Anyone who cares for or is teaching children with autism needs to listen to this interview. There are so many helpful tips, stories and suggestions from this lovely Australian family.
This post contains one Amazon affiliate link.
Links from this post
- Brad and Jenn’s website
- First and Then App
- Sensory Tools: providers of courses and products regarding sensory issues (this is not an affiliate link)
- 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.
Summary of Part 1
Hello. I’m Liz, the host of the Early Childhood Research Podcast. We’re so glad you’ve joined us today. This is episode 12, and it’s a follow on from last week’s interview about loving and educating children with autism. This interview is with Jenn and Brad Ratcliffe who have 2 boys, aged 15 and 12, who both have moderate to severe autism. They have also both worked in education.
We’ve talked about their experiences leading up to diagnosis, the many, many classes and therapies they’ve tried, and the difficulties special needs can put on the family, particularly if there’s long-term denial.
On the teaching side, we’ve talked about how we can develop relationships with non-communicative children, how to help our neuro-typical children understand and be supportive of their autistic friend, and how to communicate with parents of special needs students to give them confidence and to develop an open and trusting dialogue.
Education Podcast Network
This podcast is part of The Education Podcast Network at www.edupodcastnetwork.com.
Let’s move on to the next part of our interview!
Teaching children with autism: strategies for mainstream teachers
LIZ: If you could choose 3 strategies or priorities for a mainstream teacher to incorporate into their inclusive classroom, what would they be?
Strategy 1: Visual supports
JEN: Definitely the first thing that I think all children on the spectrum as well as others can benefit from, is visual supports.
Using visual support for the timetable is important because a lot of kids on the spectrum can have anxiety around what’s going to be happening next. So supporting the day, and the next activity that’s coming, and using timers and verbal prompting.
Giving advanced notice of any changes that are going to take place, especially in a mainstream school. Sometimes it can be, ‘we can’t go to the library today, so we have to go tomorrow.’ Well, that might be enough to put someone on the spectrum into a meltdown. So we have to be able to advise them of that and supporting that visually as well is going to help the whole day for everybody.
Strategy 2: Calming strategies
The second thing would be to have calming strategies. Some children on the spectrum actually listen better while they’re fiddling with something or they’ve got a sensory toy to hold on to. It’s interesting because you think, ‘they must not be paying attention because they’re fiddling with something.’ We teachers would tell them to put everything out of their hands.
So being aware, and allowing that to take place, knowing that it’s going to benefit that child is another good strategy. If the other children in the class say, ‘why is he allowed to hold on to the spikey ball,’ or whatever he’s got, the squeezy ball, then if the teacher can implement a strategy like The Sixth Sense II that explains how all of this is helping Little Johnny to be calm and to listen, and that other children don’t need that. Who knows, there are probably a lot of children out there who are undiagnosed and could do with some support.
It’s not going to hurt them to have some things in place anyway, like the visual supports that will probably benefit the whole classroom.
LIZ: I think a lot of teachers do that now. They’ll have a place where you can go and find a squeezy ball or something like that.
Strategy 3: A retreat
JEN: The third thing is similar to what you just said. It’s a place to retreat. A lot of kids on the spectrum go to the library at lunch, having a place that’s safe and quiet that they can go…
LIZ: And it’s not the time out corner.
JENN: Yeah, that’s right. It’s not that they’re in trouble. It’s just a place they can go. Building those times into the day for any student that you have on the spectrum, that will help them to be able to concentrate better.
As a teacher, if we just expect that the child’s going to be able to cope, for the want of a better word, with full class events back to back to back. When they do end up not being able to cope anymore, or they kick someone, or hit someone, or run out of the room and there’s some sort of behaviour we’re not happy with sometimes it’s good to think: ‘OK, how could we have made that a little bit smoother so that we didn’t end up where we ended up.’
LIZ: So, those big events, such as when you were talking about those assemblies for your own child, or when there’s party days or when it’s leading up to Christmas and there seems to be a lot of extra activities going on, the teacher needs to think: ‘Well, let’s give the child some space,’ even before the child requests it.
JENN: That’s right, have it built in. That means the child will know that they’re going to have that little bit of a reprieve so they can break out and go away. It will help everyone in the classroom and enhance their learning capacity.
Strategy 4: Sensory gym
BRAD: There’s one more support strategy we use in the classroom. I don’t know how a mainstream class can implement this but each morning the first thing we do is a sensory gym.
Building up: It’s a program that we incorporated through sensory tools. They’ve come up with a way of setting up a sensory gym where you’re getting the kids moving and crawling and using their upper body and their core. We set that up with music. We use fit balls and they climb over cushions and through tunnels. We even have a ball pit in our corridor that they can crawl through.
Calming down: We’ve been doing this for 6 years. The other part of this is when you start to bring them back down using the breathing program. You introduce them to blowers like whistles or party blowers or bubbles. Anything that they have to blow into so the child has to take a deep breath. It’s helping them to breathe and it’s starting to bring them down and then we finish with a deep compression massage. They all lay on their stomachs and we roll a fit ball over their legs and back.
JENN: Sounds like a great way to start the day, doesn’t it!
Ready to learn: We introduce slower, calming music into the breathing program. Every morning we do that and then they go to morning circle. We have them all there listening, sitting, not fidgeting for the entire morning session, sometimes it’ll get them through recess and into the middle session, but the morning session is where we do our key learning.
If a mainstream teacher wants their child to be more intently learning and more engaged in their learning a sensory gym is definitely the way to go.
JENN: Or any kind of physical activity.
BRAD: If you look up sensorytools.net you can get some great information on that.
30 minutes every morning
LIZ: How long in the mornings do you do this?
BRAD: About 20 – 30 minutes. We give it a good go in the morning. If it’s just a one-off for one student you could probably do it for 10 or 15, but you definitely need to give them time to build up. To get those big muscles in their chest and arms going, get their core engaged. Even just rolling on a fit ball, up on your arms like a wheelbarrow race with the ball beneath your ankles and just bouncing and engaging the core. Get them crawling around on cushions.
The key is then to bring them back down again using the blowing program. Sometimes we run out of clean blowers or bubbles so we get them to lay down on the floor with a tissue over their face and blow the tissue up into the air. It’s great because they love it and it gets their deep breathing going. It’s also a cheap way to do a breathing program!
LIZ: To be honest I think lots of neuro-typical kids could do very well with this kind of morning process, too.
BRAD: I’m in a mainstream school, so a lot of the kids that are having issues, they might have recently been diagnosed as on the spectrum but might not yet have the funding to get support in the classroom. They’re reverse integrating the child into the morning session and they’re entering our sensory gym program. So we sometimes have 2 or 3 extra kids. I only have a class of 8, so we might have an extra 3 kids that really need that program.
Certainly a few of those kids have shown huge improvement in their behaviour and learning. The teachers can’t talk enough about how great the kids are when they’ve done it, and they can tell when they’ve had to miss a session.
LIZ: How old are your boys now and what are your goals for them? What do you hope school will do for them?
JENN: Cameron is 15 and Coby’s 12. In terms of academics every year we have goals, but really we’re looking to transition them into a work or activity-based program. Cameron’s in Year 10 now, so in the next couple of years we need to start to make a plan for his future. At school we hope that he will be able to engage in as many activities, life skills, outings and have as many adventures as he can. We don’t necessarily want him sitting at the table doing only academics, not that it isn’t important, but for them, for example, to write their name is really hard. But can they type? Yes, they can type great!
BRAD: Actually, Coby can type better than I can.
JENN: Yes, he can! Because of the way technology is going, hopefully that will be good for them, because if success or failure is based on what they can write they just really find that hard. So, we’re looking for a rounded education and the school the boys have been at for quite a while now is a support school, and they’re very supportive of teaching a mix of academics and life skills. Giving the students opportunities to try new things that they might not otherwise have done.
They did a surfing program at the end of last year which was great as it’s very hard for us to go to the beach. Coby will be 13 in May and he’s never really been in the water at the beach because he was always so scared and overwhelmed. They did this program and it was amazing, we didn’t think he’d even put the wet suit on. But he put the wet suit on and went into the water. I said to the people that were running it, ‘I know he’s not standing up and surfing in on the waves, but this is still massive for him!’
So that’s the sort of thing that our school does. It puts on events and looks to widen the students’ experiences in life and in the world.
Parent expectations and ‘fixing’ autism
LIZ: I’m sure you have spoken to many parents of children with special needs. Do you feel their goals for their children line up fairly well with school expectations? Or is there a disconnect?
JENN: It really depends. I’ve found different parents want different things for their children. Some parents want the teachers in the school to actually fix their child’s autism. Others are simply wanting their child to be supported and live a happy and full life, to have access to as many opportunities and experiences as possible. So that’s where we are, in the 2nd category.
Even if there is a disconnect it’s a bit hard to say because it is very personal. As I was saying before we’re equally interested in the social interaction and experiences and the academic side so for us it does work out well.
But what we’ve seen over the years is people who do have a child that could benefit very well from being in a more specialized school. But they have trouble accepting the diagnosis so they send them to a mainstream school, thinking that would fix the child and help get rid of the autism.
BRAD: There’s also the persona that they are a normal family.
LIZ: That’s taking it very far, isn’t it? I can understand fighting the diagnosis at the beginning, but for it to go on for years and years is heart breaking.
JENN: That’s what we’ve seen. We’ve found that there’s a very big difference in the way each parent deals with the situation and some do it in an interesting way. It’s not what we would choose. It’s very much trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and it’s sad because some of these kids they’d probably… I not saying they haven’t learned anything in a mainstream school, and I’m sure for many of them it has been a wonderful experience, but I think it could also bring a lot of challenges.
There’s also the bullying issue which can be another thing in the mainstream. I’m not saying it wouldn’t happen at all in special needs, I’m sure it does, but it’s very personal.
I think schools do the best they can according to what the parents want. At the end of the day it’s up to the parent as to where they send the child. Schools try to accommodate that to the best of their ability.
The role of support teachers
LIZ: Brad, I know it’s difficult to generalize when we talk about special needs because every child is different, but what do you see as the most important parts of a support teacher’s role? And does that differ from what mainstream teachers generally expect from a support teacher in their classroom?
BRAD: I work in a support class with a great teacher who is special ed. trained and we work well together because we respect each other and we know what strengths we both bring to the classroom and we can support each other with that.
I think with a mainstream teacher, they can even struggle having another adult in the classroom. Sometimes they’re unsure how to utilize the support teacher in the classroom effectively. Not only working with the child but also working with the entire classroom.
It depends on the child. Some children get funding for a support teacher in a mainstream class because of a learning delay. If their behaviours aren’t that hard, then the support teacher can generally sit one on one with the student, but also be observing the whole class and can help with classroom management. I think that’s key, for a support teacher to have confidence to be aware of the whole classroom and not just the student that you’re working with.
LIZ: The teacher needs to give the support teacher permission to say, ‘look, I want you to help with the other kids.’
Maximising support teachers
BRAD: Unfortunately, sometimes that’s not the case. We’ve heard stories of teacher’s aides sitting in a corner, waiting for the teacher to give them an instruction: ‘You’ll stay there till I tell you what to do!’ It helps if the teacher can maximize having that extra person in the room.
You’ve almost got to see it as a team teaching exercise. I know that the teacher is the qualified one, with 4 or 5 years at uni, but the support person will have strengths that they can bring to the classroom. Use it, and allow them to make a difference with how you teach the class.
LIZ: So, instead of thinking of the support person as an intrusion, you need to sit down and think, ‘OK, how am I going to maximize the benefit of having this person here.’
BRAD: A lot of classrooms set up group work in reading etc. You’re always sitting with one group and trying to come up with groups where you can leave the kids to do their own thing. Let the support teacher be on another group and give them something to get the kids involved in and engaged.
Benefits for the whole class
LIZ: The child who’s getting support, wouldn’t it help them if their support teacher is also mixing in with the rest of the class?
BRAD: Yes, absolutely. We were talking earlier on forming relationships and that’s the same with the support teacher that’s coming in. You’ve got to make a bond with the child who has behavioural issues and if he doesn’t want to get to know you… I found very early on in my career as a support teacher, with some students they didn’t want me in the room because they knew that was what I was there for. So you’ve just got to find a way to interact and bond with them the best way that you can and support the teacher at the same time.
Who decides where the support goes?
LIZ: A few weeks ago I heard a teacher say that their principal had granted them a support teacher but that they would only cover the library and PE lessons. She requested that they help with her literacy blocks instead, but the principal said no, that the support teacher was there for the child’s benefit not for the teacher’s. Speaking as a parent and a support teacher, what would you suggest should be a principal’s priorities when allocating support, knowing that there are tough choices to be made and never enough support staff to go around?
BRAD: It would depend on the priorities the parents had discussed at their IEP meeting with the teacher. They would certainly set a few goals that they’d want the child to achieve. The parent may say that they want more academic achievement, they’re falling behind, so that might be a priority. That might mean that having the support teacher within the classroom might be a better fit.
But if the parents are wanting more social interaction because they’re not getting on with their friends, then that PE/library time might be the more suited time for the support teacher.
This is where the principal needs to be aware of what the support is for.
JENN: It would have been good if the principal listened to what the teacher suggested. It’s a shame because it might not have been the best use of that time. The principal is looking after the whole school so they can’t be as aware of each student’s needs as the teacher can.
LIZ: In other words there needs to be a dialogue there between the principal, the teacher and the parent to decide where is the best place.
JENN: Yes, that’s right!
This was not on the brochure
LIZ: Jenn, I love the title of your book, This was Not on the Brochure, because it encapsulates that life does not always turn out the way we expected. Some families definitely have a much more difficult day-to-day life than others. In your book you talk about having a happiness plan. What is a happiness plan and what made you come up with the idea?
JENN: Thank you! We say ‘this was not on the brochure,’ from the City Slickers movie. Brad used to say that all the time when the boys were young.
A happiness program
The happiness program is about choosing activities that are easy to incorporate into daily life. Each person will have a different happiness program that’s going to be totally unique to them. The activities they might put on their program might be having a coffee, going to yoga, walking on the beach or sitting outside in the sun for 5 minutes. They might like to watch a certain movie or get their hair done or have a coffee with a friend. Whatever it is, it’s going to be different, but it’s powerful because it’s intentional. It’s a simple strategy, but I’ve found over the years having something to look forward to is very powerful for your own mental health.
When you’re looking after a person with special needs and living with autism, then just being aware of where you’re at mentally and taking some steps no matter how small can make a big difference to the whole situation. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. We’re not in it for the short course, it’s a long trip, so taking care of yourself as a carer or parent of someone with special needs is crucial.
Here in the Illawarra there are a lot of changes being implemented. Something new in the last few years is called Care and Share for Autism. It’s a beautiful day where mums and carers can go and have a pampering day and have some time out. A lot of these ladies, they’re dealing with the every day challenges of life on a little bit less sleep than what they really need. Looking down the track to a future that’s quite uncertain… I know that everyone has an uncertain future… but when you’re not sure how independent your child’s going to be as an adult it’s quite a scary thing for parents.
The happiness program is just a simple, quick, easy thing to do, but because it’s intentional that’s why it’s powerful. Anyone can do it in any circumstance.
Living a great life
LIZ: What do you hope readers will get out of reading your book?
JENN: I hope that they are inspired to live a great life, even if it looks different from the one they had planned or hoped for because that’s what can happen in our lives. Everyone has challenges from time to time. Even though parents of children with autism will totally identify with it, it’s for everybody and anybody. Each chapter incorporates a strategy and sometimes a mindset as well that I’ve used, that can help them live positively. Hopefully, to live a life in victory, not as a victim, because often in life things can go a different way than we were hoping. Then we can feel like a victim because it wasn’t what we wanted. I want them to live the best life possible, so that’s what I hope people will get out of my book.
LIZ: Sound great! Well, I have read it and I did enjoy it!
JENN: Thank you very much!
NOTE: This app is now available and you can find it HERE!
LIZ: Brad, I know you’re a tech whizz and you integrate technology into your work with children. You’ve been developing an app that you hope will help parents and educators. What is your app about? And do you have an estimated release date?
Yes, I’m very excited because I’ve had the idea for this app for a few years now and had a few hurdles along the way because I was trying to do it myself and gotten part of the way but then realized I needed help. So I needed to find the right connections to get to the finish line, and I found someone earlier this year.
It’s a visual support app designed to help parents, carers, educators, even therapists facilitate the smooth transition from one event or task or venue to another. It’s called First and Then. We hope it will be available in the app store or the Google Play in the next 3-6 months so it’s in the early stages of production. The fact that I know there’s going to be a finish line soon is very exciting!
LIZ: So you’re working with visual pictures so that people can have them on their iPhone and can just use them with the children?
BRAD: Yes. A lot of schools would use them and a lot of parents who have gone through speech therapy, getting the initial visual supports drummed into them that help the children. They would have set up a First and Then piece of paper laminated, and then using different visuals you’ve laminated and added Velcro to. You stick 1 picture under First and another picture under Then.
It’s a bit limited in that it’s not spontaneous.
LIZ: They’re not all out with you when you’re at the park.
BRAD: No, that’s right.
JENN: And it costs a lot in Velcro, too! And laminating sheets!
BRAD: It’s going to be a very simple app. There are a lot of apps for communication and visual support but they’re very complex and you almost need a degree to understand. As a parent it’s quite daunting. So my idea for this app is just to make it as simple as possible, easy to use, that’s the key.
It’s going to be great for parents. It’s going to be good for classrooms. We’re still using the First and Then with our students that need that support with transitions and even with reward systems. First we’ll do our writing and Then you can have the iPad is a visual that we set up a lot. So we can have that set up ready on the iPad for when you’re out and about. And therapists, I’m sure, will be able to utilize it as well.
It should (hopefully) be ready sometime before June. Here’s a link to the First and Then Facebook page.
A new book for parents: Keeping it Real
LIZ: The other project you are both working on together is a new book. What is this book about? And when are you hoping it will be finished?
An A-Z book of handy hints
JENN: This one is called Keeping It Real. It’s an A-Z of activities, experiences and different things that would be relevant to a person living with autism. For eg, H might have Haircuts. We’ll talk about what our experience has been like for both boys, being quite different in personality, and how we went with it, or more importantly how did we not go!
But then, what have we done over the years, what have we learnt to make it into a smoother transition so we can now have a successful hair cutting experience.
It might be shopping or bedtime or swimming. It’s A-Z so there might not be much for some letters, but others will have a lot. Just practical ideas, strategies and stories. We know that when we were younger parents we would have really appreciated having a book like this, where we wouldn’t have to read it all at once. But knowing there are other parents out there and this is what they did, just some ideas that could be helpful.
We just want to help other parents that are going along on the same journey that we’ve been on.
LIZ: And the other reason you make it short is so you can just look up what you need at the time because parents don’t have time to sit down and read a book from front to back.
JENN: They may not, that’s right. Or they may fall asleep!
BRAD: We’ve just come back from going overseas for the first time with the 2 boys, taking them on a 9 hour flight to Hong Kong. This is something that we would always have loved to have done, but had always put off.
JENN: We never thought we could do it.
BRAD: They’re going to keep everyone up, they’ll make noise, they’re going to run all around the plane.
JENN: We were really concerned. So we’ve covered plane travel in our book as well so that if people want to take a child overseas but are thinking like we did for many years that we could never do it, well you can! It was amazing, going to Disneyland, it was a dream come true.
BRAD: We’ve talked about the ways we tried to make it as successful as possible.
JENN: Although we did make a couple of mistakes this time, it was only our first time, but we’ve put those in there as well. Hopefully that will help somebody else.
LIZ: So you’ll be going on another trip next year so you can iron out those issues?
JENN: That’s right!
Giving up on going out
LIZ: I imagine a lot of parents give up doing things: taking their child to the park, taking them to the shop, going for that haircut, because it seems so overwhelming and stressful. Is that true?
JENN: Yes, absolutely.
BRAD: One of the things that we tried to do when they were younger and had some difficulties with was camping. That’s one family outing that we haven’t done for many, many years.
JENN: Not in a tent. We’ve been in a small unit.
BRAD: In the early days we did use a tent camping, but it’s one of those things that we said, ‘we’re not doing that again,’ because it was overwhelming.
JENN: There are not enough fences at campsites! It’s a hard thing. You have friends with children the same age and they can do things that we couldn’t. Going to the snow, even going to Sydney for a day was a really hard thing to do in terms of waiting in lines, going on public transport, being near roads, there were so many challenges for the kids.
And as they got bigger they were harder to pick up.
LIZ: And they can run faster.
JENN: Exactly. We just hope our book will encourage people to have a little idea that might mean they can try something that they had otherwise given up on. Maybe there’ll be nothing new. Maybe it will just be a confirmation of what they’re already doing. A lot of parents and carers of children with autism start to become quite creative and resourceful. But at the same time they can get tired and give up on things as well.
We’re hoping to finish it by the end of the year. Here’s a link to Jenn’s website.
LIZ: Jenn and Brad, thank you for being part of The Early Childhood Research Podcast today. I really appreciate your willingness to be open and to share your experiences with us. It’s been truly eye opening, from my perspective, to speak with you today.
BRAD/JENN: It’s been great to be with you, thanks so much!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this interview with Jenn and Brad. You can find the first half of this interview in episode 11, Loving and Teaching Children with Autism.
If you’ve enjoyed this interview it would help us out if you went to iTunes to submit a rating and review.
Thank you for joining me to learn a little more about early childhood education, and I wish you happy teaching and learning.
- #0 The Early Childhood Research Podcast: An Introduction
- #1 Healthy Eating in Young Children
- #2 Developing Pre-Writing Skills
- #3 Dealing with Bullying: 10 Proven Strategies
- #4 School Readiness through Music
- #5 What are the Rights of a Child?
- #6 Does Movement Improve Learning Outcomes?
- #7 How to Communicate Effectively about Childhood Development
- #8 Anger Management: How to Calm an Angry Child
- #9 Environmental Protection for Kids
- #10 Essential Addition Strategies for Young Children
- #11 Loving and Teaching Children with Autism: Part 1