Many Australian children are affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Currently, causes of ASD are unknown, however there is a strong genetic component. ASD impacts an individual’s interactions with others and their environment. It’s important to note that ASD affects different children in different ways, and so support and intervention strategies need to be tailored to individual needs.
KidsMatter is a framework that supports schools and early childhood services to promote positive wellbeing and mental health for children. KidsMatter supports schools and early childhood services to identify children who show signs of mental health difficulties, such as ASD, and reduce the risk of mental health difficulties by focusing on early identification and intervention. KidsMatter supports schools, early childhood services and families to find professional support when intervention is needed. Health and community professionals play an important role in supporting schools and early childhood services when working with children and families. Professionals can provide their expertise for targeted interventions for those children showing signs of mental health difficulties.
Component 1 of KidsMatter, Creating a Positive Community, supports children to gain a sense of belonging and connection, and fosters the development of positive relationships. Children with ASD experience difficulties in their social relationships and may need scaffolded support in building their connections to school, school staff and their peers. Supporting children with ASD to feel connected to school and develop positive relationships is a key protective factor that fosters resilience.
General principles for assisting children with Autism Spectrum Disorders:
Minimise change, maximise predictability
Children with ASD respond best to predictable environments that emphasise routine and structure. Managing and responding to change can be a challenge for children with ASD and may lead to feelings of stress and anxiety. Therefore it is important to minimise the impact of change by providing clear information and instructions about upcoming change as well as during the change process.
Provide step-by-step guidance
Children with ASD often utilise concrete thinking patterns. They learn best through clear and fully-explained instructions and on-going guidance. This applies to learning behaviours and routines at home as well as to schoolwork.
Help them to learn about others’ social and emotional needs
Social interactions can be a challenge for children with ASD. They need to be supported and shown how to notice others’ feelings and points of view and how to respond appropriately.
Tune into strengths
Children with ASD often have signiﬁcant strengths as well as challenges. Tuning into their unique views of the world helps others appreciate what they have to offer. Focusing on strengths builds children’s conﬁdence and reduces anxiety.
Developing social and emotional skills
Supporting children with ASD to build resilience is important. Component 2 of KidsMatter, Social and Emotional Learning for Children, provides opportunities to teach social and emotional skills which leads to the promotion of effective problem solving skills. Adults can model and teach these skills for children to adopt. Children with ASD often benefit from small group or individual work to compliment the school’s or early childhood service’s usual approach to teaching social and emotional skills. They may also need considerable scaffolding support from adults to help make sense of the social situations they find themselves in. This is a key area that health and community professionals can provide support with, for example by creating individualised learning programs or small structured group work.
Working collaboratively with families, early childhood services and schools
Component 3 of KidsMatter, Working with Families, supports early childhood services and schools to connect with families. Parents and carers are key supports to children’s good mental health, so fostering strong connections between education staff and families is important when supporting children with ASD. Health and community professionals can play an important role in working with families, early childhood services and schools to support families to feel connected to their child’s education setting as well as connecting with each other.
Connecting children with ASD to external support
Component 4 of KidsMatter, Helping Children with Mental Health Difficulties, assists early childhood services and schools to recognise signs of mental health difficulties as soon as possible, and work with families to provide support. Health and community professionals not only provide assistance to families, early childhood services and schools to support children with ASD engage and connect with school, but can also offer support and intervention outside the education setting.
Health and community professionals can offer valuable support to families and education staff when working with children with ASD by:
providing psycho-education to family members and education about ASD including identification of early warning signs, referral pathways and targeted intervention strategies
implementing support strategies to build on a child’s strengths and resilience through day-to-day interaction and planning
supporting families and education staff to build their skills and confidence when responding to children with ASD
assisting with referral pathways to appropriate professionals
Children with ASD benefit from a structured environment where expectations are clear and explicit. Health and community professionals can be involved in helping early childhood services and schools to implement tailored strategies and targeted intervention for supporting children with ASD. Research shows that best outcomes for children’s mental health are more likely when schools and early childhood services work together with families and health and community agencies. Targeted interventions from health and community professionals can assist children with ASD to build capacity and resilience. A collaborative approach ensures children with ASD can remain connected to school and individual and family support put in place.