got to try everything. Whatever’s possible. There are some things we didn’t try like ABA (Applied Behaviour Therapy). We didn’t do that because it was out of our capacity financially. I think it’s like $40,000 a child and even if we could have found a way to do it for one, we couldn’t have done it for both so we couldn’t have chosen which one. But some parents do it and they find it can be quite successful, but you need the time and the financial capacity to do that.
Accepting the diagnosis
LIZ: Brad, Jenn wrote that many fathers in particular have great difficulty accepting that their child has been diagnosed with autism, but that you were onboard straight away. Why do you think it’s harder in general for men to accept?
Men can struggle
BRAD: I think men generally find it harder to accept because they see it more as a weakness, or as a reflection of themselves as a man or a father. Certainly in some cultures, certain European countries, they find it very difficult to accept and they also see it as a failure as a man. The acceptance issue can cause a huge strain on the marriage or the relationship, especially in the early years.
Mothers tend to be the ones that are home with the kids 24/7. They’re the ones that are going to the speech therapy and the mothers’ groups and they’re seeing the behaviours, they’re seeing they’re not playing with other kids, they’re living it. Whereas fathers generally get the chance to escape all that when they go to work. Then they’re coming home and they’ve missed all the meltdowns and they’ve missed all the behaviours…
JENN: Well, some of them!
BRAD: Some of them.
LIZ: I imagine some of them could blame the wife as well?
BRAD: Yes, and so it’s hard when the mother is trying to come up with strategies, and she’s trying to implement them, and trying to force the husband to get on board with it. And he’s like, ‘woah, woah…’ So it can cause a lot of difficulties in marriages.
JENN: We’ve seen that.
BRAD: We’ve seen it a lot with some of our boys’ classmates’ families. A lot of families are no longer together.
JENN: Relationships can be hard anyway, but then having a child with special needs in the mix can just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
BRAD: So, for me, it was about getting on the same page, I think that is the key. You’ve got to get on the same page as the mother, as close to the page as possible!
JENN: Whether you like it or not!
BRAD: Not being stuck on the introduction, or stuck in denial. I’ve seen it as I work in a support class in schools. I see it with some of the parents that I’ve had in some of the classes I’ve worked in. For some parents it’s more about fixing the child than supporting the child with the disability so it can be quite difficult.
JENN: I think men just want to fix things, that’s the problem!
Do teachers have enough training?
LIZ: Jenn, before your boys came along you were a primary school teacher. Knowing what you know now about children with autism, do you think the average teacher is well prepared to manage special needs children in their mainstream classrooms? Would you, as a teacher, have felt confident?
It was 2 decades ago that I did my teacher training and back then there wasn’t a lot of time spent on training for children with special needs, so I definitely would not have felt very confident in myself. I think what often happens is that people learn as they go on the job. Because it was so long ago I contacted a friend of mine who just finished her teacher training last year and I asked her that exact question to see where things were in 2016.
She said that even still today there really isn’t enough done in terms of training at university and said that she’d still find it very hard today. We both said it would depend on the individual child, what special needs they had and also the severity of the special need.
Should we integrate?
Mainstreaming and integration is fantastic if the disability or challenge that the child has is on the minor side, if it’s not too severe. But when it becomes a moderate or more severe challenge it’s a bit harder to integrate them successfully because a lot of the time they’re not really wanting to be involved in the lessons.
To start with there would be too many children in the class as far as autism goes for the child to be able to cope. So the child, from what I understand, could possibly just go into survival mode not a learning mode. That could make it very hard, then, on the teacher, and on the child, and on the other students as well.
So I think special support schools and certainly support classes within mainstream schools are still very much needed and the more that teachers can be trained and educated, whether at university or in-service, is very important. In the past 15 years since we’ve had Cameron the incidents of autism diagnoses has increased hugely. I remember when I was a child we never even knew there was such a thing as autism. We need to have these classes and school available.
Sometimes there are certain pushes with the powers that be that are about integrating and everybody being all in together. But the reality is, for those kids, especially if social overwhelm is a significant issue, it’s just not going to work. It might sound nice in theory but I know, especially for our younger son or both of them really, we tried, but they would just run out. They would physically try to run away.
It’s hard to teach someone who just wants to run away.
The young lady I was talking to about teaching said she was in a prac where a child in the class had autism. Because his sensory needs were so high he had a mini-tramp in the back of the classroom. It’s great to have that implemented there for him as a strategy, except that he was mostly there.
He was bored, so that triggered some negative behaviour, but mostly he was on the trampoline and it wasn’t really the best setting for him. Maybe that’s where his parents wanted him to be, but he might have thrived more and had a better educational experience in a different setting. That was in a mainstream class and he had moderate autism.
Developing relationships with children with autism
LIZ: Brad, you work as a support teacher in a primary school. With children that are non-verbal, or who only speak a little and might not be comfortable with eye contact and so forth, what suggestions can you give to teachers who are trying to develop a relationship with them?
BRAD: The key straight off is not to force it, just have some patience with it, be calm and softly spoken. Basically, when they’re ready to bond with you they will, even if it’s only in a small, minute way that they show it.
In any relationship a bond is formed by finding common interests, which is obviously difficult if the child is non-verbal. When we talk to each other in a relationship you find out their interests by asking, ‘what sporting teams do you like? Do you like to play cricket?’ Those are the things you can’t ask them so you have to find other ways.
You might have to ask parents what interests they have at home, or even just observing what they play with or watch in the classroom. It might be a movie character or a song that they like and then you can introduce that to the class routine. That may bring a small glance your way. If you put a song on that they like they might interact with you a little bit because it gives a joy to them because it’s a song they like. You might be in the classroom dancing!
It’s certainly a hard relationship to form, especially for a teacher in a mainstream school because they’re probably not used to it.
Songs and role play
JENN: You would do things like, in the morning circle routine each student would have a special song. I remember you’ve told me before you’ve played certain games in the playground with the students. If he liked Star Wars you’d play that game with him. Rather than trying to make him connect to you, you were coming out and making that connection.
BRAD: In the circumstances of a child with a lot of behavioural issues I’ve just played the games that he wanted to play. He loved role playing, like Indiana Jones or Star Wars or Dr. Who and things like that.
LIZ: And I’m sure you didn’t mind playing games like that!
BRAD: I did do well in playing the role…
JENN: Because he likes all those, so that worked out well! A lot of kids on the spectrum do like movies and songs and characters. So if you can get up on your Disney and Pixar you’ll be right!
Be satisfied with small steps
LIZ: So for teachers, then, they need to look for the little signals rather than looking for bigger, more obvious signals, they need to be pleased when they see those little signs that the children are connecting.
BRAD: Absolutely! That’s the key. And like any child that has any delay you’re not going to see the results that a mainstream class will see in the year, moving on in their learning.
I’ve been in a K-6 support class for 7 years, and we still have some kids that are in the early stage 1 level of their maths and literacy. You’re only seeing small progression, and then you might see a couple of steps back again. So you’ve got to see and enjoy those small steps that they’ve made in their learning, but it’s a very slow process sometimes. That’s just how it is.
Helping other children understand
LIZ: If I had a moderately autistic child in my kinder classroom how should I talk to the other kids to help them understand that child’s needs? Are there rules or reminders that would help?
JENN: There’s a program called The Sixth Sense II program where you talk about what all the five senses are but then the sixth sense is the social sense. It explains to neuro-typical children that a person has autism does not necessarily have that sixth sense. They might not know how to communicate and make friends, they might not know how to ask to join into a game, they might not know if they’re being rude or saying something inappropriate or butting in.
There’s a lot more to the program than that but it’s just helping the other children in the classroom to understand that Johnny, our friend with autism, might need help or understanding in these areas. And doing that in a way that’s going to bring value and respect to the student with autism. That way the kids can understand how they can help and be supportive to that special friend that they have.
How can a teacher reassure you?
LIZ: As parents, what can a teacher do, how can they communicate with you in a way that would give you confidence that a) the teacher cares for your child, b) they’re going to give their best to your child, and c) your child is safe and in good hands?
JENN: Lots of communication! Yes, that’s the truth! We are very lucky because we have a communication book so every day we right in that. Maybe not every teacher and parent does this, but we do. We’ll write how the boys have been going overnight or over the weekend, anything exciting that’s happened.
Our boys can’t express what they’ve done to their teacher, so we keep her in the loop as to what’s happening at home and then she does the same for us at school. Everyday she’ll write anything that’s happened that’s notable, that’s good, whatever they’ve enjoyed, whatever they’ve tried, whatever they’ve done, if there’s been any problems. If it’s something we can’t sort out through written communication then we’d just pick up the phone and call, or we’d go in and have a meeting.
We’d normally meet with the teachers early on in the year, and then every term or certainly every 6 months. So we’ll meet a few times, and that’s the sort of things that we want from the teacher. Generally parents will want, it’s not so much that the teacher tells you, ‘I care about your child.’ You just assume that they’re going to be doing the best that they can. But meeting with them and getting that connection with teachers helps parents, especially if the child is limited verbally, to make you feel like the child will be in safe hands and you can feel good about that.
If there’s a problem you can always talk to the principal if you feel like it’s not the right fit for your child, or the teacher’s not the right fit, sometimes that happens too. Really, just a lot of communication.
BRAD: With communication the key is also what the parent communicates, what’s happening at home. For instance, if the child hasn’t had a good night’s sleep. If the parents don’t communicate that, as a teacher in the classroom, if I’m wondering why little Johnny’s…
JENN: Not attentive this morning!
BRAD: Yes, a little bit of communication written in the book to say Johnny woke up at 3.00 and didn’t go back to sleep, then you might get a bit more of an understanding of why he’s not performing, and why he’s a mess today! Communication is definitely a key for that.
LIZ: If you could choose 3 strategies or priorities for a mainstream teacher to incorporate into their inclusive classroom, what would they be?
Part 2 of this interview is in episode 12!
I’m very sorry, but we’re going to break from the interview here. You can listen to the rest of this interview with Brad and Jenn Ratcliffe in the next episode. We talk about the most important strategies to implement in an inclusive classroom, the goals parents have for their children and how to make the best use of support teachers.
Jenn also talks a little about her book, Brad lets us know about a great app he has coming out (PS. it’s out now and you can find the First and Then App here), and we get a sneak peek into a new book they’re writing for parents of children with autism.
I hope you enjoyed this interview with Jenn and Brad.
If you have it would help us out if you went to iTunes to submit a rating and review.
Would you like to see Jenn and Brad on video?
All Things Autism: A youtube video with Jen and Brad talking about their work. They’ll be adding more autism-related videos in the future.
Have you supported a child with autism in a way you found effective? Let us know how in the comments!
Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers
If you’re looking for more education podcasts I recommend you go to Truth for Teachers and take a look at Angela Watson’s weekly 10 minute podcasts. She tackles student questions like whether we should use rewards in our classroom but also teacher focused issues such as how to make our jobs less stressful. That’s Truth for Teachers.com
Thank you for joining me to learn a little more about early childhood education, and I wish you happy teaching and learning.
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