Since September 2018, there has been the requirement for every new teacher in England to learn about the needs of children on the autistic spectrum. Not only should teachers have a solid understanding of what autism is, but also of how to adapt their teaching strategies so that all children are fully included in the learning on offer in all classrooms. It is an obvious step for any system that seeks to be inclusive.
According to the National Autistic Society
It is estimated that there are 120,000 school-aged children on the autistic spectrum in England (there are approximately 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK). Of those, 73% are in mainstream schools and are therefore reliant on the SEN system in order to thrive at school. Autism is the most common primary need for children with a SEN statement or EHCP. Shockingly, though, government figures reveal that children on the autistic spectrum are three times more likely to be excluded than children without special educational needs. It’s a startling statistic.
There is no doubt that ensuring that trainee teachers and those who trained before the requirement to learn specifically about SEN are familiar with, and confident using, strategies for supporting children on the autistic spectrum. As a lifelong disability, autism affects the way in which people communicate and their interactions with the world.
Common characteristics among people on the autistic spectrum often have an oversensitivity to sounds, touch, taste, smell, colours and lights, finding social situations difficult, or requiring extra time to process and respond to communication. However, there is no “text-book” case of autism. Every person on the spectrum is different, so support must be individually tailored. Understanding the condition and each child diagnosed as being on the spectrum is essential.
Mark Lever, Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society
Mark explains the relevance of ensuring teachers are fully equipped to support all children in their classes: “Thanks to concerted campaigning from our charity, Ambitious about Autism, and thousands of autistic people and their families, new teachers should be learning about autism in their initial teacher training. This will make a huge difference to the prospects of countless children and young people on the autism spectrum, and to teachers and schools too.
"More than 1 in 100 children are on the autism spectrum. So every teacher will have autistic students in their classes at some point in their careers and they deserve to be given the understanding and skills they need to teach autistic children effectively.”
There is no expectation that teachers should be experts in autism. “A fundamental knowledge of what it means to be autistic and the often simple adjustments that can help could transform the experience of autistic pupils at school,” Mark explains. “It could be something as small as taking extra time to prepare autistic children for any changes to the daily school routine or having a quiet place to retreat to if it all gets too much.”
Barney Angliss, SEN and disability consultant
Barney highlights that teachers often ask what they can do to reduce interruptions and repetitive behaviours, which includes the negatives like calling out and also the huge positives like trying to answer every question and trying to challenge other pupils' inappropriate behaviours. “My view is that interruptions are more likely to occur when the flow of the lesson is less structured and predictable,” explains Barney. “So use a consistent pattern in every lesson which helps the autistic child to feel secure. Repetitive behaviours are chosen by the child to increase the feeling of control and block out unwanted thoughts. So, if the repetitive behaviours are undesirable, offer the child other ways to feel in control, including lots of topic-related tasks, practice tasks and responsibilities around the room which support purposeful interactions with peers. Movement breaks are also helpful and, for regular stimmers [stimming refers to self-stimulatory behaviour], these might include going to another room to tap, hum, clap or rock for a short time.”
There is a wider context here. The National Autistic Society is running a campaign called Held Back (in partnership with Ambitious about Autism) at the moment and are calling on the Government to introduce a national education and autism strategy. Held Back is based on a recent enquiry and report into the experiences of children and young people on the autistic spectrum in the education system. The enquiry, run by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism (APPGA), heard from more than 3,000 parents, young people and teachers. It found that:
- More than four in ten families have been turned away when asking for the extra help their child needs, with 42% refused an education, health and care assessment the first time it was requested.
- Nearly 70% of parents say their child waited more than six months for support at school – and 50% waited more than a year.
- 40% of parents say that their child’s school place does not fully meet their needs.
Significantly, fewer than five in ten teachers say they are confident about supporting a child on the autism spectrum.
If we are sincere about wanting every child to thrive, we have to access high quality initial and continuous professional development on SEN, and specifically on autism. Only then can we claim that we are doing all we can to help every child to reach their full potential.
Find out more…
- For autism training visit the Autism Education Trust website
- This blog on the National Autistic Society website by Siobhan Barnett, a teacher who has worked in education for 18 years, explains why every teacher should understand autism. Also includes some top tips.
- This blog by Petra Wilton, a trainee teacher who has just started her course, explores experiences of learning about autism.
- This blog from the National Autistic Society covers what teachers should know about autism.
- For more tips on working with children with autism sign up for the My World teaching resources on the National Autistic Society website here
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.