‘The Spell of All Inclusive Radio’
Abbreviations and Acronyms
ASD Autism Spectrum Disorder
AIR All Inclusive Radio
SPELL* Structure Positive Expectations and Approaches Empathy Low arousal
Radio and Autism?
When the idea of a Radio Station for Westfield was first mooted, I thought, ‘How ever can that work for our pupils with ASD?’ How wrong I have been proved. On a recent visit to the station to observe primary age pupils with ASD, I began to try to work out what it is about ‘radio’ that can work so well for students with ASD. The session was led by the class Teaching Assistant.
As far as I can tell from the results of a brief Google search, while there are a number of Radio stations, in the USA, Australia and here (autism RADIO-UK), for and run by individuals with ASD, there is little if any research in this area.
We know that individuals on the autism spectrum benefit from a number of elements identified by the National Autistic Society, that together make up the SPELL Framework. This is the overall approach to ASD adopted at Westfield. It is this framework that may also help make sense of why ‘radio works’ so well for many of our students with ASD.
Radio Stations, whether the BBC, or Radio AIR, have very clear programme schedules. Many individuals with ASD experience difficulty with the passage of time and clear indications as to when something will start and finish are of significant help to them
Within a programme itself, particularly of the ‘magazine’ variety, the structure of the programme is clearly broken down into its various components: introduction, what’s on today, interviews (in the studio or by phone), musical items, jokes, weather, news etc. The programme thus has a predictable format; we know that the structure of such routine is calming and comforting for those with ASD. Each item will have a given time frame, within the overall timings of the programme. Some BBC Radio presenters, for example, structure their on-air lives in 3 minute slots.
While random variety may not be the spice of life for people with ASD, a degree of novelty within a predictable format certainly can be. Thus the familiar laminated visual schedule (provided for our young reporters on this occasion) which could be adapted with a glass pencil by their Teaching Assistant as the programme went along, allowed the youngsters confidently to present new material within a known routine.
The visual schedule, the equivalent of the programme presenter’s notes, suits their condition perfectly. At this age, it was a combination of pictures and the written word, but could be adapted as age and stage-appropriate. As in professional radio, the visual prompt is also totally ‘hidden’ from the audience.
As a musical item was playing, the Assistant’s prompts could become verbal as well, but these, once issued were fleeting and if not processed by the communicating partner, not received or acted upon. The visual prompts remained and, more often than not, were acted upon. Moreover, the software itself provides visual time warning of the change from music to
speech, allowing the presenter to be prepared for the transition.
Further structure integral to the radio station environment included the clear light indicators on the wall signalling ‘On Air’ or ‘Caller’. The four students responded to these without fail, donning earphones as necessary. We know from experience that many people with ASD find it easier to respond to an ‘impersonal’ instruction such as this, rather than one that involves an interpersonal component i.e. a request from another person.
Positive expectations and approaches
A clear belief that our pupils will have access to the opportunities that are available to others pervades Westfield’s approach. The name Radio AIR embodies this. The College caters for youngsters from the Early Years to Post-16, with complex difficulties; every pupil who can be supported to experience the station does so. This ‘can-do’ attitude was almost tangible to me while observing in the studio and is, I feel, perceived by the sixth sense of some of our pupils.
It has been noted that while individuals with ASD may have difficulty interpreting facial expressions and nuances in language, they frequently pick up on an individual’s state of anxiety, antagonism, tiredness or, conversely, positivity and understanding.
I understand that one of the worst situations that a professional broadcaster may face is having no content to present; the pressure to ‘deliver’ can be intense. In the field of autism, getting the degree of expectation right is crucial: too low and individuals will become bored; too high and they will become over-anxious and be unable to deliver. Accepting and developing what each student can contribute at a given time is crucial to promoting their success. The Teaching Assistant whom I observed was unfailingly up-beat and willing to ‘go with the flow’ of the pupils’ conversations, guiding them by suggesting what to do and talk about, rather than what not to do or talk about. Occasional eccentricities in conversation were accepted as such and successes applauded, just as in live professional radio.
The radio station also employs what is often a curricular strength and enthusiasm for people with ASD: their facility with ICT. Again, the visual schedule was used to good effect, providing visual cues as to how to operate the quite complex equipment. I suspect, however, it is not long before many of our youngsters can confidently operate the equipment without these cues.
The capacity to take the unique viewpoint of the individual with autism is seen as central to successful understanding and teaching of pupils with autism. The ability to show empathy may frequently be impaired in individuals with ASD and recent research suggests that we can usefully consider two aspects of empathy – cognitive and affective – separately. Cognitive empathy relates to when one individual is able to appreciate that another’s thoughts and feelings may be different from one’s own, while affective empathy relates to that knowledge evoking a kindred feeling in the perceiver. For example, understanding that someone’s pet dog has died and that this has made them feel sad requires cognitive empathy. Genuinely caring about and perhaps even feeling sad oneself as a result of their sadness requires affective empathy.
Development of empathy relates to having theory of mind – loosely the ability to know that others have thoughts and feelings that may be different from one’s own. The opportunity to present material to a radio audience is, I suggest, an ideal means of beginning to teach youngsters that their listeners are not in possession of much of the information they are transmitting. The audience can’t see you or know what is in your thought ‘bubble’; you need to tune them in. For example, while I was observing the youngsters broadcasting, one started talking about ‘Bobby’. ‘Who’s Bobby?’ enquired the Teaching Assistant. ‘My dog’, replied the child. The need to provide your listeners with background information to which they are not yet party provides excellent repeated and practical opportunities to develop this understanding and cognitive empathy.
Related to this is the importance of communicating in a way that takes the listeners’ needs into account. If the listener cannot see you, clear verbal communication is vital. For example, the youngster replying to ‘How did that make you feel?’ with a ‘thumbs down’ sign could not be heard; he had to speak. This was another very practical demonstration of the need to consider someone else’s experience of a situation.
The opportunity to address consideration of others’ feelings was also demonstrated by the presenter’s rather abrupt ending of a caller’s contribution (“Right, that’s enough talking for now!”). Finishing a conversation politely is quite an art, but again the chance to practise such skills with scripted suggestions (e.g. “That’s very interesting, but all we have time for now”) could be tried in future broadcasts.
Of course, none of this quite subtle learning would take place without the explicit teaching of how to get it right and the hugely motivating power of ‘being on the radio’. They wanted to get it right in this real live – and fun – situation.
Many individuals with ASD can experience difficulties with sensory processing and, at times, sensory overload. The opportunity to have access to calming and organising activities and environments allows them to come nearer to a ‘just-right state’ where they can function more easily.
For the young broadcaster with ASD, the audience is not visible. This may be helpful to them as there are no facial expressions to have to try to interpret or eye contact to deal with that can complicate face to face interaction.
The physical environment of the studio is clear and ordered, with a place for everything and everything in its place. It is fairly dark. It is certainly quiet, with headphones being worn while the broadcast is going out. On the whole one person talks at a time, or music is playing, and, as described, a reasonably predictable ‘script’ is usually followed.
Just as the audience is invisible to the broadcaster, so the broadcaster is invisible to the audience. Between needing to focus on speaking into the microphone there are repeated opportunities while music is playing to swing, rock, get up and jiggle around, all of which may help the individual to regulate his/her internal state.
Many at Westfield will be familiar with one young man who in daily life is reasonably quiet particularly with those unfamiliar to him. Given the opportunity to communicate with an invisible audience and gently rock to music between whiles, he becomes a fluent and knowledgeable broadcaster displaying his encyclopaedic knowledge of music and the media.
All these elements that contribute to creating a ‘low arousal’ setting mean that the Radio Station studio provides a good ‘fit’ for many youngsters with ASD.
The arrival of the Radio Station has provided another channel for linking with parents, families and the wider community. For some people with ASD, social contact can be somewhat limited, either by choice or circumstance, so opportunities to develop links with others, within a safe setting are welcomed.
The broadcast I observed allowed the pupils to link with their listeners by telling the wider school and local community who were tuned in what they had been learning about. Community links have also developed, with other schools coming in to broadcast programmes, opportunities to host ‘VIP’ guests and even visit the House of Commons, as a result of the incredible success of the work on Radio Air.
To sum up ‘Radio Air’ has succeeded in a way that I suspect many, like me, could not have foreseen. Undoubtedly, this is in major part due to the skills and dedication of the Staff who run the Station, the Staff who lead the sessions and the students’ enthusiasm. I suggest, and have attempted to show, that it is also the natures of ASD and of radio that make each mutually helpful to the other. Radio Air works!
Acknowledgements to Tracey Squibb and to Carl Greenham.
Siddles, R. et al. SPELL – The National Autistic Society Approach to Education. Communication, Spring 1997, pp 8-9.