Vesna Mlakar is from Domžale and has been working with BISL in supporting students with special educational needs, particularly children with Asperger’s Syndrome. She graduated in Philosophy and further completed a postgraduate in Arts Therapy- in the area of Drama, at the Faculty of Education in Ljubljana. She is a member of Društvo SNOP, where she leads various social group meetings and therapies for youngsters with Aspergers Syndrome, in central Slovenija.
We asked Vesna to tell us about her work and asked some questions to help us understand about Asperger’s Syndrome:
In the school year of 2016/2017 you started working with the British International School in Ljubljana as an external partner. In class, you accompanied a boy with Asperger’s syndrome. Can you tell us what Asperger syndrome is?
From the nineties onward Asperger's syndrome has been known as a form of autism and a pervasive developmental disorder. People with Asperger's have difficulties expressing themselves on a social and emotional level. They experience difficulties building and maintaining relationships, have trouble making friends, as their communication tends to be distinctly one-sided. They tend to immerse themselves in certain themes/hobbies and have disproportionate mental abilities (brilliant in some fields and considerably lacking in others). Also, on occasion, they are sensorially sensitive and lack motor skills.
How can parents know if their child has Asperger’s Syndrome?
Have you noticed your child achieving above average results in some fields, but not being able to cope with others? Have you noticed him avoiding contact with his peers, acting inappropriately and occasionally being offensive? Does he struggle to express his emotions and avoids eye contact? Have you been told he is spoiled and lacks manners? And taking this into account, does he frequently surprise you with incredible ideas and solutions, which you would never have thought of? In that case it is possible your child has Asperger syndrome.
Parents of children with special needs and other disorders will usually consult with doctors, special education professionals, psychologists, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists. You are an Arts Therapy specialist. In which way can you support the SEN child's development?
Children with Asperger's can benefit from my expertise in various ways. Mostly this has to do with developing and improving their skill set: social skills, verbal and nonverbal communication, getting to grips with the written and unwritten rules of society, understanding and expressing emotion, etc. I use arts therapy techniques and methods such as EBL method (Emerging Body Language) and role-play. I treat each child as an individual, my approach, however, is comprehensive. I seek cooperation with parents, schools and other professionals in the field (speech and language therapists, psychotherapists, etc.), since experience shows that working together yields the best results. I cannot, however, perform medical and/or psychological evaluations or attempt to cure a child. If it is considered that the child may be autistic, they are referred to The Division of Paediatrics in Ljubljana or The Institute for Autism and Related Disorders in Ljubljana.
What does a typical day at school look like for you?
I work with children who have been diagnosed with ASD on a daily basis at school and I usually become their ‘companion’ for a while. After an agreement with the child's parents and teachers, the first week or two is spent monitoring the child's behaviour and taking notes. With the teacher's help we decide how to best adjust the classroom environment in a way where the child can feel comfortable and safe, including where and with whom he or she should sit. I help teachers understand the child's idiosyncrasies, worries, fears and shortcomings. I help them discover the child's special talents and abilities. I advise how to pass on knowledge in a way that will be easier to understand. Since I'm almost constantly present, I have the opportunity to explain the child's unusual behaviour to his peers, while simultaneously helping the child to better express himself. Monitoring during class, break and lunchtime allows me to notice a variety of idiosyncrasies which the teachers cannot be constantly aware of. It could be the child is not reading as well on a given day, because he doesn't have the right glasses, is confused because class is held in a different classroom, is distracted by the intensity of the light or smell. He may withdraw into his own world or have an outburst, because he didn't understand the instructions or feels like he wasn't understood. Through my observations the parents get an insight into a part of the child's life which would normally stay concealed. Because of this, everyone is calmer: the child, the parents and the teachers.
What about cases where the child is not diagnosed, yet the teacher notices unusual behaviour? Where the child is highly intelligent but is unable to follow classes and doesn't understand norms of social behaviour?
In examples like this, naturally, the initial approach is different. If parents are alerted of the child's behaviour by the school, their reactions may vary significantly. Some are surprised but willing to listen, others become defensive, and some even withdraw their child from school. There are also cases where children are frequently absent from school because of the difficulties they have adapting - which makes matters worse. Hence the process of integration cannot begin and they fall behind with their schoolwork. This means that every time they come to school they need to start from the beginning, which of course is very burdensome and hinders their progress. Therefore, early identification and treatment is key in my opinion. The goal being that the child with ASD is able to develop into as independent and effective an individual as possible. Structure and time management helps develop working habits and enables a more independent life.
Why do some parents find it difficult to believe and accept observations and assessments of teachers?
Simply because they frequently don't notice the child's behaviour, or might attribute it to character, temperament or circumstances. Children with AS usually behave very differently at home than they do at school. At home they might play with brothers and sisters while maintaining relatively good communication with his parents, while in school they are unable to follow basic instructions. Sometimes a child like this remains silent in class (selective mutism), or might talk incessantly. Behaviour like this stands out that much more in a classroom of only 15 to 20 pupils. Parents might also have trouble acknowledging their child's disorder or special needs. In their view the child might not be deemed ‘normal’, which could lead to many difficulties. The difficulties, however, are already there and the child is already facing them, but might lack the skills to solve them in an effective manner, which only deepens the child’s anxiety. Children with Asperger's syndrome excel in many areas and are most certainly not intellectually underdeveloped. Sometimes all they need is a bit of help - like any of us - to be able to truly shine. With the right approach, teachers can help them develop their talents. The importance of developing a talent into an employable skill cannot be emphasised enough and this does not only apply to Asperger’s child.
What are the benefits of having a formal diagnosis?
Oftentimes children with AS get diagnosed later on as opposed to children with autism, since the commonplace troubles usually begin as late as the first triad of primary school. Too often people see a formal diagnosis as somewhat intimidating, merely a useless label. Nevertheless an established diagnosis can help the family, friends and school workers to better understand the needs and behaviour of a child with AS. A diagnosis can also help the child later on in life. As he becomes an adult it helps with integrating into the local community, job-seeking and so on. Last but not least it may also help him better understand himself.
Besides being a sort of ‘guardian angel’ for kids with AS at school, you also work with them individually at home. What does that entail?
Children with AS don't usually consider me as their guardian angel, but more like their ‘shadow’. They sometimes find me annoying because they don't want to be different or stand out. They seek (once again) independence as soon as possible. We agree upon a set of rules that need to be adopted in order for the work in class to run as smoothly as possible. Of course this also requires meetings at home, where the child feels safest. With the help of social games, role-play, improvisation, storytelling, drawing, clay work and other arts approaches, they are better able to express their needs, desires, anxieties and fears, that they might not (be able to) vocalize. Drama is the most prominent artistic form for conflict-resolution work, because it enables staging of specific conflict, analysis through reenactment and reliving of a situation, and helps to slow down the situation for observation of specific details. Family-building activities, in which the whole family takes part, are also very effective. It is important to note that in families where one child has ASD, the siblings’ needs are often set aside. It is also very important for the children to see that their parents have a healthy connection. This gives them a feeling of security, closeness and warmth.
Is arts therapy appropriate also for preschool children?
Of course. Arts therapy method speaks a universal language which everyone can understand. Because of this it is useful to all age groups, from youngest to oldest. The development of a child's imagination is greatly influenced by creative games, which usually start to notice around the age of three and come into full swing at around the age of six. Creative games are not only helpful in exploring one's environment but also serve as a means of imparting moral values to children. In preschool, where children mostly play in groups, the role of a game is also to enhance efforts directed toward a common goal. The organisation and implementation of such games harbours great possibilities for developing and nurturing sociable work and behaviour both in a narrow and wider social environment. Not to mention the fact that children usually like these games and have fun playing them.
Below are some examples of experiences by parents and teachers who have or work with Aspergers child.
“As a parent you usually feel that things could be improved, but don't necessarily know how to help – either the child, yourself or both. These arts methods provide a learning experience of a very unintrusive yet explicit nature. Important are also the explanations which Vesna provides – the ‘subtitles’ to certain reactions and responses. Everything is played out in third person, yet everyone is easily able to identify himself. In this way everyone has the opportunity to see what the other person is doing and what could be done in a different manner, without someone needing to give a suggestion or even say it out loud.”
Parents of a child with Asperger syndrome
“Vesna worked closely with myself and other teachers, and played a very positive role in the school. She gave a detailed and informative professional development presentation to the staff about Asperger’s Syndrome, which gave us insight into how such students perceive situations and reasons why they react as they do. This was a fundamental step for staff to gain a better understanding of, better empathise with, and adapt their teaching methods to support children with special needs. Vesna also worked closely with the entire class and students throughout the school when necessary, to give them a better understanding of the situation and to give pointers how best to deal with any difficult situations which arise in class and in the playground. Throughout her several-month position in the classroom, there were noticeable changes from all sides, and teachers were more confident in altering their teaching styles to meet the needs of all students in the class. I can see even greater changes since the new school year has started.”
“I give my sincere endorsement and recommendation for Vesna’s professional and expert support in such situations. Having such invaluable support in the classroom made the decisive difference between success and failure for the student’s integration at school and gave teachers a much greater skill set which they can carry forward in their teaching career.”
Chris Bishop, Teacher
If you would like to get in touch with Vesna, the contact details are as follows: Vesna Mlakar (031 304 732) Društvo SNOP: Association for creative activities and help through arts therapy