People with autistic spectrum conditions often experience high levels of stress and anxiety, these can build up during the school day. This stress build up can have a detrimental effect on the well – being of learners, leading to a difficulty in engaging in lessons and an increase in behaviours that can be challenging for the rest of the class.
This is something we have to address through the activities we provide in special schools in order to improve the success and enjoyment experienced of our learners.
A report by Public Health England on the link between health, wellbeing and attainment states that pupils with better health and wellbeing are likely to achieve better academically (public health England, 2014).
In contrast, poor emotional well- being can lead to detrimental effects on physical health, income, work, social and family relationships and work and educational outcomes (Layard, Clark and Senik, 2012).
I have recently introduced a relaxation session in the middle of the school day. This acts as a buffer between lunch/play and the start of the afternoon activities. We turn off the lights, close the blinds, play relaxing music and offer massage, blankets, mattresses etc. If you want to recreate this in your class then do consider the individuals you have and what they might prefer.
In my class the learners are working on asking for a massage using communication methods that they can access (refer to speech and language), recognising and selecting body parts for massage using body maps and picture symbols, selecting music, identifying their own sensory needs and feelings, accepting touch, selecting preferred individuals to work with, following our rules for massage (always ask before touching, have clean hands, say thank you), as well as more general objectives such as sharing space with other people.
This session came about accidentally; a few weeks ago a number of the learners in my class of 5 each displayed signs of anxiety simultaneously, at the same time a couple of staff members also reported feeling stressed; we recognised that there was a bit of a pattern emerging with anxiety being heightened after lunch. This could be because staff change over lunch times, there are a number of transitions between the class, hall and playground, they have to share space with louder, unpredictable learners from other classes, there is a change of temperature between the class and playground, staff feel pressure to get lots of things done in a short time, etc. Our response was, on this particular day, to avoid any problems by switching off for a few minutes, giving everyone a chance to refresh their emotions. After 10-15 minutes the atmosphere in the room was transformed and we went on to have a really fun, engaging afternoon. The effect was so pronounced that we have started doing the same most days and have found a continued benefit.
We have anecdotal evidence that stopping, relaxing and calming down is beneficial for the engagement both of learners and staff; this reduces the level of anxiety and challenging behaviour for the rest of the school day.
The research evidence supports this idea that downtime is beneficial. Sports coaching and business each find that productivity is increased by alternating intense work with times for renewal (Coleman, J., & Coleman, J. (2012, December 6). The Upside of Downtime. Retrieved January 27, 2016, from https://hbr.org/2012/12/the-upside-of-downtime). This benefit is universal; children and adults all reduce stress through downtime when they are not following instructions and can recharge emotional reserves (Baddeley, A., & Alan, B. (2000). The episodic buffer: a new component of working memory? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(11), 417–423) and especially for people with autism (Woo, C. C., Donnelly, J. H., Steinberg-Epstein, R., & Leon, M. (2015). Environmental enrichment as a therapy for autism: A clinical trial replication and extension. Behavioral Neuroscience, 129(4), 412–422.)
Although the approach described above works for my class at the moment it is important to remember that individuals will have different preferences during downtime. Some young people may have too much energy to benefit from this kind of approach, they may need more aerobic activity during the day. Some may need more structure to their relaxation such as using atmospherics, yoga/tai chi/ dance movement etc. Others may wish to explore the environment during downtime and benefit from favoured objects, textures or pictures being made available.