Planet Rachael: schools need training to support pupils on the autistic spectrum

An improved understanding of children with autism is needed at educational establishments as ignorance could damage them, says Wendy Johnson

Wendy Johnson recollects her daughter's school days and the sensory challenges they faced, and believes schools need more training so they can support children with autism

Graphic image depicting a sensory overload
Picture: iStock

Growing up my daughter Rachael was identified with 22 conditions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and probably about 200 that are not.

My favourite was oppositional defiant disorder, which basically meant she said ‘no’ to people in authority a lot.

She also has sensory processing challenges and often took action to avoid sensations she found intolerable. Rachael would whack people over the head with hymn books in school assembly without understanding she was hurting someone, or she would take her clothes off in public because a seam made her itch. At the age of 30, thankfully, both behaviours have now stopped.

For people with sensory challenges reactions can change from day to day depending on the environment or situation. Rachael can’t filter out background noise and is overwhelmed by too many competing noises occurring at once. We have particular challenges with the unpredictable noise of babies and young children.

Campaign brought about mandatory training on supporting people on the autistic spectrum

Rachael has no medical reason to explain the auditory sensitivity. It is believed that the amygdala, the part of the brain that filters sounds and decides on how important noises are, pays more attention to sounds than it needs to resulting in a brain that scrambles to process information and when it can’t a fight or flight or freeze response is triggered.

When adrenaline is flooding their system the person might hit out, run away or completely shut down. For Rachael this used to result in a distressing hour on the 'naughty' step at school. I lost count of the times I spoke to teachers about this being a nervous system response rather than behaviour, but I was ignored.

Due to a campaign by brave, bereaved mother Paula McGowan, all NHS staff are now to receive mandatory training on how best to support people on the autistic spectrum.

The same mandate should apply to education. Ignorance is damaging our children.

Wendy Johnson writes about life with her daughter Rachael, who has autismAbout the author

Wendy Johnson is head of safeguarding adults at risk and nursing lead for learning disabilities at Great Western Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, Swindon – and she writes about life with her daughter Rachael, who has autism


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