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Frequently asked questions

Here you will find common questions and queries raised by practitioners supporting children with autism and social communication difficulties. Possible reasons for the behaviour, along with problem-solving suggestions are included. It is important to remember that all children are unique individuals requiring an individual response. The suggestions are by no means definitive but we hope they may encourage further exploration.

There are some possible reasons why a child might behave in this way, such as:

  • Sensory seeking behaviour
  • Safe routine of wandering around the periphery
  • ‘Calming time’ after a stressful session
  • Special interest in nature – collects items related to this interest
  • Difficulty engaging with peers

There are some suggestions to consider:

  • Ensure a mix of sensory opportunities are on offer
  • Look to vary resources; include natural materials
  • Use books to explore what has been found or seen

Possible reasons for this behaviour are:

  • A lack of clarity over transition times, e.g. when one activity finishes to when another is due to start
  • Noisy, unpredictable and busy room during the changeover period
  • A safe place to go to when the environment feels unsafe.

Some suggestions to consider are:

  • Provide a visual timetable with now and next cues to support with routine and what will be happening next
  • Consider supporting child to move before other children
  • Adults to role model and support calm / quiet environment
  • Discuss with children how to move between activities

Possible reasons for this behaviour are:

  • The child may not be clear on what will happen next
  • Avoidance of an activity that causes worry
  • Enjoys the physical sensation and doesn’t want it to stop

Some suggestions to consider are:

  • Visual cues and reminders about the safe use of equipment
  • Now and next cards (including alternative sensory resources)
  • Providing other safe alternatives for calm time and sensory experience

Possible reasons for this behaviour are:

  • High level of distress and anxiety when things go wrong
  • The child wants to escape from the situation - seeking a place to be alone
  • The child wants to get away from people who are causing distress

Suggestions to consider are:

  • Support the child and encourage moving to a safe, calm space/area
  • Allow time for the child to calm
  • If safe to do so, avoid chasing/following the child closely

Possible reasons a child my react in this way are:

  • Anxiety due to a change in their usual routine
  • Unpredictability within the session of the dynamic created by a different person, or of the way the new person might respond
  • Has learned that unacceptable behaviour will get him moved to an environment that he is familiar with and feels safe in

Suggestions to consider are:

  • Prepare the child for a new adult’s/child’s arrival (where possible).  This could include the use of photographs/social stories
  • Use visual now and next cards - one picture could include a picture of a new adult/child

It is not uncommon for children to have some of the difficulties associated with autism, but this does not necessarily mean that they are on the autism spectrum.  Practitioners must resist any temptation to ‘diagnose’ autism.  Instead, the practitioner should observe the child carefully and note down the concerns that they have, sharing these with parents and seeking their views on their child’s strengths and areas of need.  If the child does not make reasonable progress over time and following discussion with parents, further advice should be sought from outside professionals.  In time, some children will go on to receive a diagnosis of autism, while others will make good progress and the behaviours about which the practitioner was concerned will reduce or disappear.  As long as the practitioner is offering appropriate support to meet the needs they have identified, discussing concerns with parents and seeking support from other professionals where appropriate, they should not worry that a child is ‘going undiagnosed’.

It is true that children with autism tend to find change difficult, but this does not mean that the child’s key person should be the only person who works with them. The key person is likely to be the adult who provides the most support to the child, particularly in the early stages of building relationships. However, it is neither realistic nor desirable for the key person to be the sole source of support to the child or to spend all their time with them. As children with autism become more confident in their setting and able to interact with others, different adults should spend an increasing amount of time with them, taking the lead from the child and giving them space as necessary. 

Where an allocated worker is ill or on leave, an existing member of staff who is familiar to the child should take their place. It would not be good practice to use an unfamiliar adult (for example, from an agency) as a replacement adult for a child with autism, as the child is likely to find this difficult.

It is neither realistic nor desirable to stop all loud noises in a setting.  However, practitioners can remind other children that loud noises upset some children and perhaps have a rule that, in general, loud noises should be limited to a particular area such as the music corner or outdoor area.  It is a good idea to discuss with parents the strategies they use if there is a sudden loud noise that cannot be prepared for and the child becomes very distressed.  Where practitioners know that there is going to be a loud noise, for example diggers working on the road outside, prepare the child by warning them that this is going to take place, explaining what will happen and the reason why.  It may also be a good idea to make a recording of the noise of diggers, and play it back to the child at reduced volume so that they know what it will sound like.  When the child is feeling relaxed and safe, recordings of noises that usually distress them can be played back to them, very quietly at first, and then at increasing volume, monitoring the child’s response carefully to ensure that they do not get distressed.  This could even be made into a game, where the child is in charge of the volume control and the adult has to guess how loud they will make the noise.  Over time, most children with autism will learn to cope better with loud noises, even if they continue to dislike them.

Many children with autism are easily distracted by visual stimuli, and can become over-stimulated if there are lots of things on the walls, hanging from the ceiling or within the room.  For this reason, it is a good idea to have an area of your setting where the walls are not filled with busy displays, away from doors and windows and other visual distractions.  This area should also be as quiet as possible, so that the child is not distracted by noise.  You may wish to separate this area from the rest of the setting with screens or room dividers.  This ‘calm area’ can be used by any of the children to retreat to if they are feeling overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the setting, and can also be used for individual or small-group activities that are led by an adult, where the child needs to focus on the activity in hand and what is being said by the adult . It is not realistic to expect that the whole of the setting should have bare walls with no displays.

Although child plans focus on children’s special interests as the starting point for planning, as suggested by the EYFS, this does not mean that children will not be encouraged to broaden their interests.  Practitioners should not worry about encouraging children’s special interests; thinking about these as ‘obsessions’ is not helpful, and the practitioner should instead welcome the fact that the child has a strong interest, use this to their advantage in planning a stimulating range of activities, and seek over time to broaden the child’s interests to allow maximum access to the EYFS.  On the very rare occasions that a child struggles to engage with anything other than their special interest, it can be used as an incentive to encourage them to take part in a different activity.  For example you might say, ‘Let’s read this story together.  When we’ve finished, we can look at a book about trains.’  Using a visual timetable is also helpful, as the child is able to see which activities are coming up and when they will be able to play with the trains.  Not all children with autism will have an obvious special interest in one area.  Some children will be interested in a broader range of activities, and you will be able to plan around these.  Remember that some children’s interests might be based upon a schema (a pattern of repeated behaviour in young children’s play), such as rotating, enclosing or transporting.

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