Autism in the 21st century: developing whole-school empathy

Helen Garnett, author of Developing Empathy in the Early Years, summarises a chapter at the end of the book titled Empathy and Autism. This chapter helps to explain autism and its history, as well as offering sound advice to early years educators when it comes to whole-school empathy...

Autism in the 21st century

Over half a million people in the UK have autism. If you count the families involved, up to three million people are affected, or 5% of the population. Many tens of thousands of cases are mild. Others are severe. The rest of them lie somewhere in between – a vast range of diagnosis. 

Whatever the severity, parents of Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC) children are in the midst of a ‘minefield of diagnoses’ or no diagnosis at all. One parent described this stage as ‘the most protracted and painful experience’ of their life.

Why is diagnosis such a long and difficult process? It is largely down to a collective lack of knowledge and understanding, resulting in more instances of mistreatment and mishandling than almost any other condition. 

Temple Grandin says this about empathy: ‘Normal people…don’t have much empathy for the autistic kid who is screaming at the baseball game because he can’t stand the sensory overload. Or the autistic kid having a meltdown in the school cafeteria because there’s too much stimulation.’

Whole-school empathy has a crucial role to play in changing this perception. Teachers need to get to know and understand the ASC child who screams and has meltdowns, who can’t stand sensory overloads, who finds it difficult or impossible to understand other people. Autism Whole-School Empathy

The world of the ASC child is safe, comfortable and theirs, contrasting sharply with the neurotypical world, which to them may seem hazardous and difficult. We should not attempt to change their world but support them in it. For this, we have to educate ourselves, and gain fresh, relevant insights into the condition.

Whole-school empathy - 'One teacher who lacks empathy can seriously rock the apple cart'

Connection (empathy) is dynamic. It means that we listen, understand and then act. Parents of ASC children are often tired of judgement and in need of understanding and support. Whole-school empathy, packed with warm understanding, may well be the lifeline they need. Read the blogs and websites on autism. Every single one begs for understanding. 

Our school’s physical environment will present many potential sensory challenges. Sensory distress can be extremely unpleasant. How crowded is the classroom? How bright? How cluttered? Is the sun shining directly onto tables? Are there quiet areas where the child can escape the excesses of their sensory world? Are teachers using calm voices and simple gestures? What is the general smell in the classrooms, and around the school? 

The emotional and connected environment presents other challenges. Schools require children to play and work together, to join in, to sit close to each other and connect with each other. What is our ASC child averse to? When we reduce these aversions, we increase the chances of the child’s well being and learning. We’ve taken the splinter out of the foot. Now the child can walk. 

Routines are vital to the ASC child. Their overwhelming, overloaded world is highly stressful, and routines provide welcome stability and order. All schools have routines, but the smallest transition from one activity to the next can be extremely challenging to the ASC child. We need to ease these anxieties. 

Keep communicating what is happening. Keep routines predictable. Never hurry the process. 

Empathy grows from connection and knowledge. So, keep connecting and keep learning. Whole-school empathy and ASC children are crucial if we want to make a real difference. One teacher who lacks empathy can seriously rock the apple cart. 

Some ASC children will do well at school. Others won’t. Some may want to take part in social activities. Others won’t. Some may struggle with language. Others won’t. Autism is complex. So are ASC children. The presence of our empathy in these situations is profound. We may not see an immediate difference in the child. We may sometimes even see deterioration. Whatever we observe, we must continue to connect and to learn. Consistency and connection always works, without exception. 

Empathy helps to unlock the child with ASC. Empathy helps to create a future. It is, quite simply, the link between our differences.

Take a look through their window. It’s a wonderful view. 

Helen Garnett's Developing Empathy in the Early Years is available from Jessica Kingsley Publishers (£15.99)

To receive 10% off Developing Empathy in the Early Years use the code EMP (valid until 31 May)