Award-winning autism book a guide for teachers

30 May 2017 – CALMING SENSORY rooms or gardens are preferable for a distressed autistic child compared to seclusion rooms – the use of which reveal a lack of teacher education, says a contributor to an award-winning book on strategies for teachers of autistic children.

Autism Spectrum Disorder in Aotearoa New Zealand: Promising practices and interesting issues (NZCER Press), won the Best Resource in Higher Education award in the New Zealand Content Counts Education Awards last week. Judges commented that the book was strongly tailored for a New Zealand audience, and “a timely publication given the growing awareness of autism.”

Edited by Dr Jill Bevan-Brown, an Adjunct Professor at Massey’s Institute of Education and respected for her expertise in the field of autism, and her colleague Dr Vijaya Dharan, the book aims to inform and inspire teachers who have children diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in their classrooms.

Vijaya Dharan, left, and Jill Bevan-Brown, right, wrote Autism Spectrum Disorder in Aotearoa New Zealand: Promising practices and interesting issues

Contributing writer Julianne Swanepoel’s chapter is one of several in the book addressing the controversial use of seclusion rooms to manage behavioural difficulties in autistic children.

In her chapter – Sensory therapies and interventions for individuals with autism spectrum disorder – she says seclusion rooms are used, “because the teachers have not been supported, informed or been given sufficient education as to how to deal with these children. If teachers know what triggers the meltdowns and total frustration the children experience, they can avoid ever using a seclusion room.”

“A sensory room or garden where children can voluntarily take themselves off to calm down is far more productive and effective,” she says, although these are costly to create.

Approximately one in every hundred children in New Zealand is diagnosed with ASD, and the number is expected to increase. However, few teachers have training in this area, say Dr Bevan-Brown and Dr Dharan.

Their book is a “smorgasbord” of 15 chapters of evidence-based approaches that have been trialled and written by teachers and other education professionals with special education expertise. All contributors have graduated from Massey’s Post Graduate Diploma in Specialist Education with an endorsement in Autism Spectrum Disorder – a unique qualification in New Zealand.

“Autism Spectrum Disorder is a complex and increasingly prevalent condition which most educators will encounter during their career,” the editors say.

Importance of peers

Contributing writer Fran Dowson says seclusion rooms represent an out-dated approach to ASD that does not reflect current practice or understanding about children with autism.

Her chapter examines how using a toolkit of social skills interventions could help a student with ASD in developing the skills they need to modify targeted behaviour.

“Every behaviour has a purpose for the individual [with ASD],” she says. “If we shut a person away when they display an undesired behaviour then we lose an opportunity to learn why they are acting in that way in the first place and what they can teach us about their needs in that moment.”

A case study of a technique she describes in the book focuses on the involvement of a student’s peers in an intervention, allowing the student to develop new social skills. The student, she says, “did not like being singled out for attention, and by making this a group project – and later a whole class activity – he felt he had a leadership role rather than being the target of the intervention.”

Punishment adds to anxiety of autism

Another contributor to the book and special education expert Jenny Tippett, says the goal of an effective teaching programme for ASD students is, “not only to teach but to prevent obstacles to learning such as anxiety and negative behaviour. Research has shown that punishment does not bring about positive change, rather it escalates anxiety and exacerbates negative behaviours such as self-harm and aggression.”

She says teachers need more training for a better understanding of specific ASD characteristics.

“Successful inclusion in regular education settings can only be achieved if teachers understand what these specific ASD characteristics are and how they impact student learning and teaching.”

She outlines in her chapter the approach of the Ziggurat Intervention Model, which addresses the core characteristics of ASD, such as social and communication differences, inflexible thinking and restricted patterns of behaviour, as well as sensory, cognitive, motor and emotional differences. It offers a comprehensive intervention process to guide teachers including such things as: addressing individual sensory and biological needs; providing structural and visual supports in addition to verbal instructions; and identifying skill deficits and teaching skills particular to the student.

“In New Zealand schools all teachers are required to teach students with Autistic Spectrum Disorder,” Ms Tippett says. “It’s essential they are taught not only what makes these students different, but also what strategies and interventions they need to employ to allow them to learn.”

Dr Dharan says every child with ASD is different, so standardised approaches are not applicable. The approaches and techniques covered in the book can be tailored and adapted to meet the particular needs and personality of the individual child, she says.

Massey University offers Master’s in Specialist Teaching in the ASD endorsement and short courses in ASD from time to time.

All staff of the specialist teaching are Ministry of Education accredited professional development providers and can offer targeted professional development support to a cluster of staff across all sectors – early childhood, primary and secondary.

About the editors:

Jill Bevan-Brown is an adjunct professor at Massey University, and former co-ordinator of the ASD endorsement of the post graduate diploma in specialist teaching. She has a particular interest in culturally responsive provision for Māori children and their whānau.

Vijaya Dharan is a senior lecturer at Massey University and present co-ordinator of the postgraduate ASD endorsement. Her research interests are focused on issues related to equity and diversity, particularly in the field of ASD.

This article first appeared in the Altogether Autism Journal issue 2, 2017.