The physical environment plays a significant role in the effective teaching and learning of pupils. Individual schools will vary, but common Social Environments which can be challenging are:
- Outdoor/indoor play areas
- The Street - this can be dining, assembly, drama area. Usually high ceilingsand echo-prone with lots of events taking place at once
- Gym hall/assembly hall
- Cloakroom/coat area
- Moving around school/corridors/between classrooms or buildings
- Arriving at or leaving school
These are generally less structured areas and require a high level of interaction with peers and / or adults, have increased environmental and sensory stimuli, creating the most likely situation for things to break down for pupils with autism unless some planning and structure, including visual supports, are in place.
It is crucial, that all relevant staff are aware of the pupil’s potential difficulties and agreed targets or strategies, including visual supports, to be implemented in these areas, e.g. catering and janitorial staff, office staff, support assistants, other teachers who do not work directly with the pupil.
Arrangements can be simple, such as:
- Allowing children to enter areas such as the cloakroom or lunch hall slightly early, before they become overwhelming.
- Allowing time to observe drama or gym activities before participating provides a mental model of what might be expected.
- Alternative supported activities at lunch time e.g. computer club can channel social activity, this can be especially helpful if there is a link to special interests.
- Rehearsing or practising moving around the school independently can minimise stress
Repeated exposure to challenging and stressful situations may potentially impact on a pupil’s wellbeing and their capacity to learn. Some pupils may need a ‘safe haven’ for when they are feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
There may be some concerns about taking time away from formal curricular activities, however, if these areas of learning need are incorporated into Individualised Educational Programmes (IEPs) they open up learning and are legitimate and important activities to allow pupils to access their learning environment fully. (Toolbox 2009)