Monday, 28 November 2016

One size doesn't fit all

Dearest readers,
I’ve had this topic on my list of about a month now (sorry Laura!) but now I feel is the time it would flow into this topic best after my reflections on the Inclusion and Diversity Study week in Siegen. When I first got asked this topic my first reaction is: I’m not qualified to write about this! But then who really is qualified (or thinks that they are?) and given that each one of us comes along with different life experiences and those in themselves can give you material upon which to reflect upon and help construct a response. I also feel I should start with the normal disclaimer of everyone being unique and, in this case most certainly, having different aspirations, intelligence and learning styles. There is no one size fits all, certainly not in education.

So the question I have been posed at hand: supporting a child with autism in a one-to-one educational setting - for parents/carers and tutors.

There is no hard and fast one thing that will work for each autistic individual. Like all children in education and in classroom settings, what may work in one situation with one group or child may not work. I don’t really have advice or tips to teach because I am not a teacher nor do I have a teacher qualification and I’m not going to pretend I do. Because I don’t. But what I do know is from my experience of when I was a pupil at school there were some things that teachers, tutors and group leaders did that worked for me and there were things that just didn’t do anyone any favours.

Something that does occur to me is something my Chemistry teacher for GCSE told my parents and I. Well, general good life advice really. He said, “Krysia, you may not always use the method which I teach you in class to get to the answer. But you always get the answer needed. And that’s great. Don’t change for anyone ever, you are great just the way you are.” I feel this has a lot of relevance to the topic at hand.And I guess the good rapport I had with my Chemistry teacher had a lot to do with my taking A-level Chemistry. Educational leaders need to encourage difference and diversity in methods of thought and approaches to learning. Obviously this is going to be easier in a one-to-one setting where it is much easier to mould, sculpt and adapt to the specific learning needs of your tutee. This could include a much more dexterous approach, frequent breaks, clear and unambiguous use of language and expectation and a general different pace to how you may pitch in a classroom. Use this to your advantage! Keeping what you need to do or cover as clear and accessible as possible may reduce confusion and frustration regarding the tasks required. I personally used to get really stressed if I didn’t quite know how to tackle a task or what exactly to do, and I would have never asked the teacher for help at fear of being told off for asking a stupid question (social anxiety alert) or being ignored trying to get their attention (resulting in embarrassment and the ‘oh I won’t do that again’ cycle). I spent most of my school career living in fear of being shouted at, screamed at or misunderstood. I still cannot tolerate being shouted at today. I also used to take any class telling off highly personally to the point I thought I was the person being verbally targeted and attacked. Obviously in hindsight this is not true but I could not differentiate between the teacher or tutor having a go at me or having a go at everyone when I hadn’t done anything wrong at the time, especially when I had followed rules and regulations religiously.

Learning is not also just learning concepts and facts, and I need to remember this too! We need to praise for any small achievement and steps, to build self-confidence and self-esteem. Even those we ourselves may not see as an achievement. Like asking for help, or staying seated, or that greeting at the door before we started. These situations have the potential to use up or drain energy before you may even get started on the one-to-one tasks! Therefore there is less energy left in the battery, if you use the image of a battery to demonstrate energy capacity. And this is majorly simplified; other outside or external situations or occurrences that you do not even know about may have happened that you are not even aware of. Good rapports and clear communication, if possible, with parents or carers would allow everyone to be on the same page and further allow adaptation and individualisation of tasks to be covered, in an ideal world.

I guess it is also important to consider the environment in which you are attempting to creating a learning environment too. Are there distractions - visual, auditory, smells, like flashing lights, clocks, beeping timers? Are the clothes the child is wearing causing discomfort? Are they in routine or is this an abrupt change to them from their previous routines? These are all things to consider as these will have an impact on concentration, energy and focus. Definitely have a look at the SPELL framework. This also links to this point; creating the right environment in location and time to learn is super important.

Learning is an individual experience for each and every one of us. We can all achieve. It is silly to think that there are some in society that cannot. Our focus on academia, getting good grades to get to the next stop and that’s great, but we all also need to recognise that we are all so much more than this. And there will be individuals who get more attention than others. Each of us needs praise to thrive and grow; it may be just what needs praise may differ.

Take care and until next,

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Our first workshop

Dearest readers,

Today was the first (of many to come it seems) 'Attentiveness to Autism' workshop that I run co jointly with my minister, Pru. I honestly have to say last night I had no idea how it would go given that although I had prepared for it, I hadn't had time to get stressed or worried or anxious about it (and probably for the best!) We had sorted everything like the projector and the room set up the night before at the venue, which was away from our home church and finalised everything pretty much.

I have to admit, neither of us thought it would go as well as it did today. We had planned material and a rough order, but as we were planning a workshop in a tutorial style we didn't have planned to stand at the front and lecture - that's not really my style anyway, I'm far too laid back; plus I strongly felt I didn't want us to stand up in a position of authority as none of us is truly an expert on autism (although I did enjoy using a pointer and a clicker!) We were and are all there to learn from each other and no one person is more important than another in the group.

The material went down really well and allowed the opening up for more questions in the last two sessions. Loads of brilliant points were discussed and elaborated on. The small size of the group allowed everyone to contribute if they wished in an informal manner which worked amazingly good. Our material was very much focussed on autism, faith and the church :- an area that there is remarkably very little research or input of any kind into. We started with a 'whistle stop' tour of getting everybody up to scratch with the main topic at hand: autism. What is it? What is the prevalence? Gender differences? Other key points were covered too in a more lecture style format. We then discussed the subject of 'differing perceptions': what does this mean? How can it be broken down? What does this have to do with church? How does it impact day-to-day living and choices? These questions were in essence what we covered. We completed after lunch with discussing thoughts and reflections from the day, who we as a group felt needed to next hear and experience the workshop and how 'autism friendly' could benefit many more groups other than solely the autistic community.

My view is that these style and content of workshops are desperately needed in the church. One member of our group today said similar workshops should be as compulsory as safeguarding
workshops. I wrote below as my opening statement:

Why am I here?... To open the church up, as we are told by Jesus the church isn’t the building, but the people in it. I am passionate about accessibility and autism and encouraging growth. Even as an autistic individual myself I still have so much to learn.
I used to hate being autistic and I was always told God made me this way for a reason. But as I have started to accept myself and accept love from God, I have come to realise I am not alone in some things and there is so much we can do to open up accessibility to faith.
Jesus hung around with all sorts of undesirables and didn’t shut people out the church and I want to make the church a choice rather than a no for people with autism and other hidden disabilities.
I also feel part of why we as a team are doing this is to provide something unique; there are a multitude of people that do autism trainings and workshops, but do any of them mould them to this niche market? Church is one of the few places where people of all walks of life are thrown into a melting pot and a true 'comprehensive' nature can be seen. Thus we should not all be expected to be the same, and an acceptance of diversity needs to be addressed.

As far as future projects go, we will be repeating this workshop for various other groups of people within the Methodist that we have identified as in need of this. I have also begun a conversation with a colleague from work about also replicating this in the Quaker meeting house in Canterbury she attends. Finally I also hope to be speaking at a support group meeting for social workers in my county in the new year!

Take care and until next,

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Better late than never

Dear readers,

After a short sejour consisting of deadlines, a conference and nearly finishing a workshop to present (on Saturday!), another post is ready to go live. Last week I was away on a conference about Inclusion and Diversity as part of International Study Week in Siegen. I was really looking forward to going, not only because it would be like a mini holiday after drowning in systematic review proposals, dissertation proposals and ethics checklists but also because anyone who knows me will know how much I love Germany and jump at any chance to go back again and be a quasi-German. The conference was really interesting and it was great to hear so many different opinions, stances and progress from across the world. It was definitely food for thought.

There was one thing that has stuck with me ever since: during the panel session on the final day in the auditorium, the following question arose out of the discussion: Are some people more important than others (perhaps inherently), are we all truly equal? I have to admit when I heard this question I immediately grabbed a pen and paper and started writing (I didn't want to debate off an a tangent with esteemed academics). My initial gut feeling was no. No one is more important than anyone else (and continued off on a theological tangent of we are all equal in God's eyes.) My thought is that it is society that constructs importance, whether we see the person requiring and receiving extra adaptations as more important as their needs accommodated to, or the general population being more important as their needs are already being met. The way we define importance in a hierarchical manner needs to be challenged, so that do not see people only in terms of importance. I find seeing people in terms of importance to be rather reductionist (reducing them to basic components and ignoring complexities) and homogenous (seeing a group of people as all identical).

Also inclusion and importance are two words I don't think sit well together. Isn't part of the point of inclusion equality to access, which places importance to the side? Inclusion for me is including all individuals, irrelevant of background, capacity or experience, so that we together can all have the same level of access to whatever is being offered. This could be schooling, after school activities, faith, hobbies and interests, employment, whatever basically is being offered. Inclusion I also do not think is a privilege. I believe that denying groups or individuals from any of the above is outrageous. We as humans underestimate the value of choice and participation when we do not have to struggle to access it. I think importance is the wrong word we are using in this context; getting caught up on importance is so easy as it orders and defines.

Another comment that was passed during this discussion (and therefore take no credit for but is a fabulous comment) is the the one thing we have in common is diversity. Going beyond the framework of disability, we are all so incredibly diverse. We all have different experiences, learning styles (I myself being a cross being visual and kinaesthetic), preferences, abilities, strengths, cultural backgrounds... need I continue. Disability as a phenomena is only one constraint, yet we are so keen to to only see that label rather than the person as a whole sometimes in a holistic fashion. Yes, disability may and will affect many areas of an individuals life and will inevitably not be contained to one little box, but there is so much more to an individual than one label.

Will be back to report on my first workshop (!) after Saturday.
Alles Liebe

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