Schools, Covid and learning with autism

My teacher friend says that younger children – those in junior and senior infants – had fallen way behind on their motor skills when they returned after the Covid lockdown in spring. Their handwriting had been neglected and is still a good bit behind where it should normally be at this point.

Face-to-face mentoring is critical at this stage of learning. The kids who had not been getting oversight at home, because parents are not confident or experienced or interested enough, are coming back to school showing clumsiness in their use of pencils. But their body movements are also telling. She tells me that some children look like they don’t know how to run or jump.

Disclaimer time: This is not the case with every child and we are seeing a wide range of lockdown effects, from children doing very well at home, to others seeming to have missed out; and everything in between.

Routine unstructured playground activity gets kids gradually accustomed to their own sense of balance and co-ordination. Like everything else it’s about practice. Chasing other kids, tumbling over low bars, balancing on low walls and kerbs; it all turns kids gradually from awkward lumps who might lose an arm by straying into a gulley into relatively co-ordinated sentient beings.

Of course when I was young, this sort of unregulated outdoor playtime was even less structured, and dodgy walls and trees were usually our versions of climbing bars, which might snap and leave you with a big scrape on your leg or a crack on your head. Most kids like the potential danger of this. My own kids eyes pop out at the sight of a knotted old half-frayed rope hanging off a tree over a mucky stream. One of the greatest thrills in life is the satisfaction that the rope didn’t snap when two people clung at the same time.

In the older classes during lockdown, the kid’s schooling progressed at a slower pace than normal. In the standardised SIGMA-T maths test my eldest said that she didn’t recognise a chunk of the sums because they had never got to them in class. It was the same for everyone in her class, and when I talked to her teacher he acknowledged that children this year had a lot of catching up to do because of the lockdown. This was true of all schools, he added.

The Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon, reported last week that 2020 was a “devastating year for children” – and that almost half the complaints received by his office in that year were in relation to education. He said they had heard “heartbreaking stories” about children with additional needs regressing.

So the real topic of this ramble is the experience of my little household with the past year of lockdown and schooling. And in particular how Fiach, who has ASD, and additional needs, fared.

Just before Christmas I read an article by the psychologist, author, and family Physician, Leonard Sax, which made the very important point that lockdown was affecting different children in very different ways. Using the psychometric research of Dr. Jean Twenge he made a few very sensible recommendations about using the time of enforced company to build better relationships with your family.

Incidentally, Twenge had found that the invisible burden on the young is far more significant than can be calibrated just yet. The effect of lockdown, such as a quadrupling of the base line depression rate, on young adults, will take decades to come to fruition, and the blind eye that is being turned to it now is ethically dismal. But I digress.

Amongst her findings, Twenge found that depression rates amongst teenagers was less than half the rate of depression amongst the 18-29 years age group. She followed up with surveys that inquired into the family response of the subjects to the quarantine. Twenge found that when families became closer in the lockdown, the children actually fared psychologically better than in the previous year. On the other hand, when families did less together, letting the children spend more time on tablets etc, the children fared worse.

This was a reminder that school work is the first priority of the day for children, and so when schools were closed again it had to be the first priority for parents. Obviously, for some parents the task of trying to juggle working from home with home-schooling was very difficult – even more so when parents were obliged to leave the house to work or the family was experiencing difficulties even before the lcokdown.

In our household, it meant carving out at least four hours every day that was dedicated to the children’s lessons.  At least half of that had to be applied to Fiach. It gave me a renewed appreciation for the efforts of his classroom SNAs but it also allowed for some very valuable conversations between us.

Fiach is inclined to let his attention stray and so during his lessons there is a constant redirection of his focus to the material in front of him. You sometimes get a surprise though, in that he takes in much more than you might have imagined, even though his eyes seem to stray everywhere. Parents with autistic children will recognize this.

Another surprise for me this year was that he responded very well to his male teacher. His teacher seemed less overtly responsive to Fiach (his previous teachers had all been female and you could say they showed a maternal concern for him) but he was, in fact, very observant of Fiach, and Fiach engaged well with him offering answers in class and volunteering to do maths.

After Christmas, during lockdown, we learned that home help with his school lessons was available and so one of the SNAs came to work with him at home. Fiach had different rules for her. He was clearly in charge and was used to refusing to work when the work became challenging. He had some convincing evasive actions and excuses that had her convinced he couldn’t understand the work. It was clear that he had the ability to do a lot more, but he also had enough awareness to be able to manipulate the tolerance of his SNA, who believed that his difficult behavior was because he might not be able for the lessons.

It’s one thing to have strict rules with your own children but it’s harder to be uncompromising with other people’s children, and so Fiach was skiving a bit and getting away with it. That had to change and once the dominance struggle was non-negotiable, he got on much better with his lessons and his SNA. We were able to work out some very useful approaches which pushed Fiach a little bit more than he was used to, such as explaining the extent of the lesson before hand to him, and letting him have a little break afterwards. He complained, but he did the lessons, and he eventually liked the predictability of it. It worked, and we kept with this strict approach after he returned to school.

Reading was the big task this year, and he is making steady progress. Fiach shies from new challenges at the beginning. To him, radically new concepts, such as the symbols which represent phonetics that entail the discipline of reading, are a difficult barrier to get over. He doesn’t intuit as easily as other children so his greatest learning difficulty is with basic concepts.

Fiach’s SNAs take a big personal interest in his life. They know what he likes and what interests him and bring these things into his lessons and his school life. In his first years in pre-school and junior infants this was really important because he had such delayed social skills.

What may not be obvious to observers is that the inability to develop social skills are a big inhibition to learning because they affect the rationale and the motivation of learning.  His SNAs insistent engagement got him talking and slowly it got him engaging with other children. At first he would play besides other children when his favourite objects and figures were included, but after about a year he started playing with other children and asking other children questions. Now he makes eye contact and will initiate conversations. That’s a big deal when you see how isolating autism can make children.

With the school year coming to a close this year, a number of activities providers were invited into the school. An archaeological dig was set up in the yard and a reptile zoo arrived.

As a special treat, on the day before the rest of the class had the reptile zoo experience, Fiach was allowed to see the chameleons. As everyone in the school knows, chameleons are his favourite thing on earth. Fiach has a dinosaur, but he decided to leave it in the class in case it frightened the chameleon. It was a huge moment for him, and the joy on his face was wonderful to behold. He raved about the experience, and I am glad to say he likes school and that they make such a special effort with him.

What Dr. Sax highlighted in his article was that children do better when their parents take an active role in their education and social development. For children with special needs that is very clear. Some children faired pretty well under the conditions of lockdown and some fell way behind.

In many cases, it was not the parent’s lack of attention that was the cause of this. I have heard parents with children with severe needs, who said their child regressed drastically when specialized support was withdrawn. These were children with a range of mental and physical disabilities who had been making progress, but who had actually gone backwards during the isolation imposed by lockdown. Some children stopped talking, there are other children who strike out whose behavior became significantly worse. Like in other areas of the lockdown, it is the people who are most vulnerable who took the greatest hit.

I am convinced that, as has been highlighted in many places, the lockdown has been the greatest public health policy blunder of the past century. But what can we learn from these restrictions that were imposed on us and may have caused so much harm? I read back over Sax’s article again and I have to say that any parent who took his advice on board regarding building close families would probably see the benefits in their own household and have happier, more psychologically adjusted children.

The advice he gives is not just relevant to lockdown, it’s good advice for all times.

 


 

Lorcán Mac Mathúna

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