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SPELL

What does SPELL stand for?

SPELL stands for ’Structure Positive Empathy, Low arousal Links’. These are all aspects of this framework which are focussed upon in this intervention to reduce dependency and encourage self-awareness and independence.

Structure

By introducing structure, the environment is modified in ways that are easily predictable i.e. the child is aware of what is expected from them and what will happen next. Visual timetables and other visual prompts utilise the strengths of children with ASD as they are mostly visual learners. Offering choice boards during unstructured times (play time and lunch time) in school also helps in providing structure. Similarly, communication can also be structured by calling the child’s name, gaining their attention before offering instructions and giving them adequate time to process and respond to the instructions.

Positive (approaches and expectations)

In order to explore the potential of children with ASD, it is very important to plan intervention programmes that are based on careful assessments, which in turn determine realistically high expectations. Positive feedback (reward strategies) and motivators can be used to ensure that appropriate behaviours are continued.

Behaviour plans must be put into place while dealing with challenging behaviours. Identifying a child’s strengths and building on them is the key to success in intervention.

Empathy

Seeing the world through the eyes of a child with ASD is the most important aspect of working with them. To gather a better insight into their world, it is essential to understand their experiences by viewing things from their perspective. Some children who are non-verbal have a lot to say through their behaviour, hence effective support workers/professionals must be endowed with personal attributes of calmness, sensitivity, positive regard and an analytical disposition.

Low Arousal

To aid concentration and reduce anxiety, the environment must be calm and well-ordered. There should be no distractions. Some children with auditory processing difficulties may require additional time to process information. We may need to pay attention to aversive or distracting stimuli for e.g. noise levels, colour schemes, odours, lighting, clutter etc. Care should be taken not to overload or bombard children, which can be made possible by giving clear information that is best suited to them.

Low arousal does not mean ‘no’ arousal. Children must be exposed to a range of experiences but this should be done in a sensitive way considering the fact that they could be oversensitive to certain stimuli.

Links

Strong links most be established between everybody involved in the intervention programme including parents, teaching assistance, teachers and other professionals to ensure that the child’s needs are addressed from a holistic perspective. The child with ASD and their parents are very much seen as partners in the therapeutic process. These links enable them to participate in the wider community in a far more meaningful way.

The SPELL framework can be applied across all individuals with ASD and can also be used as a complementary approach to other methods of intervention.

SPELL: the National Autistic Society framework for intervention

Structure

The SPELL approach uses structure to make the environment of the child with autism feel more predictable, accessible and ‘safe’. Structure can aid personal autonomy and independence by reducing the person’s dependence on others.

In terms of the curricular/activity/event environment this would include well-structured visual schedules, plans and routines providing:

  • advance warning of what is about to happen
  • help with staying on task during activities (e.g. visual reminders and reinforcers)
  • visual support alongside spoken instructions (perhaps using devices such as PECS symbols
  • Isolation of the central idea or key information
  • Clear, concrete expectations (again illustrated visually, e.g. with photographs of what the finished task should look like).

In terms of the physical and sensory environment, ‘structure’ might take the form of well defined spaces used for a designated purpose. Teachers and staff might use symbols, photographs and pictures to show exactly what is happening in a space or where something is kept. The social environment might be given more ‘structure’ by use of interventions such as Social Stories™

Positive (approaches and expectations)

Schools and services using the SPELL ‘framework’ work positively with a person’s autism and their learning style. This might take the form of ‘embedding’ aspects of a person’s special interest within a target learning activity, or using access to their special interest as a motivator or reward for trying something new. SPELL is also positive in that it precludes the use of punishments etc. Many people with autism may avoid new or potentially difficult experiences, but the use of structure and supportive rehearsal can reduce anxiety anxiety and help the person to tolerate and accept such experiences and develop new horizons and skills.

Empathy

This aspect of the SPELL framework focuses on staff attitudes to, and knowledge of, autism and how it uniquely affects each person on the autism spectrum. Being able to ‘think’ and ‘see’ like a person with autism is key.

Low arousal

This aspect of SPELL relates to measures taken to reduce anxiety and aid concentration. Distractions are minimised as far as possible. Steps are taken to remove potentially aversive or distracting stimuli (e.g. noise levels, colour schemes, odours, lighting and clutter) and to manage the ‘demand environment’.

This aspect of SPELL would also relate to how staff respond to and manage difficult behaviour; for instance, managing incidents and aggression with calmness and a positive disposition.

Links

This aspect of the SPELL framework relates to communication between staff/teachers and also between parents and staff/teachers. The objective of this component of SPELL is to provide consistency of approach.