We’re welcoming Wendy Usher today, Wendy has over 30 years experience of living and working with people on the autism spectrum and other disabilities. She taught children with additional needs and managed a number of voluntary organisations before setting up The Play Doctors in 2007. The Play Doctors provide visual aids and communication resources for home and school. Wendy has written 11 books and writes and delivers training courses across the UK. Her philosophy is to ‘help break down communication barriers to enable all people to participate’
- So tell me about autism…
Lots of people hear about autism from the media and only get to hear about people with specialised skills known as Savant Autism, or perhaps about those with behavioural difficulties.
Autism is a developmental disability that effects the way a person thinks and responds to the world around them.
Everyone on the autism spectrum is individual and will have their own likes/dislikes and interests. Not everyone on the autism spectrum will react and respond in the same way to situations in everyday life.
People tend to have difficulty to a greater or lesser in 3 key areas:- communication; social interaction and imagination. Additionally people may have sensory integration issues, physical behaviours such as flapping (known as stimming) and others may have a lack of emotional understanding and empathy.
- Why are you interested in autism?
I really enjoy being with people on the autism spectrum. In addition to having a grown up daughter who happens to be on the spectrum I have worked with children and their families for many years.
I have seen lots of situations where families face barriers to participation in normal everyday life. Imagine taking a child who is scared of the unknown, does not like lots of crowds, hates noise and bright lights to a packed supermarket. Now try taking the same child to a summer activity play scheme. The behaviour may tell you the child is frightened.
My interest is in helping to break down barriers and help others to understand a little more and think of the world through the child’s eyes.
- What would be your key messages in relation to autism?
That is a hard question to answer as there are so many. Sadly I have seen many children excluded from activities, not because they are naughty but because they don’t understand the social rules. These children do not automatically absorb social clues, but need to be taught how to respond appropriately. I have a favourite phrase – Behaviour itself is a form of communication, if that is so what is the communication telling us?
Let’s take another look at people on the autism spectrum – are they behaving inappropriately or is it because they are trying to tell us something?
I think my main key message would be ‘get the communication right’. The majority of people on the autism spectrum are visual learners, yet live in an audio world. We use far too many words when we talk, we make assumptions about people’s understanding and don’t reinforce our messages with something visual. Additionally we need to ‘listen’ to what we both hear and see. Watch behaviour, actions and responses. We can learn more about how someone on the spectrum sees the world around them if we paid a little more attention.
- What messages have you seen from observing people on the spectrum?
A child who cannot imagine the future and who gets scared if there is nothing to tell them what is about to happen next may hold onto the doorframe when someone says ‘let’s go for a walk’. Why? Because they don’t know if they are ever going to return, will they see their Mum again or will they be back for dinner? We need to consider the world from the child’s perspective and think carefully about how we communicate. Perhaps saying ‘let’s walk to the end of the lane and back again’ takes away all the child’s fears. They may happily go for a walk knowing they will be returning.
- What are these cards for?
The cards have been designed to provoke lots of different conversations about autism and will help the user to take a person centred approach thinking about autism from the individuals perspective.
The conversations will enable people to understand how the condition affects the lives of people on the spectrum and help them to identify what kind of support the individual on the spectrum may want rather than assuming that they know.
The Let’s talk autism – About Me and Others Set of questions are designed to have conversations about others in the child’s live. Autism does not just effect the individual, it effects the family, the siblings, the other children in the class, the teacher and other professionals.
- You have two packs of cards, Let’s Talk Autism all about me and one for me and others? Why two packs?
Having worked with people on the spectrum for many years I realise that they are not often asked for their own opinions in relation to their condition. The ‘all about me’ cards explore peoples responses to emotions; behaviour and actions; social interaction and communication; self esteem and confidence. The conversations will help others to learn more about individuals on the spectrum. The questions help identify areas where the individual may need some more support or other areas where there is more confidence or understanding than thought.
It may be hard for some children to express their thoughts and have a verbal conversation especially when the questions are conceptual, so we have produced a set of visual communication fans to go alongside the cards to support visual learners. These use the internationally known ©Widgit communication symbols. These are easy to use and understand.
An example would be an image of a cross face with the following questions
– What does this emotion express?
- How do you know if someone is feeling cross?
- What do you do when you are feeling cross?
The cards can be used by anyone including siblings.
- You mentioned siblings – why do you feel it important to provide questions for siblings in these packs?
As a parent of a child on the spectrum, I watched as her sister became an unofficial young carer. Teachers would say ‘Oh, I don’t quite understand your sister, please can you tell me what she is saying’ or I would say without thinking ‘I’m just hanging out the washing, let me know if she needs me’.
Other children saw our daughter on the spectrum and focused on the condition first rather than the child. We found that our second daughter was being bullied just because she was the sister of a child who was seen as different.
Siblings may feel a sense of responsibility to their brother or sister on the spectrum. This may be confused with a sense of jealousy, why do they get all the attention, the ‘special’ school or the ‘special’ events?
The cards give siblings the opportunity to explore their emotions and feelings in a safe environment. They provide siblings with ‘permission’ to speak about both positive and negative feelings and to ask their own questions about autism.
- You have a set of questions for parents, why did you add these?
In my experience, parents are often not given the chance to explore how they feel about having a child on the spectrum. The focus is so often on the child rather than the whole family. These questions help to instigate conversations about hopes, dreams, fears and anxieties. There are opportunities for parents to ask about things they are unsure of including questions about how to tell others that you child has autism.
- So what about professionals – surely it is up to the professionals to know about autism?
That is an interesting observation. My response would be that no one knows everything about autism. The condition is different for each individual child and however much you study or read no two situations will ever be the same.
This section of questions explores the world from the child’s perspective and challenges the reader to consider their responses to questions by truly considering the child.
One of the questions asks ‘how can you adapt your planning and communication to respond to the child’s own learning style?’
I tell a story about a child who was at a paediatric consultancy appointment. The Consultant said to the child ‘come and sit down’ whilst patting the chair beside him. The child obediently sat down and the consultant turned to the parent and said ‘he has really good audio understanding’.
The parent patted the chair beside her and said to the child ‘rhubarb and custard’. The child got up and went to sit next to his mum.
The child was responding to the visual clues given by both parent and consultant and not the audio instruction.
- Tell me about other books you have written
So far I have written 11 books with more to come. I have 12 books written for adults working with children and young people who have social communication difficulties including autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and other cognitive disorders. The books focus on practical ideas and suggestions we can do to improve the lives of the children we live and work with.
The books focus on ideas around encouraging positive behaviour; providing effective communication; ideas for sensory play and helping children on the autism spectrum play too.
I have also written 3 children books where little animal characters happen to have a range of disabilities. Zak the Zebra is on the autism spectrum. When he gets upset he flaps his ears, turns around in a circle and likes to count his stripes. During the stories in this set of children’s books, the other characters ask why Zak behaves in the way his does. Autism is simply explained and the rest of the animals adapt their activities to ensure Zak is able to join in.
Within these books we have a parrot who has ADHD and a dragon who has Dyspraxia.
- Tell me about why you chose to write a book on sensory play?
Sensory play is important – often children who have social communication difficulties have sensory integration difficulties such as being hyper or hypo sensitive to sound, vision, touch or any of our senses. This is looked at in the books to help explain and recognise how this can affect the daily life of the child.
Some children find it hard to concentrate and finish a game or activity, or find it hard to socialise with others and participate in group games.
Sensory play can be undertaken in isolation or with other children. The ideas contained in ‘Creating Sensory Play at Little or No Cost’ use everyday items in different ways. For instance, have you ever made the Nothern Lights from jelly? Make a bowl of multi coloured jelly, turn it out onto a plate and take it into a dark room along with a torch. Shine the torch through the jelly onto a light colour surface or wall and wobble the plate. The reflection will look like the Northern Lights.
Activities do not have to be expensive and children love doing something different. Sensory play can be used to help stimulate children and also to calm them down.
We also deliver lots of training sessions on sensory play.
- Thank you, that is all very interesting. How can people get in contact and buy these cards?
Take a look at our website www.theplaydoctors.co.uk or give us a call on 01234 391436.
The cards are also available through Fink Cards website www.finkcards.com