Autism Training: ‘Just Watch the Big Bang Theory!’

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‘School staff member told ‘watch Big Bang Theory’ as Asperger’s training’ was the title of a news report published by BBC Scotland on 1 March 2017. Here’s the link to the article.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Big Bang Theory, it’s a sitcom following the lives of four young American scientists who share a flat. One of the characters, Sheldon Cooper, displays some characteristics associated with Asperger’s syndrome; however, the creators of the sitcom deny that they have based his character on someone with the condition. I don’t watch The Big Bang Theory regularly, but have seen enough episodes to appreciate why it is so popular. My kids love it.

I had a chat with my son, Edward, about the news report and asked him for his thoughts.

He thought that Sheldon represents just one person who exhibits only some of the common features of autism including:

  1. Literal interpretation of language.
  2. Preference for fixed routines.
  3. Difficulty showing empathy.
  4. Difficulty understanding sarcasm.
  5. Formal use of language in informal situations.

Edward surmised that by watching The Big Bang Theory, a teacher might glean some tips on how to communicate with Sheldon Cooper or someone who is extremely similar to him.

However, here’s the issue. Autism does not present the same way in different individuals. Not all autistic people will have the same challenges with communication that Sheldon has. Some people with autism will experience additional challenges with sensory processing, physical coordination, executive functioning, motivation, organization, and speech and language. Many kids with autism experience high levels of anxiety and have meltdowns.

Knowing how to manage a child with autism requires a lot more training than watching a few Big Bang Theory episodes.

Being taught by staff who understand about autism and who differentiate the curriculum (and often, more importantly, the rest of the school day) to accommodate the needs of an autistic pupil can make the difference between a thriving, learning-contented child and a school refuser or an excluded pupil.

The recently published GL assessment, Hooked on Labels Not Need  found that a large majority of teachers (57%) thought there was a misdiagnosis of SEND (special education needs and disabilities), with only a quarter (26%) disagreeing.

On face value these figures are very concerning. However, I think a more detailed breakdown of the responses is required. The wording of the questionnaire may have skewed responses; teachers would only have to have come across one child who they believed had a misdiagnosis of SEND to agree that there was currently a misdiagnosis of special educational needs amongst children. There was no breakdown of teacher’s views regarding specific types of SEND diagnoses.

Do teachers think that autism is regularly misdiagnosed? Or were they referring to other conditions? We can’t tell from this report – it’s not clear.  There have been a lot of detailed responses from parent bloggers to this report. Some provide anecdotal evidence about the need for a label to get support. Others make the point that there should be a recognised process to follow when educational staff dispute a diagnosis given by medical or allied health professionals. Some write about the difficulties they have faced when school staff dismissed their child’s needs. Many of these posts are available to read here.

The BBC report indicated that education about SEND for trainee teachers decreased over recent years, as did post-qualification SEND training. Ambitious about Autism reports that 60% of teachers in England do not feel that they have had adequate training to teach children with autism. Schools, faced with financial constraints, often send just one member of staff to training sessions, with the idea that this person will cascade their new learning to their colleagues upon their return. No matter how well a staff member is able to summarise what they have learned on a full-day course, I think it’s questionable to expect that they can adequately condense and convey the training they have received to their colleagues, presumably in a 10-minute slot during a packed staff briefing.

Pupils with autism are more likely to experience social isolation and bullying. They also have a higher rate of informal and formal exclusions from school. Only 15% of adults with autism are employed. This suggests that all is not as it should be and that pupils with ASD need more support throughout school and beyond.

In my opinion, a good autism training for school staff needs to include the following (this is not an exhaustive list nor is it in any particular order):

  1. An overview about autism and how it can present differently in different pupils.
  2. Practical steps that staff members can make to change their communication style so that breakdowns in communication are less likely to happen.
  3. The importance of working with and communicating well with parents.
  4. Ideas for motivation and ways of rewarding pupils with autism to help them stay engaged.
  5. Awareness about sensory processing difficulties, as so many meltdowns and behavioural challenges are a direct result of too much stimulation. This should include practical steps to reduce sensory overload and understanding about stims.
  6. Strategies for dealing with a child in meltdown.
  7. Methods to de-escalate anxiety levels.
  8. Training on how to help ASD children learn to regulate their behaviours.
  9. Awareness of what parents of ASD kids are dealing with at home and finding out what strategies work there.
  10. Working with children with poor executive function who need structured help with organisation and initiation.
  11. Understanding why routines are important, and minimising the negative consequences when routines have to change.
  12. Understanding about commonly associated conditions such as ADHD and dyspraxia.
  13. Strategies for teaching good social and conversational skills.

Parents of newly diagnosed children, teachers, teaching assistants, grandparents, youth workers and adults who have recently been diagnosed would all potentially benefit from autism training so that they have a chance to learn and understand more about autism. It’s only with this understanding that you start to make positive changes to your communication, routines and environment, causing life to work better and flow more smoothly for everyone.

The original version of this post first appeared here.

Lynne Pearson

Lynne is a Speech and Language Therapist and a mother to 4 children. Her eldest son Edward is on the Autistic Spectrum. Lynne has a blog full of funny tales of family life dotted with little nuggets of wisdom at

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