Relational Practice and Autism: the crisis inside schools is directly linked to human relationships - Alex Elander Phoenix

My career in education started in the ‘Autistic Unit’ of a community special needs school in Worcestershire, England, back in the early 2000’s and one thing that I learned above all else was that there is immense power in connected relationships and that those relationships can make a profound, positive difference to everyone’s daily life, feeling of safety and view of the world.

I also learned that all humans are individual and that message stands so clear for those with Autism*, all of the amazing people I met there were individual and interesting and I learnt so much from the relationships we built together and I hope I had a positive impact upon them. With this in mind, throughout this blog I make statements on the challenges of living with Autism and in places generalize to try to convey my point, but it is always with the caveat that each person is individual and may or may not fit that description. It is written using my twenty two years of experience working with children including many of those with Autism and their families, teachers and teaching assistants with Autism and more recently in my training and consultancy work. I have also researched into Autism heavily when studying for my degree in teaching with a focus on SEND and then my Masters in Inclusive Education. I talk with passion as this is a subject that I hold deep in my heart and one which I believe I wave the flag for everywhere I go.

The reason for this blog, is that I have had, since joining KCA in September of 2023, feedback from some participants that the training that we do on Relational Practice is ‘not relevant because I work with Autistic children/young people.’ This is something which I would like to give an alternative view on, and this discussion is a detailed explanation as to why, however, I understand why there is this barrier and why this way of thinking exists, as Alis Rowe, director of ‘The curly hair project’ eloquently stated in 2022 ‘The difficulties associated with social interaction, communication and imagination are some of the most painful aspects of having autism. It is this triad of impairments that creates the 'glass jar' in which I reside. The glass jar makes it very difficult to connect with people’

Interactions between humans are very complex, let’s look at the social norms of life in our society, how we are raised with models of human interactions built into our subconscious as well as the basic and ingrained human need for connection and the relationships that develop through the repeated interactions between humans.

Firstly, Interactions between people are often defined by being socially acceptable or not, this is based on societal expectations which have developed over a period of time. Social routines and expected practices are developed from early infancy, through free flowing interactions with adults. Sociology research discusses how our thoughts, feelings and actions as well as our understanding of our own social influence are shaped by experiences. These are heavily influenced by the communities we are born into/ grow up in as well as social institutions such as educational establishments, religious institutions, mass media and by what those held in high socio-status groups, (such as those who are ‘famous’ and the ‘influencers’ of today) The society- moulded ‘way we do things’ can be challenging to those who have Autism, because, in general, they find this inaccessible, confusing, overwhelming and hard to follow. I also believe that the majority of people with Autism ask ‘but why?’ and when it comes to our innate human need to fit-in to a group, often it is very challenging to answer that question, especially when looking at social trends such as bottle flipping or swathes of people copying the fashion worn by the Kardashians! The social ‘norms’ that can be developed and highlighted in your establishments should have reasoning behind it, for example why you do things that help to keep everyone safe physically and emotionally. The facts behind it can help those with Autism to understand.

Psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg created ‘The Moral Developments Model’ which states that at each stage we use others to learn from, from the earliest understanding of what is dangerous and what is not, to more complex post conventional morality and critical thinking skills. We use our experience of others to develop our sense of ‘being’ where we stand in society and how we are expected to behave. Albert Bandura developed social learning theory which showed, through experiments such as ‘the bobo doll experiment’ that children learn what is socially acceptable by copying the adults around them. Children, young people and adults with Autism develop at different rates to others including to whom these models and research were based. This means that the majority of human interactions, that someone with Autism has, is with people who are at a different level of learning and understanding and who have, by the nature of Autism, a greater comfort when in these interactions. Keeping this in mind is crucial so that you adapt your communication to them, rather than expecting those with Autism to adapt to you. Dave Hewett explained how the intervention Intensive Interaction works in 2016, he explains that ‘You join them in their world, because you have the skills to do so, they may not have the skills to join you in yours yet.’

So, these are challenges bought about due to the social and developmental models which we have guiding the interactions that we have. As Swayne & Fielding state in 2006) Vulnerable young people with impairments in their capacity to relate to others such as in the condition of autism, and their families represent a particular challenge to education professionals, schools and systems, since their social and behavioural patterns tend to place them at odds with school structures and staff expectations thus increasing the risk of exclusion’ When we put this in the context of what is happening in schools today, Bingham and Sidorkin (2004) argue that that ‘the crisis inside schools is directly linked to human relationships’ while for Loewenthal (2009), our ‘very education system may be acting against human relations.’ The challenges are there and they are exacerbated by the state of today’s Britain. This is Why I chose to work with KCA because I believe that their positive influence, along with others, will change this around for the better! So if you have training with us, you are on the right side of change!

My question is then, if a child, young person or adult that you work with does not meet your expectations of what interactions look like, how do you feel? Do you feel insecure in your understanding of the world, do you feel rejection, and do you then reject how they are responding and then ‘do to them’ with the thought that they will follow your way of thinking? I believe that we, who have worked with people with Autism have felt and done all of those things, especially in the beginning, and there is no blame or shame in that. I hope that in reading this it will empower you to develop new strategies, and you will come to realise that there are many ways to successfully work relationally and build positive relationships with everyone, including those with Autism.

When we look purely at the fundamental need for humans to connect with other humans, this is something which those with Autism also have innately within them. Even if a child, young person or adult cannot communicate verbally (which can be a challenge when living with Autism) they will communicate in other ways, for example physically – positive interactions with others are what keeps us alive and human brains cannot develop without them. Social conventions and ‘norms’ are somewhat separate to the innate need to connect with others. This can be in the form of physical proximity, sounds and speech and physical touch. This is all that is being asked of when we talk about relational practice. Linking and connecting with other humans within your community. That can be the children that you work with in school, or the families that you work with in the community.

Alvarez & Reid in 2004 and Gutstein in 2000 showed that research and clinical observations showed that conditions such as autism may not be as immutable as previously thought and that parents and professionals can be assisted to develop their own relational competence to more effectively connect with vulnerable young people with relating.

We, as educators, social workers, health workers or in any other human facing and human interacting role interact with others on a daily basis and as such we have excellent communications skills. This is what Alis Rowe says is the key to relationships with those who have Autism ‘The key to a successful relationship is communication. or at least a willingness to be a better communicator. I already find communication very hard so I need to be with someone who finds communication easy and enjoyable.’ You already have a plethora of skills that lends itself to this – in fact you probably already do it and don’t realise, so I am here to help you to highlight and identify when you are successfully communicating with and connecting with others already.

Leigh Burrows, in 2010, discussed how restoring a pathway to wellbeing and learning for a young person with Autism is through a holistic and relational approach. I believe being aware of the individual challenges and needs of those you work with by getting to know them is key to working relationally. This is true of anyone you work with.

One example is that of routines, routines are critical for people who have Autism. People with Autism often rely on these alongside alone time and special interests which are used as anchors that help them to navigate their days. So entering into this is about you understanding what those anchors entail, getting to know them well enough to know that your attempts at interaction will not derail these.

I believe that although you may find it different interacting with those who have Autism, relational practice is not only achievable it is human, natural and essential for everyone to thrive. And remember, you are already doing it brilliantly – have confidence in your abilities!

I will end this with the voices of people with Autism, from Autism Bedfordshire, who wanted to share what helps them …

‘I’m not a fan of small talk- I’d rather have a deep conversation about the wonders of the world!’

‘I am always worried when socialising, like I know I will say or do something wrong, reassurance that you will still be there for me if I do really helps me’

‘Sometimes I feel like people I talk to are trying to trick me, I am wary – until I get to know you’

‘I get socially exhausted easily, so sometimes I will just walk away from the conversation – it’s not you I just need time to chill out again!’

‘If the environment is loud, bright or busy I will NOT be able to listen to you, I am just buzzed’

‘I love check-ins, just a thumbs up from someone I trust can make me feel great, but my Mum says that my face doesn’t always show that I feel like that!’

‘I need to plan ahead, so I like it when I have a set time to talk to someone like a teacher, so I can run through it all in my head first and make sure it all fits’

‘I have lots of stored emotions, sometimes they just overwhelm out of me and that can be scary for me, I like to talk about it afterwards once the feelings have passed’

‘Would people just listen to me, I am a very interesting person!’

*I have chosen to use the phrase ‘with Autism’ within this blog, this is a conscious choice, and I believe that many with Autism prefer this terminology, however I understand that this is not the case for all, as everyone is an individual.

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