As parents and educators, I think we need to look more closely at the brain and what it needs to develop healthily and normally, and then ensure that our home, daycare and school environments are enabling this to happen.
Tom attends daycare a few days a week and just let me firstly say – they are wonderful! They do a great job with him. However, when I just stand back and observe the environment, I notice a few things. It is a noisy and high movement environment. This is not great for developing good auditory processing skills – this has been proven. Socially, much of the children’s interactions happen without direct adult input and moderation, meaning that often there’s no real skills being taught to children about turn taking, waiting, and sharing. I think this often ends in a toddler “Lord of the Flies” situation where the children learn that if you want something you have to push, grab or snatch to get what you want. There are lots of wonderful things happening in our daycare centres – I wouldn’t have Tom in one if I didn’t think that! I know that what I’m saying probably seems like an over-simplication of the situation and that I’m being unnecessarily nasty – I don’t mean to be – I just think we could do better! Is this play based, less structured, noisy environment an ideal environment for healthy brain development? Is this way of providing care for our little ones impacting on their brain’s development and the development of lifelong skills like social skills and emotional regulation?
And what of our primary school classrooms? Currently, good teaching practice pushes cooperative learning. Classrooms are noisy and there’s lots of movement. Children are often seated in group tables of 2-6 children. The children then share the space, and often share their materials as well. These tables don’t directly face the board, so often children have to turn their heads to look towards the front of the classroom. We insist of having lots of visual supports around the room which means that every surface (and often even the roof) is covered in visual stimulus! The children are involved in group activities all day long which requires a lot of social interaction constantly throughout the day. So as you can see, a child with autistic tendencies is going to struggle – noise, social interactions, shared spaces, visual over-stimulation. So perhaps you can see why autistic children are standing out these days – our classrooms simply are no longer places that are designed for these kids. And I would argue, our current model of teaching probably doesn’t address the needs of the majority of our kids, special needs or not!
In our parents’ era, classrooms were structured, disciplined and quiet. Everyone had their own desks. More often than not you were all seated in single rows directly facing the board. There was very little interaction between the children. The rooms were boring, unstimulating places where the focus was the teacher and the board. A child with high functioning autism would most likely do quite well in this kind of environment – they may not have ‘stuck out’ quite so much as they might these days. So perhaps we need to look at this? Perhaps we need to take what is working well out of both models and create something new? Working in learning support has taught me that generally whatever is put in place in a classroom for an ASD student generally benefits all of the kids. Let’s remember this!