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Behaviour at School

Understanding why behaviour can be different between school and home

It's quite common for autistic children who do not appear to have any behavioural difficulties at school to behave differently at home. Tony Attwood refers to this as the Jekyll and Hyde character (Attwood, 1998).
Just because the difficult behaviour occurs at home, does not necessarily mean the trigger (or the cause) lies there. The child may find school very stressful, but keep their emotions locked up until they get home. Most children on the autism spectrum do not display the body language and facial expressions you would expect to see when a child is feeling a certain way. Asking them how they feel may not get the correct response, as some children can find spoken communicationvery difficult and struggle to explain their emotions to someone. Teachers need to be aware that children who may appear to be coping at school can in fact experience high stress levels.

Strategies to consider at school

Stress scales
Some children on the autism spectrum find carrying visual stress scales helpful for overcoming these communication obstacles. These scales can be either in the format of a scale from 1-5, a thermometer, or a traffic light system. The idea is that when the child indicates to someone that they are at a '4' or 'amber' (before they reach a '5' or 'red'), they need to be helped in some way to calm their emotions again. Scales also turn emotions - abstract concepts that require imagination to understand fully - into concrete examples of numbers or colours, which are easier to understand. Children who find it difficult to use a scale can use a help card instead. This could be a red card or have the word ‘help’ or a meaningful symbol on it, which they can carry around. When they begin to feel extremely anxious or angry, they can show it to a member of staff or family. This is particularly helpful if a usually very verbal young person loses their ability to use speech when they are highly stressed.
Some children may need to be redirected to a different activity, have a quick run outside, or retreat to a quiet space in order to calm down.
Schools can be concerned that by giving a child a card to leave the room, they will hand it over to opt-out of situations they do not want to be in, disrupting their education. Strict boundaries need to be given to a child using a card or stress scale, including clear instructions about where they can go, and for how long (using a timer). However, effective use of the card could ultimately reduce the amount of disruption to the child’s education and help them stay calmer and focused on learning.


For some children, the timetable of the school day provides enough structure and routine to help contain any anxiety and stress. Children on the autism spectrum have a strong preference for routine and this is automatically incorporated into the school environment. Your child may benefit from having a visual timetable for home as well, as it will make the environment more predictable. A timetable can either be constructed showing the whole day's activities, half the day, or simply the activities that are now and next.

Identifying signs of a build up / meltdown

Three Stages of a Meltdown – Sue Larkey  

1. Build Up  
It may look like:  
• Walking in a different pattern.

  • Body posture (head down, head on desk, tense). 

• Become much more literal. 

• Change in voice tone.

• Increase in wringing of hands/hypersensitivity to touch/picking at skin. 

• Become slower to respond or increase in vagueness. 

• Other students may become highly distractible.

• Become more controlling, asking more questions and more rigid. 

• More stock standard answers (I don’t know, I forgot, I’m tired).  

2. Survival Mode  
In survival mode they will use skills to try and keep a meltdown from beginning.  
Their coping mechanism is coming into play. It may look like:  
• More controlling of their environment. 

• Seek sensory input: repetitive actions, flip back on chairs, pacing, jumping on trampoline. 

• Sleepy, stay completely still and become rigid. 

• Unaware of others. 

• Run away, climb, escape, hide (under table, outside, etc).  

3. Meltdown/Shutdown
 In a meltdown the student is in panic mode and has no control and cognitive function.  
The child or young person may not be able to respond and will use stock standard actions to make people move away and leave them alone (swearing, pushing, and hitting).  
A behaviour management programme will usually be ineffective as the student has reached meltdown.  
The student will need to finish the meltdown before adults can take any action.


Low Arousal Apporach

Taken from
The Low Arousal Approach is commonly used with people with Autistic Spectrum Conditions (ASC). It is part of the SPELL framework promoted by the National Autistic Society.
The Low Arousal Approach  
• provides environments in which sensory clutter is reduced as much as possible  
• facilitates effective communication is; it is likely that schedules will be used; the Minimal Speech Approach may also be employed  
• offers the opportunity to relax and relieve tension

• ensures that interactions are calm  
• is non-confrontational
 • reduces events, situations and experiences that trigger anxiety, stress, over-stimulation  
• avoids the escalation of arousal levels and so reduces the risk of people going into crisis  
• has strategies for managing crises when they do occur.  

Reducing clutter  
Many autistic people have sensory difficulties and needs. Reducing sensory information in the environment is often essential. It contributes to the management of arousal levels, enabling autistic people to remain calm, relaxed and free to engage in educational and leisure activities and to interact with other people. Providing an environment in which clutter is reduced should, therefore, be a core element of the Low Arousal Approach.  
A reduced clutter environment is one in which sensory stimulation is kept to a minimum. Thus, for example:  
• Walls are kept free of artwork, posters and notices  
• décor is simple and unfussy and colour schemes take account of people’s preferences

• strip lights, other bright lights and glare are avoided  
• smells are reduced by using fragrance-free cleaning products, soap and so on, with people refraining from using perfumes and after-shave  
• curtains and blinds are prevented from blowing in the breeze  
• noise is kept to a minimum by taking care over the use of computers and laptops (because they hum) and such items like heaters, air-conditioning equipment and radiators  
• spoken language is reduced (perhaps by using the Minimal Speech Approach)
 • people avoid raising their voices
 • people move around in a calm way and avoid rushing and bumping into, or brushing against others 
• groups of people are avoided completely or kept very small.  
Although it is impossible (and undesirable) to eliminate all sensory stimuli, it is important for those who adopt the Low Arousal Approach to become very aware of them. This enables people to predict, and so avoid, situations which the autistic person is likely to find difficult. For example, it is important to monitor many features, including  
• noise levels  
• the number of people in the room  
• smells

• the temperature  
• how tired, hungry and thirsty the autistic person is  
• anything that indicates the autistic person may need the toilet, be in pain or uncomfortable.  
An autistic person in education can be provided with his or her own work station. In fact, work stations can be useful in non-educational situations too; for example, they can support autistic people to engage more readily in leisure activities. It may be necessary to provide a work station in each room the autistic person uses. It may be helpful to position the work station close to the room’s exit door, so the person can readily leave the room if the situation becomes too arousing. The work station should be positioned against the wall so that the learner faces the wall when working at the table. The wall in front of the person should be free of visual distractions such as artwork, posters and notices.  

Effective communication
 It is essential that strategies are adopted to communicate effectively with every autistic person. However, many autistic people find it difficult to understand spoken language and benefit from some kind of visual support, such as pictures, symbols or printed words. It is often appropriate to reduce the amount of spoken language; the Minimal Speech Approach is useful in this regard. Schedules are very supportive for many autistic people. As autistic people vary so markedly, it is not possible to provide details here of how best to support any particular person’s communication.  

Opportunities to relax and relieve tension  
Everyone needs to be provided with activities he or she finds motivating, enjoyable and relaxing, and this is, perhaps, particularly important for autistic people. Autistic people can become over-aroused as a result of being required to participate in activities they do not understand, do not find motivating or find aversive. Not all such activities should be avoided; for example, it is not wise to avoid cleaning one’s teeth. A non-motivating or aversive activity can be followed by one the person finds motivating and pleasurable, as a way to relax and relieve tension. In fact, such activities can be provided at frequent intervals throughout the day, in order to minimise the risk that the autistic person will become very anxious, highly stressed, or over-stimulated and so go into crisis.  

Interactions that are calm  
All interactions with an autistic person should take account of his / her interactive style. They should be calm in nature unless the person clearly indicates he/she wants to interact in a boisterous manner. Even on these occasions, it is important to be sensitive and to proceed with caution, as the person may quickly become over-aroused during an enjoyable activity, especially a lively one.  
It is also important to respond to the person in such a way that you support him/her to remain calm. This means responding sensitively and as quickly as possible. The response should take account of the person’s mood, stress and anxiety levels, physical well-being, and the levels of stimulation in the environment.  
An autistic person can quickly become over-aroused if a request for an activity or item is turned down. At times, when the autistic person is calm and relaxed, it may be appropriate to withhold from him/her something he or she has requested. But even at these times, it is advisable to avoid saying No, as this may cause stress. An alternative strategy that is often effective is to say Later. For example, if the person requests a favourite activity (perhaps photocopying) during an educational activity, it is possible to say Work now. Photocopying later. If the person needs visual supports, these should also be used.  

Being non-confrontational  

It is particularly important to be non-confrontational at all times with autistic people. When an autistic person’s arousal level begins to rise, it is very easy for others to inadvertently become confrontational. This can occur as a consequence of presenting demands on the autistic person which, in the circumstances, are unreasonable. For example, if he/she is becoming very anxious or stressed and behaves in a way that is regarded as inappropriate, requiring him or her to apologise is, in effect, confrontational – it is a demand that may not be understood even when calm, and it is one which is likely to further raise the person’s level of anxiety or stress.  
Being non-confrontational also requires people to avoid confronting an autistic person with situations he/she cannot handle.  

Reducing triggers  
It is important to reduce – if possible, to eliminate – all those events, situations and experiences that trigger anxiety, stress and overstimulation. This can be achieved by employing all the elements of the Low Arousal Approach.  

Avoiding the escalation of arousal levels  
Every effort should be made to avoid autistic people’s levels of anxiety, stress or sensory stimulation escalating out of control. It is important to constantly monitor each person and the environment. If it becomes clear that a person’s level of anxiety, stress or sensory stimulation is escalating, measures need to be taken urgently to eliminate the causes of the escalation. In some situations, the most appropriate approach is for the person to access a quiet, relaxing environment in which there is very little sensory stimulation. This may be a separate room, but it could be a part of the room clearly marked with some kind of partition; some autistic people find a large box or tent useful.  

Managing crises  
Unfortunately, it is not always possible to prevent a situation from escalating out of control; the person then goes into crisis. In the Low Arousal Approach, it is essential to have strategies for managing crises: people need to know how to respond. Because a person who is in crisis loses communication skills, it is particularly important that other people understand how to communicate effectively with him/her. Should an autistic person go into crisis, he or she will need time to calm down. The amount of time he/she needs on any one occasion depends on a variety of factors, particularly the severity and duration of the crisis. In order to calm down, some people benefit from a quiet, relaxing environment in which there is very little sensory stimulation (see the last paragraph of the previous section). Others benefit from being in the open air. However, a person in crisis may not be able to go to his / her usual calming environment or to go outside; if this is the case, it may be necessary to take other people away from the person in crisis, to refrain from communicating with him/her and to reduce sensory stimulation as much as possible.

Published 13/11/2019

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