What is autism?
According to the National Autistic Society, more than 1 in every 100 of the population have autism, which equates to 700,000 people.
Autism is a pervasive development disability, often referred to as Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). People with autism have difficulties in areas such as communication, social interaction, flexible thinking and sensory processing.
April is Autism Awareness Month - a globally recognised awareness campaign used to educate the public about autism and the prevalent issues faced by the autism community. Autism Awareness Month and Autism Awareness Day (April 2nd) are vital in educating the public on something that affects a large number of people, but very few have a working knowledge of.
Autism and the education system
Education is a key part of every child’s life but too many children with autism in England are not getting the education and support they need. Whilst there are specialist schools available, 71% of children with autism attend mainstream schools.
Research has shown that mainstream schools are frequently neither fully educated nor equipped to deal with the needs of an autistic child and give them the necessary support. This is particularly alarming as such a high proportion of children with autism do attend mainstream schools, suggesting a large number of autistic children are not getting the educational experience they deserve.
How do autistic children learn differently from other children?
Priory Group Director of Autism, Allison Hope-West, highlights the different teaching methods autistic children need: “Pupils with autism require bespoke multi disciplinary packages which include therapeutic support to help them to engage with learning. They need predictable environments with structure and high levels of routine along with packages of social learning and interaction.”
Allison highlighted the importance of specialist teaching: “The curriculum needs to be compensatory developed with an understanding of the triad of impairment, sensory processing issues and psychological theories to make it meaningful. Many pupils are highly visual learners and require instruction to be given in this manner.
“Without these individualised supports across the school environment it is highly unlikely that a pupil with autism will make the academic and social progress that they should.”
Steve is a blogger and was diagnosed with autism at the age of 48. He is also a tutor at the National Autistic Society. He highlights the difficulty he finds when communicating with others: “I really don’t understand people. It’s like not being able to connect with what’s going on around you, it’s like I’m on one planet and the rest of the world is on another. “
Steve highlighted the difficulty autistic children may face at school: “Verbal instruction is almost impossible, it’s like the words come towards me and then they disappear before I get the chance to process them so it makes it really hard at work.”
Steve also has difficulty in social situations: “Anything to do with social situations is very difficult. Loud noises such as a fire engine going past or if someone drops a plate is like an explosion going off inside my head”
“Not being able to read people’s emotions is a really big issue. I just always assume people are really angry with me all the time. If you don’t understand something you always take a negative view.
“I completely shy away from any kind of social life, it’s too complicated to work out what’s happening and sometimes means that we are quite naive.”
What are the current regulations in the UK?
There are currently no regulations in place to ensure teachers in mainstream schools have qualifications and experience in teaching autistic children.
We contacted The Department of Education who could not give us any information in this area. We too contacted The Institute of Education at the University of London, who informed us that their teaching courses do not provide any training in teaching special needs children.
In order to have experience in teaching special needs children, teachers would have to go on to do a Master’s degree in Special Needs.
Currently, the only regulation in place in the UK in mainstream schools is that every school must have a designated SENCO (Specialist Education Needs Coordinator) who will communicate the needs of the student to the relevant staff.
Dan Leighton, speaking on behalf of the National Autistic Society highlighted the issues: “The problem is there is no initial teacher training in relation to teaching children with autism - this is not directly regulated by the Department of Education.”
Leighton went on to say, “Access to a specialist teacher is patchy, with relatively few local authorities providing autism advisory teachers for schools. It is the responsibility of the SENCOs and head teachers to ensure that staff have access to adequate training and expertise.”
This highlights the lack of structure in the education given to autistic children - some head teachers and SENCOs may be more proactive than others.
The role of the SENCO
The key role of the SENCO is to provide support for children with autism and their parents as well as to support teachers to make appropriate adjustments and access external support such as speech and language therapists.
However, according to a 2006 report by the National Autistic Society, 23% of parents are dissatisfied with SENCOs’ level of understanding of autism. This suggests that SENCOs are not experienced or educated to the level they should be in this area.
After researching the qualifications necessary to become a SENCO, it could be argued that SENCOs are not fully experienced to be the only support for special needs children in mainstream schools.
Under The Education (Special Educational Needs Coordinators) (England) Regulations 2008a SENCO must be either be:
- A qualified teacher or
- A head teacher/appointed acting head teacher or
- Taking steps to become a qualified teacher, and can show a reasonable likelihood of becoming qualified.
In addition to this, in September 2009 it became law for every new SENCO in a mainstream school to gain the Master’s level National Award for Special Educational Needs Co-ordination within three years of taking up the post.
Whilst this is a positive addition to the regulations, it is concerning that a SENCO can be in their position for 3 years before having a qualification in special needs.
Do mainstream school teachers feel comfortable teaching autistic children?
According to a 2013 survey by the charity Ambitious About Autism, 60% of the teachers in England do not feel they have had the adequate training to teach children with autism.
Furthermore, it seems that this is not improving, as 35% of teachers think it has become harder in the last 12 months to access specialist support for children with autism. These statistics highlight the lack of understanding for such a common issue that affects so many.
A 2012 survey conducted by The NASUWT (National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers), the largest teachers’ union in the UK, highlighted the extent to which teachers do not feel comfortable teaching autistic children. Over 70% of mainstream teachers disagreed that their initial training adequately prepared them to teach pupils with a range of special educational needs in mainstream schools.
It is clear that there is a lack of understanding of autism in mainstream education as well as little structure in the education system to ensure autistic children get the best education possible. This is reinforced by the significant amount of young people who have a bad experience of the education system.
Bullied and Expelled
Research by the Autism Education Trust showed that 40% of children on the autism spectrum have been bullied. In addition to this, 56% of parents of children on the autism spectrum who had been bullied said that it caused their child to miss school or even change schools.
Additionally, thousands of autistic children are being illegally excluded from schools. Ambitious About Autism found that four in ten children had been informally excluded from school temporarily. The charity claimed children with autism were being asked to miss school trips and activities and to attend lessons on a part-time basis.
The report also uncovered that two fifths of parents had been asked to collect their child at an unscheduled time, while three in ten said they had been asked by the school to keep their child at home.
In a BBC article, parent Clare Moore said, “I have lost count of the number of times different schools have rung and asked me to collect my son early or keep him at home because they could not support his needs.”
Moore went on, “It has been really distressing for him because it interrupted his routine and he never knew how long he would be in school for each day.”
More than half of the 500 parents said they had kept their son or daughter out of school because they were concerned that the school could not provide the necessary support for their child.
It appears that it is not only teachers who feel the training provided to autistic children is not satisfactory. According to research by the National Autistic Society, 30% of parents feel their child’s educational placement is not adequate.
Additionally, only 30% of parents of children with autism in mainstream education are satisfied with the level of understanding of autism across the school – a staggering 70% of parents are not satisfied with the level of understanding of autism in their child’s school.
The Priory Group provides specialist education and care for young people aged 5 to 25. Helen Sharpe, Managing Director of Priory Education Services, said: “Almost all young people we provide education for, have experienced difficulties in their previous education placements and many have had numerous care placements. We aim to quickly improve attendance and to engage every young person in learning activities.”
A parent of a child who attends the Priory’s specialist education services highlighted the difference the specialist education has made: “Having had some very unhappy experiences at her previous school, ‘C’ arrived at school that morning feeling sad, withdrawn, angry and with the perception that she could trust nobody. She left school later that day with a huge smile on her face and that smile has never faltered.”
For more details on Priory Education and Children's Services, please call 0118 970 8068 or click here to make an enquiry.