Simplified version of ‘The Wrong Kind of Noise: Understanding and Valuing the Communication of Autistic Children in Schools‘ by Rebecca Wood, published in the Educational Review.
When children receive a diagnosis of autism, this is often on the basis of having difficulties in communication, amongst other issues. This is hardly surprising, because most diagnostic manuals emphasise problems in communication and social interaction as being core components of autism.*
In fact, autistic people are considered to have potentially a whole range of communication difficulties, including problems understanding the language of others, difficulties in recalling words, lack of clarity when telling anecdotes, or focussing on apparently irrelevant or repetitive details. Some autistic people are described as ‘non-verbal’, and they are considered to have the poorest educational and longer-term outcomes. Selective mutism – an ability to communicate in some situations, but not in others – has also been associated with autism. Therefore, autistic people are simply thought to be saying the wrong things, in the wrong way, at the wrong time, or not to be saying what they should.
In order to look into this issue in more detail, I spent time with ten autistic children in five mainstream primary schools in England, and I also talked to their parents, school staff, as well as ten autistic adults who live in different parts of the UK. My overall intention was to find out how well the autistic children were accessing the curriculum and other aspects of school life, and I discovered that their communication was central to their general inclusion and well-being. I also found that their communication linked with issues to do with noise and what could be considered its opposite – silence.
All of the autistic children in my study exhibited some sort of difficulty with speech and, according to their parents, had been slower than their peers at learning spoken language. Some of the children struggled to find words, or they had difficulties with pronunciation. But this did not mean that they were poor communicators, and some were very effective in using gestures and actions, as well as speech, to convey their wishes and intentions. Indeed, sometimes the children communicated through silence. In addition, even though two of the children were described as ‘non-verbal’, I heard them use spoken language on a number of occasions.
Some of the school staff were very skilled at supporting the communication of the autistic children and were flexible and understanding in their approach. But others were less skilled, and tended to impose both the method of communication and the message itself. For example, a child might communicate that s/he wanted to do something by taking an item from a shelf, but the adult would make the child put the object down and go and find a card with a picture on it instead. But all that happened was that the child became upset, thinking the activity was being withdrawn. Or a child might choose a picture – therefore using the communication system which had been put in place by the adults – but would be made to choose another picture if the adult had other ideas about what the child was going to do. In these ways, the autistic children were only heard or understood if they were ‘on message’ with the adult’s expectations and intentions. And so they stood to gain little from communicating at all.
Not only this, but the schools where I was based were quite noisy, and this was an exclusionary factor for the autistic children, many of whom were very sensitive to noise. In fact, research has shown that children who have difficulties in processing language can be especially negatively impacted by excessive noise in schools. Therefore, autistic children who might have problems in learning language have an additional hurdle if the schools are noisy, with the chatter from other children being part of the problem. In other words, the talking of other children might make it more difficult for some autistic children to learn speech.
To make matters worse, I found that the autistic children had to put up with more noise and distractions that the other children, because they were sometimes seated in the corridor or to one side of the class with a teaching assistant, working on alternative targets. This meant that they were expected to focus and concentrate, despite people walking past and talking, or the class chanting their times tables, for example. So not only are autistic children potentially more sensitive to noise than other children, but they are expected to tolerate more of it. In addition, some sorts of noises seemed to be accepted in the schools, but when the autistic children made noises, they were thought to be odd and so undesirable.
Despite the fact that a lot of noise was tolerated in the schools, the staff placed a high value on silence, at least some of the time. But when the autistic children were silent, especially when they were absorbed in something which interested them, this silence might be disrupted by the very communication interventions which were intended to help them. For example, school staff sometimes tried to repeatedly get the autistic children to label items, or they might ask them supplementary questions when they were listening to the teacher. And so the ‘message’ of their own silence was not always recognised, even though class teachers sometimes wanted everyone to be quiet. The combination of all of these factors led me to conclude that autistic children – whether talking, making noises or being silent – are simply considered to be making the wrong kind of noise.
It’s important therefore that we rethink how best to support the communication of autistic children in schools. We need to focus less on the negative descriptions which can be part of a diagnosis of autism, and make sure we are approaching communication support in an individualised way. The starting point has to be not only how the child prefers to communicate, but what the child wants to express, even if it is not what the adult wants to hear. Communication and interaction are shared activities, and the surrounding factors – including noise and distractions – must always be taken into account. In addition, school staff should explore the vast range of technological devices which are available to support communication, which could be a lot easier to use than picture cards, for example. This might also be more motivating for the children. It might also help if teaching assistants were less pressured to carry out additional duties, which could then create the space for others to learn from good practice. Moreover, it’s time that noise in schools was considered in a more holistic way, involving the whole school community, who can decide together when noise is acceptable, and when it is not. School staff must also be careful not to problematize the silence of autistic children, or indeed their noise. In fact, it’s only by setting aside the assumption that autism automatically equates to communication impairments, and by recognising and valuing the verbal and non-verbal ways in which autistic children communicate, that their educational inclusion, independence and well-being can be improved.
Article reference: (free to download until the end of September 2018)
Wood, R. (2018) ‘The Wrong Kind of Noise: Understanding and Valuing the Communication of Autistic Children in Schools’. Educational Review. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2018.1483895
*The ICD-11, published since the original article was written, states that ‘Individuals along the spectrum exhibit a full range of intellectual functioning and language abilities.’
I will be speaking on the issues of autism and communication at the following conferences:
Participatory Autism Research Collective (PARC) conference: 18 July 2018
Autistica conference: 6 September 2018
Scottish Autism conference (joint presentation with Kabie Brook): 8 – 9 November 2018