How do we ensure autistic children and young people get the education they deserve?

With a rise in exclusions of autistic pupils, academics are investigating the underlying causes and are advocating for enhanced support for teaching staff.

Autistic children and young people are three times more likely to be excluded from their place of learning. This has massive implications for their families – separated from friends, children can experience a greater sense of loneliness or, conversely, removed from challenging social interactions feel reluctant to return to education. Schools sometimes lack clear policies and procedures guiding the exclusion of autistic pupils - 56% of parents1 surveyed believe that their autistic child had been unlawfully sent home from school or denied an education.

Exclusions of autistic pupils rose by 58.9% between 2011 and 2016 and the numbers of pupils with autism as their primary Special Educational Need nearly doubled in the UK between 2012 and 2018. Against this pre-pandemic backdrop, only half of teachers surveyed said they felt confident supporting a child on the autism spectrum – startling when we consider that 72% of autistic pupils are educated in mainstream schools in England.

The University of Birmingham is renowned for leading-edge research into supporting education for children and young people with autism. Professor Karen Guldberg is Director of the Autism Centre for Education and Research (ACER), which recently examined the impact of exclusion and lockdown on autistic people and their families. ACER works closely with charities such as the Autism Education Trust, the National Autistic Society and Ambitious About Autism to co-create support for autistic individuals, their families and those helping them increase their quality of life.

“It’s heart-breaking to see that the narratives about exclusions of autistic children and young people focus on persistent and disruptive behaviour, but there is little investigation of the underlying causes, which can include mental health issues and bullying. School behavioural policies often don’t take autism and the accompanying heightened state of anxiety into account. This can mean that reasonable adjustments are not put into place to help the autistic student,” comments Professor Guldberg.

“Exclusion often leads to a refusal to return to school as the student no longer feels safe in school, leading to a lack of trust and a breakdown in relationships. Some autistic youngsters feel glad to be excluded because they feel safer and better at home. They are often too scared to say much to staff after their exclusion for fear of things getting worse.”

ACER surveyed autistic adults, who reported experiencing exclusion mostly in secondary school after a period of feeling stressed, confused, worried and angry. All felt unsupported by their teachers during exclusion and almost two-thirds (64%) did not have an autism diagnosis at the time of their exclusion. Most (81%) experienced bullying and many (80%) reported that their situation did not improve when they re-joined education. All focused on the importance of receiving a diagnosis and support, plus a greater understanding of autism by teaching staff.

“Parents felt strongly that a lack of autism knowledge and schools’ unwillingness to adapt had a strong role to play in creating a difficult environment for their child, which inevitably led to exclusion. Many believed that the school just ‘couldn’t cope’ with their child – partly because of pressures that some schools are under in terms of performance and funding, but also because they felt there was a lack of understanding about how autism might impact on the child or young person” comments Professor Guldberg.

“The most common impact on children and young people was on their self-esteem - becoming isolated from friends and feeling let down by education. Parents suffered stress having to take time off work and being hit by financial hardship. The mental health toll on these young people and families throughout this period was clear.”

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Parents and students are not alone in facing difficulties over the exclusion of autistic students. Most Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators interviewed had received professional training on autism, but a significant number (39%) found it inadequate to meet the needs of their pupils. Most (80%) said the child’s autism was taken into account when making decisions, but some (15%) said they made unofficial exclusions - mainly because they felt the child couldn’t cope with the change.

“We approached this from the perspective in England, but exclusion is a global issue. It takes different forms in different countries but many of the underlying causes are the same the world over in that there is a lack of awareness, acceptance and understanding about autism. The approach to autism takes different forms in different countries – in many countries autistic children don’t even make it to school in the first place,” notes Professor Guldberg.

“Certainly, in England, the support services we spoke to identified a need for whole-school approaches to autism, but pointed to a lack of joint working and communication, difficulty balancing the needs of the school and the individual child and a lack of consistency in applying strategies. They were clear that strong leadership was vital.”

The COVID-19 lockdown naturally added an extra dimension for families with autistic children and young people, effectively constituting an unsolicited lengthy period of exclusion from school and fresh challenges to overcome.

Diet, sleep quality and energy levels were all adversely affected and loneliness continued to be an issue for many children (43%), but conversely there was a reduction in parents who classified their children as ‘extremely anxious’ pre-lockdown (29% dropping to 16%). Researchers attributed this fall to children being removed from school social settings that proved challenging given their condition.

Parents’ views on how schools performed during lockdown were mixed, with one-third (34%) feeling the changes were managed well and 22% believing that it was not well managed at all. Home schooling represented a particular problem with 65% of children struggling to accept their parent as a teacher and 37% of parents receiving no materials from school to support home education. Interestingly, many parents (48%) were open to the idea of a virtual school for their child, with 39% open to the idea of mixed home and school education.

“The prime motivation of everyone in ACER is to make a difference to families, but we will never change anything unless we work together – we’re working with the whole autism community to co-create solutions that fit the ‘new normal’. Post-lockdown, many autistic children and young people are not sure whether they want to go back to school – from the vantage point of home, they are realising just how stressful the school experience can be. Our job is to do what we can to make the school experience less stressful for these fantastic young people.”

Notes

  1. Ambitious About Autism survey - “We Need an Education” (2018)

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