Autism affects about one in 100 children and adults. In January last year, nursery practitioner Stacey Smith (pictured) began a one-to-one role with a severely autistic three-year-old girl, Christie (not her real name), at Halstead Pre School in Essex. To prepare, she completed the first level of a three-tier, Department for Education-funded training programme offered by the Autism Education Trust (AET).
Ms Smith completed the training in-house alongside nine colleagues, through Essex County Council. At the end, a setting receives a tier 1 certificate if it can demonstrate it has established an autism lead person role and staff are developing knowledge of young autistic children’s needs.
The course helped Ms Smith manage some challenges; for example, Christie’s fidgety behaviour. She developed a technique to help Christie be still during circle time. ‘The course explained to introduce a fidget, or sensory, toy,’ she says. ‘Christie wouldn’t even attempt to sit down. She likes weighted objects so I introduced a lap tray with a bit of playdough or glitter on the tray to keep her occupied.’
The training also helped Ms Smith recognise autistic children can be good at ‘manipulating play’. ‘You could be observing, thinking they are socialising, but in actual fact they’re playing alongside other children,’ explains Ms Smith. ‘Without the training, this could fall under the radar.’
Lunchtimes were another challenge for Christie. ‘It’s a sensory overload with all the different smells and noises,’ explains Ms Smith. Following the training, she introduced a ‘first-and-then-board’. This has pictures of what Christie should eat first, and next.
Ms Smith says, ‘The meltdowns, the screaming, haven’t gone completely and never will, but she’s certainly calmed down.’ Christie even takes part in a singing and dancing class.
The course also covers how to support parents of children with autism.