Accurate visuals can help children with special educational needs feel more in control during their time in your setting, says Adele Devine…
Imagine you are on a mission to walk on the moon. Every preparation has been made and you really want to do this, but the outfit provided does not remotely resemble the images you have seen of astronauts in space. You are already out of your comfort zone and this unexpected change is making you feel anxious. You consider resisting and abandoning the mission altogether. If only someone had shown you the suit earlier and explained modern changes to space gear, you would have felt so much more in control…
When a child arrives at nursery they are a million miles away from the comfort of ‘home planet’. The more accurate visual information we can provide, the less anxiety they will encounter.
We might think we have this covered, but let’s stop a second and look closely at the information we provide. Imagine not being able to read social rules and search the environment for clues as to what might be expected. Accurate information can help a child feel safe and in control, and enable them to take that ‘leap of faith’ to unfamiliar territory.
Hassan (Age 5, Diagnosis: Autism)
Hassan was a complex little man who could be fine one moment, but could physically attack another child or teacher the next. His trigger was not always clear, meaning his behaviour could be hard to predict. But there was one food that always seemed to trigge a lunchtime meltdown: sausages.
Hassan was a vegetarian, so when pork sausages were on the menu he could not have them. My first thought was for the kitchen to make some vegetarian sausages so that Hassan could still have some sausages, but due to oven space and chef’s timings, this was not going to be possible. Giving him sausages could also have set him up to fail in the future, because there would come a time when he would not be able to get a meat-free alternative.
At the start of each day I would talk the children through our visual timetable. I noticed that the lunch symbol showed a plate of sausages and peas. I wondered if there could be a link between the symbol and the sausage meltdowns. Everyday we showed Hassan an image of a plate of sausages, and then when he went to the lunch hall, he was served something else. On the one day when we seemed to have got it right, when our symbol matched the menu, we told Hasaan, “No sausages.” Could this be the reason for the meltdowns?
I changed the symbol to one that showed sandwiches. The next day Hassan went into the lunch hall and tried to take a sandwich from a child who was eating their packed lunch. Next I changed the timetable symbol to show three different options for lunch. As we went through the timetable I explained that there could be different things for lunch.
Hassan had his own visual ‘Now and Next’ schedule. The shorter schedules were used to break things down so that if he could not process the entire day’s activity, he could see what he would be doing next. We added the new lunch symbol, talking it through in simple terms each day using the same language, so it would become recorded information. The day arrived when sausages were on the menu again. It was fantastic to see Hassan get through that lunchtime without a meltdown. Hassan had needed accurate visual information and our original symbol had been confusing. We had seen ‘lunch’ because we could read and process the word, but he had seen ‘sausages’.
I began to go through every symbol that we used with the class, ensuring they would make sense to a literal, visual learner.
Ernie (Age 5, Diagnosis: Autism)
Ernie was a very talkative child. At playtime he would ask to have a ball, but he would always end up lobbing it on the roof or over a fence. After he had thrown the ball far, far up and away he would say “I’m sorry” and expect that an adult would go and retrieve it. He would keep on asking and asking, as if throwing the ball was the whole point of playtime.
If there was no ball to throw, Ernie would look around for something else – a book, some building bricks or a jumper. This could cause distress to other children, who did not like having their items thrown. It also meant that we started to avoid having balls and objects out at playtime, which was unfair on the other children.
Ernie was happy and occupied if I went on the other side of the fence and we spent playtime throwing a ball up high over the fence back and forth.
I noticed that our playtime symbol showed a child throwing a ball up in the air. This was the only activity shown for playtime. Looking at the visual timetable the playtime symbols really stood out. Could it be that each day Ernie had been looking at the visual timetable and seeing playtime as ‘throw a ball up high’ time? Could this misperception have formed the basis of a habit? Ernie had started off wanting to throw because he thought this was the right thing. Perhaps one day, when there was no ball, he had thrown another child’s toy and got a rewarding reaction.
Children with autism spectrum conditions can enjoy mixing things up and getting reactions. They might not mind if the reaction is positive or negative.
I developed a symbol that would show the different activities children might do at playtime to avoid another child seeing ‘playtime’ as ‘throw time’.
If a child is not following your expectations, then explain in simple language or show them by using an accurate visual. It is so important to get the right information across in a way that is clear to every child.
Five ways to improve your communication…
1. Use photo labels to show box and drawer contents.
2. Have a visual choice board with an ‘I want ______’ sentence strip.
3. Have a ‘wash hands’ visual schedule above the sink.
4. Send home a visual, suggesting a practice dress up in uniform or PE kit.
5. Have an interactive ‘clothes for different weathers’ visual on display.
Nobody likes to step out of their comfort zone into the unknown. We feel less anxious when we know what to expect. We like to be prepared with the right clothes and the right equipment. So next time you ask little Johnny to put on waterproofs at playtime and his eyes show alarm, stop and think about how you have prepared him. Take time to look at every visual in the most literal way. Remember that to some children your reasonable requests could cause the same warning alarm bells as being asked to step out of a space rocket without wearing a protective suit. Zoom in on the visuals and the misleading ones will jump out at you. As Wayne Dyer once said, “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”
Adele Devine is a teacher at Portesbery School & director of SEN Assist.