Claire Campbell is a Thanet mum-of-three and SEN teacher working in a specialist school in Broadstairs where all children are autistic with complex learning needs.
She teaches in KS1, lead on sensory integration, and is also PA for Beau, a child in the class, taking him out at weekends or in school holidays to support his mum getting respite and the youngster accessing activities.
Her monthly column aims to raise awareness and cultivate change:
And just like that, we’ve come to the end of June – halfway through the year! And for my family, that means six months of attempting to support better community access to families with children with SEND.
This feels like the perfect time for a little reflection. So, this month I am going to discuss five things we have learned from our experiences so far.
1) Having a plan is difficult
I am a planner. I love having a full schedule and having a pre- thought-out idea of different things that will take place during a day. When I looked after Beau for the five days and nights over the Easter break, I realised that sometimes you have to let that go.
I still did a lot of planning. I researched some places near to his house that would be nice to visit and found out where the nearest parks were etc. I even had a vague idea of what might happen on different days due to what the weather was supposed to be like or plans we had made to meet up with friends. But sometimes, Beau had other ideas.
If we were all tired out and were hoping to hang out and watch some television for an hour before bath time but Beau was at the front door, feet in shoes, making complaining sounds and showing us very clearly that he wanted to go out, then we had to grab a backpack and hop in the car and I had to quickly think of a plan that would please everyone. I can imagine how difficult that must be when this is your every day and you are very tired and actually you just need to sit and unwind for an hour.
2) Outdoor spaces are far more appealing than indoor spaces
I would much prefer to take Beau to the park, beach, woods or a nature reserve than to any indoor space. We have done soft play, library, aquarium, garden centre and these have all been fine for a short time but I am constantly chasing him and so very aware of the path of destruction that we leave in our wake.
Beau is able to explore a play park or a beach without there being the concern about breaking things, or taking things and the open outdoor space means it is fairly easy to keep him in sight. This must make bad weather so very difficult for families with children with SEND. These families will have a much higher tolerance for bad weather and be seen outside enjoying the empty play park in weather that would keep many indoors.
3) The phrase ‘pick your battles’ has new meaning
It is something that I have always wholeheartedly supported as both a parent and a teacher – pick your battles. You have to. For your own sanity if nothing else. But when you bring additional needs into the equation I have found that the scale for this is significantly greater. You are constantly faced with the decision of whether this is a battle to pick or something to let go. When out and about with Beau, it may be that he decides to explore the world around him using his mouth, tasting and experiencing different textures. For Beau’s sensory needs and well-being, this kind of exploration is beneficial and although I will try to replace for edibles where possible or even attempt to encourage a different sensory exploration, if he does put some sand in his mouth it may be something that I let go. A battle I choose not to pick. But then what happens if Beau ingests something potentially harmful? You are constantly making tiny decisions (that actually are not really so tiny) and constantly worrying whether you made the right one.
4) It is possible to build a connection with someone without using language.
I love words. I talk a lot and I write a lot. But one of the best things that I have learned about myself in the last eighteen months is that I love spending time with people and connecting with them without speaking a single word. For many this may not even seem possible.
It is not only possible, but one of the most rewarding and invigorating experiences. It is truly addictive. A simple back and forth of vocalisations, tapping responses and receiving a smile when this is acknowledged, a noticeable calming, touching your hand, swinging arms excitedly, happily sharing space at close proximity, drawing your hands to them to show an area that they would like to be massaged or tickled, a cheeky pinch and a delighted giggle when you give an exaggerated response, mirroring each other pulling silly faces, this is all communication. It is both successful and meaningful and often I feel like I learn more in a few minutes of this type of interaction than from any conversation I have ever had.
Last month I wrote about how delighted I was to see children and adults in the wider community engaging happily with the autistic and pre-verbal children in my class during a trip to the park.
You do not need to be a professional with qualifications and expertise to engage successfully with these children. This is clear in how I see my children interact with Beau. They are learning to interpret his non-verbal communication. The universal signals such as laughter showing ‘I find that funny’, a smile showing ‘this makes me happy’, or moving your hand away to show you do not want something. This leads them to understand his likes and dislikes enabling them to continue to build the relationship.
5) There is value to these relationships
My children have a friendship with Beau and they have friendships with other children with SEND. These friendships are of great value to them. It is not due to charity, pity, do gooding etc that my children spend time with these children, it is because they enjoy it and they choose to.
Some people have expressed to me the view that my children would not get anything out of these friendships. That it was all for Beau’s benefit and their sacrifice, but this is such an inaccurate view. It is true that when it comes to Beau, my children have to put some work in to work out how to access an interaction with him but it is possible for them to take the time to learn what Beau enjoys and consider how might be best to engage with him. This is a good skill to learn for anyone wishing to build relationships in any environment.
My daughter met up with a friend from her class at the SEN soft play session and asked me if she could bring an orange because she knows this child loves oranges. This is a simple example of this, but I have seen so many more. It is possible for my little boy to learn about what Beau’s favourite things are and use that knowledge to develop their friendship. Beau is then able to reciprocate this in his own way as his understanding of cause and effect develops. Beau notices my son giggle when he sprinkles sand on his foot and so he does it again (this time with the addition of a wide grin). They are learning lots of great skills. Skills in empathy, skills in listening. Taking time to understand people. I find that incredibly valuable. But ultimately they enjoy each other’s company. My children tell stories about funny things they have done together, they talk about them fondly when they are not around and they always ask ‘when can we see Beau again?’.
There can be a narrative around individuals with disabilities or special needs where sympathy or pity is the focus. Let’s change that focus. Make friends with people with SEND not out of pity but because they are funny, interesting and really great company.