As we approach World Autism Acceptance Day, it’s not surprising that thoughts turn to the ongoing issues of education and inclusion, especially given that, according to the charity Ambitious About Autism, autistic children in the UK are four times more likely to be permanently excluded from school than any other children.
At the same time, some teachers complain of a lack of autism knowledge and training and fear they simply don’t have the expertise and skills needed to successfully include autistic children in their classroom. To make matters worse, there has been much in the news recently about proposed funding cuts in education, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies warning that spending per pupil is set to fall by 6.4 per cent by 2019–20, raising fears that this will impact negatively on schools’ ability to support children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).
Despite this gloomy state of affairs, the Transform Autism Education (TAE) project, run by members of the Autism Centre for Education and Research (ACER) with associated partners, provides reasons to feel a little more optimistic about the educational provision for autistic children. Based on the highly successful Autism Education Trust (AET) model – which members of ACER were instrumental in developing in the first instance - the TAE team has spent the last three years developing bespoke teacher training programmes in Greece and Italy.
While the AET training has been undertaken by over 130,000 school staff in the UK, thus helping to offset teachers’ anxieties that they lack training and understanding in autism, the teams in Greece and Italy have been able to work with ACER and the AET to adapt these programmes to their own countries, with the focus on children of primary school age in particular.
Recently the UK, Greek and Italian TAE teams gathered in Greece for a week of meetings, seminars and training events. As part of this, we visited the Ralleia School in Piraeus, whose staff have received the TAE training. Despite the fact that we were a very large group, the staff welcomed us into their classrooms, where we saw various thoughtfully planned and interesting lessons and could see at first-hand how the TAE training might have benefited staff and the autistic children.
What was striking was not only how engaged the children were with the different activities, but how skilfully teachers worked to include all pupils in the class, and this was despite having rather fewer resources than a typical primary school in the UK. For example, a PE lesson took place in a quad in the centre of the school, where the only equipment was a ball and a piece of tape which the teacher tied from one pillar to another, but she was able to imaginatively create a number of different activities with these simple items, while still ensuring that all of the children could participate.
In another class, we saw a fascinating art project which involved autistic children from a special school that is next door to the Ralleia School, using cubist techniques to collaboratively produce a joint artwork. What we observed underlined the fact that while training in autism is important, real inclusion is as much a state of mind as anything else.
After years of austerity in the UK and severe cuts to public spending, it can be tempting to feel despondent about the prospects of children with SEND. And while no-one could argue that we have somehow won the battle of educational inclusion for autistic children, it’s worth considering whether all difficulties are a result of inadequacies of funding. Perhaps the UK’s fiscal difficulties somewhat pale in comparison to those of Greece, where unemployment is at 23 per cent, and the International Monetary Fund estimates that by 2060 the country will have debts at an eye-watering 275 per cent of GDP. Of course, there is no doubt that extra funding for SEND is greatly needed in Greece, but we can perhaps learn from the school in Piraeus that if we want to successfully include and educate autistic children, being open-minded, reflective and genuinely welcoming are vital ingredients.