Further to recent pondering about handwriting and pencil hold, I started to think about how the typical experience of reception year might worsen maladaptive behaviours in children with ASD. My conclusions are that EYFS as it stands is not appropriate for the needs of children with ASD, even where kind and hard-working teachers try their best to accommodate their needs. My conclusion is that parents of children with suspected ASD should have the right to choose an alternative, ASD-friendly EYFS setting. This would mean that there needs to be some kind of legal challenge to the EYFS statutory framework so that an early years setting can disapply it, create their own curriculum and then evolve evidence-based practice seen in older year groups to meet the needs of younger children with ASD, or any child who struggles with communication, social interaction and self-regulation. I already have a vision of how this might look. In this blog post, I will give a quick summary of the principles that govern the EYFS statutory framework, how this manifests in on-the-ground provision (for my secondary readers), and a logical, evidence-informed extrapolation of how this would affect the child with ASD and the potential for long term maladaptation that may eventually prevent them from accessing secondary school education.
Quick summary of 4 principles governing EYFS:
- Children are unique and develop at their own pace: the have an innate drive to learn and should be given choice of how and when they learn (because they know best) so that their individual talents can be fostered and developed
- Positive relationships: children should have a secure attachment to their caregivers, be listened to and be encouraged to be independent, active learners
- Enabling environments: this is commonly known as ‘continuous provision’. Each area of the open plan room has an educational purpose that is accessed through play and exploration. Here is an example description (note the warning that routines are not good for learning and subsequent advice for self-service snacks)
- Learning and development: children learn best through play and exploration, through being given choice of what to do and opportunities to be creative. Learning should be relevant
I should point out that my extrapolations are based on having family and friends with ASD and their feedback from the home-Ed community about how their children coped in reception year and nursery. I’ve also, over the years, successfully taught a number of children who display autistic traits (likely to receive a diagnosis at some point) and seen them thrive and level-up their own learning in an environment that is highly organised, very calm, ordered and where the adult is in charge of who gets to learn what and when. People stop throwing chairs and tables when they’re with me. On my recent travels, I also had a candid conversation with a headteacher who disclosed to me her thoughts on how the nature of EYFS provision allows ASD type symptoms to remain hidden in plain sight.
The danger here is that in order to arrive at some kind of logical consensus, I will need to generalise a bit. Here’s my prediction for a classic counter argument that would attempt to stop me questioning whether EYFS is right for every child: everyone will say that I am being far too general about ASD, that my lack of attention to the minutiae of how ASD manifests in each unique child therefore means that a) I do not know about child development, b) do not know enough about ASD ergo c) it is unprofessional to question the EYFS as it currently stands. It’s always the same. You just can’t challenge the status quo (which is like a red rag to me!). I know that things will never change, but if I can reach at least one parent and give them peace of mind that the reason their child might be having meltdowns in reception year is not because of their ‘not ready’ child, but because the typical environment is causing massive amounts of anxiety and cognitive overload, then I will be satisfied with that.
As it quite clearly states here, all children have to follow the Early Years Foundation stage in the same way as their peers. So I will now look at each of the four guiding principles from the perspective of the autistic child.
Innate drive to learn behoves us to give the (autistic) child choice, allowing talents to unfurl:
The unquestionable truth that all children have an innate desire to learn even biologically secondary knowledge, particularly that which is new and tricky to master can be traced back as far as Pestalozzi in the late 1700s (google it: it’s interesting). I actually love how children with ASD blow this truth out the water with the occasional tendency to develop an all-consuming special interest. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who loves trains and knows loads about them and then ask yourself whether finding plastic letter shapes in the mud kitchen cuts the mustard. All children deserve a broad and balanced education, but the fact that EYFS education is mediated through choice means that it is going to be even more difficult for the child obsessed with trains to go and stick their hands in the mud kitchen, even if the teaching assistant asks politely. In this situation, the Arab interpretation of SEN springs to mind – they have their own term ‘People of determination‘ which I adore because it makes it sound like neurotypicals need to learn a thing or two in order to improve themselves, rather than the other way round.
However, the cognitive dissonance here is profound: on the one hand we’re telling and showing this child that he can have a choice, but on the other hand we’re expecting him to choose the mud kitchen, which is literally not a choice and the fact that an educators has used the word ‘choice’ doesn’t change that fact. This is not fair because we can see Hermione is allowed to do her favourite thing which is writing incredibly detailed fairy stories and we just heard you say that Tommy is a kinaesthetic learner so he should be allowed to choose to go outside and build stuff instead of do anything remotely academic. Further, choice in itself causes a lot of anxiety, particularly when everyone around you seems to know where to go and what to do. Here is an interesting study that shows less choice makes toddlers more focused and more creative – something to think about! My autistic brother, 15, literally can’t choose from a menu and just the thought of having to choose from two options causes huge amounts of stress but at least he can say out loud that he just doesn’t know what to choose – how can a 5 yo on the spectrum be expected to do this when he can’t speak yet?
To the autistic child, it is worrying that everyone else seems to be able to walk up to a group and then, like a blob of water joining a bigger blog of water on a piece of plastic, merges in without being given funny looks or rejected. And this funny business of the teacher/TA who seems to want you to not make a choice which is not a choice. Hello meltdown central! If meltdowns are frequently happening, then they will become embedded, habitual, surely? Solution? A no-nonsense and satisfying fixed order of jobs that everyone ticks off all together through the day, finishing up with a delicious immersion in one’s special interest.
Unfurling of natural talents? This is an area of the EYFS that is in urgent need of revision. There is much that has emerged that reminds us that talent is not innate, but developed over time and with explicit teaching and purposeful practice. I recommend this book. While it is great that Hermione seems to be developing her ‘natural’ talent for storywriting, we are in danger of allowing some children to develop no talents whatsoever because they desperately needed explicit teaching and lots of practice in order to start to enjoy that particular subject.
Children need secure attachments in order to learn, and they enjoy and should be encouraged to be independent, active learners.
Again, I just love the fact that autistic children can blow the secure attachment thing out the water. Many autistic children are impervious to the adults’ need to be needed and a fawning attempt to help said child with some painting may be met with deadpan nonchalance or even outright refusal and then running away. I love how this causes us adults to take stock and focus instead on straight-up explicit teaching of skills and knowledge rather than use emotional hooks/bribes. I do wonder whether autistic children get confused about the purpose of the adults in the room – are these guys teaching me, or are they playing with me?
When it comes to the ‘truth’ that all children prefer and should be encouraged to be independent, active learners (ie in charge of their own learning). I think many children, not just those with ASD, crave the anxiety-reducing effects of simply being told what to do, what to say, what to think, what to write and what to remember. You know what? Many adults want and need that too. Perhaps this is why we create for ourselves habits and routines, minimising the need for constant choice in our lives. Being in charge of your own learning might be wonderful for children who are confident, socially mature, who have a better than average command of the English language, but I would argue it is actually both stressful and detrimental for children with ASD to be expected to do this.
Enabling environments: each area of the open plan room and outdoor environment should have an educational purpose that is accessed through play and exploration
Play can be a very different concept for children with ASD: repetitive actions feature, a preference for playing alone as well as using objects for a purpose not originally intended. This means that despite the ‘truth’ that all children learn best through carefully pre-designed play and exploration (and from/with each other), children with ASD are effectively shut out of learning what is intended to be learned. My brother just went around emptying boxes of stuff and getting incredibly stressed about the whole thing, but enjoyed learning via listening to and reading stories and fact books with headphones. According to the EYFS statutory framework, no child would prefer or learn best through more traditional methods of simply being presented with new material and then rehearsing it to automaticity, yet autistic children show us that this is not always true. Why do we persist with this? For autistic children, the learning that is intended to be discovered or rehearsed through a disguise of play and exploration can be lost in translation and they are denied the acquisition of the basics as a result. Further, they would not learn from their peers because quite often, even when appearing to be playing ‘with’ peers, they will be playing ‘in parallel’.
I feel that autistic children in particular would be better off if we created an EYFS experience that separates out ‘play and exploration’ from learning biologically secondary knowledge. Much less confusing, plus of course it is more satisfying for the innate list-ticker (I find children with ASD have a real urge to tick stuff off the imaginary list in their heads) to feel that sense of completion, satisfaction of a job well done, and then the reward of, for example, repeatedly building a tower and tipping it over to see the pattern of how the bricks fall.
Let’s also talk about something else that is incredibly stressful for the child with autism: noise. Open plan, ‘hot-desking’ EYFS experiences are noisy and there is no escape because all areas are connected. Quite often, I visit EYFS settings and find it too noisy, stressful and actually feel physically sick and anxious at the cacophony of sound and visual stimulation: walls covered, things and eyeballs dangling from the ceiling, people rushing around in an non-orderly way (not even like pin-balls in a machine because at least their movement is governed by the laws of physics and I could write an algorithm for that). I have the urge to walk straight out and seek comfort in focusing on the predictable subtle rustle and delicate colours of tree leaves. This is possibly because I am a musician and have become used to noisy situations that are melodic and harmonic, and where everyone is moving in synchronicity – the sounds and visual load are predictable, you see, unlike the EYFS experience which is deliberately non-patterned.
Many teachers over the years have said to me that they absolutely could not cope in reception year and the mere suggestion of working there brings them out in a rash. Now, is it not inconceivable that if adults like myself struggle to cope, then some groups of children would struggle to cope too? I think our little friends on the spectrum are actually the canaries in the mine here. Many nursery practitioners and reception year teachers seem unflinching and almost in their element in the noise (youTube videos of ‘outstanding’ pre-schools and reception years baffle me), and seem to extrapolate that everyone should enjoy it. Even when they do acknowledge that what they enjoy is not enjoyable to others, the provision of an escape tent, for example, still won’t reduce the stress for a child with ASD because it doesn’t remove the stress of unpredictability, the not knowing when and where the next spike in noise or movement will come from.
I tried to find some research around when stims and repetitive body movements such as rocking accelerate or develop in an autistic child’s life. I’ve got this sick dread feeling that their development or increase in frequency coincides with starting pre-school/nursery. The more I think about this situation and about the recent increase in ASD diagnoses, I wonder if it is connected to the dramatic increase in nursery and pre-school attendance as more and more families need two wages to live. Yes, you read that right. I think the deliberate channeling of nature’s list-tickers, pattern seekers and super-focusers through the compulsory EYFS setting leads to maladaptation and the increase in/augmentation of the kinds of symptoms that lead to diagnoses, with said symptoms then influencing that child’s development forever more, like a little puddle of water that ends up joining a stream on the other side of the mountain. I think ASD has always been prevalent, but manifest in different ways based on early childhood experiences. It may be evident to you that I identify with many features that classify with ASD, and I do genuinely wonder how I would’ve turned out if I had gone to a modern nursery full time rather than a couple of hours a week. I would’ve gone mad.
Learning and development through being given choice of what to do and opportunities to be creative. Learning should be relevant
I’m running out of time here, and I want to publish so you can all feed back to me. I will just dwell on the ‘relevant’ aspect. Again, autistic children seem to disprove this with their enjoyment and accelerated learning of knowledge that is really rather abstract. Is this such a bad thing? In fact, it does make me think an alternative, ASD-friendly EYFS curriculum should just go ahead and introduce everyone to the galaxy and everything in it except boring things like making sandwiches, playing in a mud kitchen etc.
An ASD-friendly EYFS experience is really quite radical and, let’s be honest, would never happen – EYFS as it is is statutory. However, I do wonder about the potential of our friends on the spectrum if we did actually give them the EYFS setting they would naturally thrive in.
Who’s with me?