This is the second of our short blogs for World Autism Awareness Week – this time looking at practical support for activities and nights away. You can read the first blog, and the story of one of our Cubs, Mitchell, here.
Our whole purpose is to make sure adventure is accessible for all. That may mean physically, in the sense that a lot of our young people use a wheelchair, but it also means making our activities inclusive for people with other additional support needs, including our autistic Scouts.
Here are some of our top tips for making sure all your activities are fully inclusive for autistic Scouts:
Get to know the young person first
We detailed this in our first blog post but it really is critical to everything else. If you make assumptions about the young person then their experience is unlikely to be as successful as it would be if you found out lots about them first. Focus on strengths and support needs and practical suggestions and write it all down so your other volunteers can be part of the support you provide.
Routines and reducing unexpected change
Scouts has a fair amount of routine in most programmes, and this actually helps create a part of the programme that autistic Scouts will be comfortable with, because it is expected and understood. We sometimes prepare visual timetables of what is planned so they can prepare for what the activities will be. It is really important if you change your plans you explain this, because change can often be a really worrying thing. Try to reduce unnecessary change (such as moving teams) and take time with key transitions – especially moving to new sections which can be really scary. Having some time to prepare for new things in advance is a real help here.
Use calm, straightforward language and instructions
Many autistic people find everyday communication challenging, and might not respond to things you say in the way you are expecting.
- The key is to be calm and think of the most straightforward way to explain things – avoid long sentences and many instructions, give short steps instead.
- Avoid sarcasm or complicated imagery – just be literal and say what you mean.
- Try to reduce distractions around where you are speaking so there isn’t sensory overload – a quiet space is easier to explain things.
- Ask for a response from the young person if you aren’t sure that they have understood you – “what are you going to do now?”.
- Remember to leave enough time for the young person to process what you’ve said – don’t assume they have understood you immediately.
- Do repeat yourself if necessary – perhaps multiple times, but keep calm as you do.
Think about the activity itself
For many autistic people their senses can be heightened to the point where they can overload. This is different for every person – some will find loud noises upsetting, others won’t mind. You need to find out what affects the individual young person. You won’t always be able to avoid the situation, but knowing that it can upset them could allow you to take them aside or at least warn them in advance.
- Be careful with your expectations for activities that involve any amount of standing around, standing in a straight line etc – you could be setting unreasonable expectations as lots of autistic young people need to be able to move around as a way to calm themselves. We still have flagbreak every week because it is an important part of the Scout programme, but we don’t make it too serious and it is very brief!
- Think about the environment as your activity is going on – if it is extremely noisy they may not have heard your instructions as they may be focussing on something else entirely. Could you have a quiet space nearby they could go to themselves if they need a bit of a ‘time out’? Just make sure they are safe and supervised – it could just be a quieter part of your main hall rather than a different room.
- On nights away consider having some sensory breaks during the camp so that the young person can take some time away from what might be an overstimulating environment. Make sure to check in regularly to make sure they are okay and offer them something to do (we often find Lego is a really good activity for this which they can do quietly).
- Consider all aspects of health and safety – if you are out and about on activities make sure you know if there is a risk of a young person wandering off and mitigate that risk by pairing them with a Young Leader or adult volunteer who has sole responsibility for checking in on them.
Adjust expectations, but don't lower what you think can be achieved
We’re big on adjusting things to fit individual young people, but never about lowering our ambition for them – we have rarely ever come across an activity we can’t adjust in some way. Be prepared to be completely flexible with badges so that they can achieve it in their own way – so long as the effort merits the award, we will award it. Find out what the young person’s interests are and use those for activities so that everyone can join in with something they enjoy. We’ve had lots of activities that have become regular favourites that we were introduced to by autistic young people. Make everything inclusive to everyone in their own way – even if that means doing slightly different things across the group.
Our final reflection comes from the mum of one of our autistic Scouts and is a really important point about not trying to make everyone fit the same mould, or force young people to all behave in exactly the same way:
“Some autistic children are better at masking their autism than others, especially girls. Girls are better at mimicking neurotypical behaviour and quite often go undiagnosed so their needs aren’t meant, but boys can mask as well. Masking autistic behaviours is absolutely exhausting and can lead to meltdowns. Imagine having to fake a whole personality to try and fit in and “be normal” long term – it is extremely harmful to the autistic person. Encourage self acceptance and self love. Celebrate diversity and enjoy the benefits of having autistic people in your troop.”
Our next young person’s story is from Jack who is 14 and a member of our Scout Troop. Here his mum reflects on his time in Scouts:
“Jack joined Scouts a few years ago, since then he has came on leaps and bounds and fully participates in all the activities. It’s his one place he is fully accepted and can be himself. He has gained independence skills I never dreamed he would thanks to the skills and knowledge of the volunteers who built him up to be the young man he is now.
“Jack was diagnosed autistic at age 5 and as a sensitive young boy who struggled to communicate with people he socially isolated himself.
“On joining Scouts initially he was shy and lacking confidence and struggled with the noise. He quickly adapted and after three weeks he came out telling me he was going to Belgium! I nearly died! My wee boy wouldn’t go and stay overnight anywhere never mind Belgium so I assumed he was just mixed up. But sure enough, Jack was included in the group’s expedition to Belgium. He had a ball, came home trying new foods, and had lots of mischievous tales to tell. Again I couldn’t believe this was Jack – he would never have done these things.
“Fast forward a few more years Jack was made a Patrol Leader for his team, a role he was anxious of – he doesn’t like the spotlight. For example he didn’t like to be the one to unfold the flag because it meant he was out in the middle – but his new role challenged him. He accepted it, adapted and thrives every week when they win, happy for his team and gutted for his best friends team.
“He has attended many camps and loves his Scout life and his friends he has made. His autism has affected him in many ways but he has been accepted and challenged and came on in many ways.
“Jack would like others to know autism affects us all differently. Jack is a quiet, sensitive boy who finds new people and situations hard, he needs a wee bit of support to change even a visit or introduction could ease that. Initially he would appreciate a calm, quiet voice from you while he gets to know you. Bright lights and sunshine are sensory to him and touch can be uncomfortable for him. A wave works better than a tap on the shoulder.
“Our cheeky wee mischievous boy is not what people think is autism it’s many things but it’s not who he is.
“He is Jack not autism.
“Acceptance, inclusion and understanding are all that is needed.”