World Autism Acceptance Week (28th March-3rd April) is a great opportunity for everyone to learn more about neurodiversity. Given that there are around 700,00 (one in 100) adults and children on the autism spectrum in the UK, schools need to be clued up on how best to ensure that their environments are as inclusive of all learners as possible, because the fact that only 1 in 6 autistic people in the UK have a full-time job indicates that we just might have some issues to address.
Caroline Stevens, Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society, has seen a huge increase in awareness of autism over the past 20 years. She explained, “Almost everyone has heard of autism today. “But not enough people understand what it’s actually like to be autistic: both the different perspectives, passions and skills autistic people can have, and how hard life can be if you don’t have the right support. Too often, autistic people and their families are undervalued, misunderstood and face discrimination at school, in the workplace and across society.
“This is why World Autism Acceptance Week is so important. It’s a chance to get society talking about autism and finding out more about what it’s like to be autistic from autistic people.”
Autism affects people in different ways, so it is essential for school staff to get to know the individual strengths and needs of any children on the autistic spectrum. Some may experience difficulty communicating and interacting socially. This may mean not talking or not understanding facial expressions. It may mean taking things literally or struggling with abstract concepts. They may need extra time processing information and may repeat what others say to them (echolalia). All of this can contribute to difficulties forming and maintaining friendships, and a need to spend time alone.
Autistic people may also experience sensory overload which can lead to physical or emotional shutdowns. They may have focused interests or hobbies, and for some, school life will be a source of extreme anxiety. Shockingly, Autistic children are three times more likely to be excluded from school. Sadly, autistic people are often viewed as having deficits rather than being neuro-diverse, and as being disabled by autism rather than by the environment they are trying to thrive in.
Kate Peers is a mum to three boys, one of whom is autistic. She describes the uniqueness of autistic children as being the starting point for those working with and supporting them. She explained, “There is a saying that when you meet one person with autism, you have met one person with autism. This is exactly true and is exactly where schools should start.”
Kate’s son did not line up cars, he can maintain eye contact and also show empathy to others; something that both experts and teachers saw was a sure indicator that he was not autistic but simply a naughty, energetic young boy who "knew exactly what he was doing". Kate said, “This held his progress back significantly and it wasn't until crisis point mid-way through year one did they stand up and listen. Each day, they were asking him to do the same thing after lunch break. He had to come in and read in silence with the class. He finds silence quite intense in a group situation and at that point couldn’t read a word because he had no support and was so busy with his mind (he also has ADHD) that he couldn't focus in a class of thirty to listen or learn. The school would not let him do something different, despite his behaviour at this demand getting worse. They would ask him to sit outside in punishment, then eventually when there were not enough staff to look after him, they called me to bring him home. That particular trigger point was always the same and the refusal to adapt to his needs was damaging.”
With some one-to-one support, the allowance to do something different after lunch and being given a lunch pass (this allows him to go to lunch before everyone else in the school with a friend each day) his behaviour and learning improved so much that Kate’s son is currently up to speed at his expected age in all areas. He can read fluently after lunch in silence and adores reading at home. Kate said, “He no longer feels the anxiety of not sitting with the right friend at lunch. This was another trigger point that was ignored until it became so great, they finally found out why he was so upset before lunch each day - he used to be sent to the back of the queue if trying to stand by his friend. He does not use the lunch pass - but they are there if he needs them.”
Perhaps the most important element of Kate’s experience with her son at school is this: she said, “His one-to-one, who is in her final year of teacher training, says that he has taught her more about teaching than anything else. She said that all forms of behaviour are ways of communicating and shouldn’t be dismissed because they come in different ways for different kids.”
Kate feels that teachers need to stop and listen closely to a child, to spot patterns of behaviour, and seek a reason for this behaviour, then adapt the situation until they can help change the behaviour, which may mostly be driven by anxiety. “Children with autism can teach us more about ourselves as humans than we realise,” Kate explained, “if only people looked more closely at their greatness.”
The National Autistic Society views World Autism Acceptance Week as an opportunity to learn more about how we can all make society, including our schools, more inclusive for autistic people. Caroline explained, “Anyone can get involved by visiting autism.org.uk/WAAW, where we’ve got information and free resources, like assembly plans for schools, quizzes and posters. Better understanding of autism across society and proper Government funding for support and services would transform hundreds of thousands of lives.”
Find out more…
- Film: What is autism
- Information and guidance here: autism.org.uk with dedicated pages for education professionals: Education professionals (autism.org.uk)
- Autism - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world. Elizabeth has also taught on education courses in HE and presented at national and international conferences.