Last week was very special and exciting for me, for two reasons.
The first was that I had the opportunity to lead a training session on autism and share my passion for the subject with the Redearth Field Officers. The aim of the training was to empower Redearth staff by enabling them to recognise pupils who may show traits of the condition in the schools they visit. It also aimed to support teachers in implementing strategies that will help children of all abilities succeed in school.
One of the biggest challenges in schools here in Masindi is recognising autism in children who do not have an additional learning disability or challenging behaviour. These children are understanding at the same level as their peers, yet their knowledge of how to interact with others can impact upon and restrict their learning. An example of this is when pupils are required to work in groups or pairs, which can be overwhelming or confusing for many children with autism. If they are not taught strategies to manage these feelings, it can lead to isolation or future mental health problems. It can also be challenging to provide these children with the individualised curriculum or environment they require to thrive, as classes are often overcrowded.
There are also many children who have autism and a moderate or severe learning disability, and who are in a special school or in the special unit of a mainstream school. The children I have observed are finding it hard to settle in class, preferring to be alone and to walk around the compound. This severely restricts their learning and it is almost impossible for the teacher to manage this behaviour with no support.
This is very different to my school in London, where I have enough support staff so that if a student needs an individualised programme requiring him to move in and out of the classroom, he is able to do so without interruption to his learning.
The understanding of autism in Europe has increased as the number of people diagnosed has increased, and conversely the number of people being diagnosed is increasing as our understanding of the condition develops. It is important for teachers, both in mainstream and special schools, to continue receiving training around autism to know what to look for so that they are able to develop specific strategies to help each child and continue to develop their own understanding.
The feedback from the session was really positive; there were some thought provoking discussions and everybody seemed to leave the training with an increased understanding of autism. It was great to see many Field Officers raise questions about specific children they have seen or worked with who may be on the autistic spectrum continuum. I will work with these Field Officers and the relevant teachers to implement appropriate autism specific interventions.
This leads me to my second special event of last week! I was pleased to receive an invitation from Kamarasi Demonstration School to help them develop resources for their pupils with learning disabilities. I also had the opportunity to work with Rashid, a young man who is pre-verbal with little functional sign language. When Rashid wishes to communicate, he will initiate with a noise or if his needs are not met he will grab for the item he wants.
I wanted to increase Rashid’s independence and his ability to communicate with a wide range of people, so we trialled PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System). We established items that Rashid really wanted and placed a hand drawn symbol representing the object in front of him. Through physical prompts, Rashid quickly learned to use the card to ask for the item he wanted. I was extremely impressed with how quickly we were able to remove the prompts! This is the beginning of Rashid communicating in a functional, appropriate and meaningful way!