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January 2011



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First Published Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Square peg, round hole - make school make sense

Why don’t you understand?


A new report on educating autistic children finds schools unable to cope and parents frustrated


Teachers’ tolerance levels were never very high where John Davis was concerned. The boy, who has autism and dyspraxia, was noisier than many other children with his condition and would become frustrated easily, especially in a confined space.


“John was perceived as being badly behaved and I would receive phone calls from the school telling me what he had done now, rather than asking me for advice on how to deal with it,” says his mother.


“He had a statement of special needs from the age of four and was assigned a learning support assistant when he went to primary school, but she was more like a babysitter who was there to control him and take him out of lessons if he got disruptive.”


The Davis’s story is fairly typical of the experiences of thousands of families with autistic children.


Struggle to teach


A report from the University of Birmingham’s Autism Centre for Education and Research, published today, shows that too many teachers and support staff are unfamiliar with the needs of autistic children and struggle to teach them effectively.


“Teachers expected him to behave like everyone else, which was impossible,” says John’s mother. “Even though his primary school had a resource base for children on the autistic spectrum there was a fundamental lack of understanding of the condition. It wasn’t the fault of the staff. They just didn’t have the training.”


The Birmingham study is thought to be the first to examine jointly the experiences of families and schools in dealing with the condition.


Autism, which affects about one in 100 children, is thought to be triggered by a combination of genetics and environmental factors.


Autistic people are described as being “locked in their own world” and struggle to communicate with others. They usually have heightened or lowered acuity of the senses and can display repetitive behaviour. Those affected often have other learning difficulties, such as dyspraxia, or may exhibit compulsive behaviour.


The study finds that while the academic provision for children with autism has “improved tremendously” in recent years, much remains to be done.


Practitioners trained in autism education say that one of the biggest challenges is a lack of knowledge and understanding among schoolteachers.


John’s mother agrees. Strategies that might have helped John to make academic progress, such as a sloping writing board to help address his motor difficulties, were ignored by the school.


“Often it is the simple things that need to be put in place to make a difference,” she says.


The report finds that, despite the government’s policy of inclusion of pupils with special needs, mainstream schools find it difficult to integrate pupils with autism. Pupils had often been sent there against the wishes of parents, who wanted more specialised provision.


One parent told researchers: “For a child to be successful in mainstream school, the school must want to make the most of every opportunity for the child and include the parents.”


But instead of recognising the atypical development of children and young people on the autistic spectrum, teachers tend to view them through a “typical lens”, comparing their behaviour with children who do not have the condition. Some, like John’s teachers, believe they can force autistic children to behave as other pupils do, or that it is a condition that they will grow out of.


There is also general confusion about autism. Teachers do not realise, for example, that the challenging behaviour can be accompanied by high intelligence.


One father describes in the report how his seven-year-old son, who has Asperger’s syndrome, another condition on the autistic spectrum, has been deemed to be “too bright” for support, and yet “he can’t work with other children and he struggles to understand some instructions”.


The report says that autistic pupils make the most progress when teachers provided an individualised programme that addresses specific social, personal and learning difficulties.


A perceived, or otherwise, lack of support from school often leads to difficult relationships between the child’s home and teachers. The study finds that parents are often left to fight alone for the right education for their child and to deal with the effects of autism, leaving them “emotionally and physically exhausted from the constant demands and the harrowing situations they experience”.


John’s mother describes how her own struggle to get her son the education he needed was met with bureaucracy, endless form-filling and meetings with panels of experts. “It can be very frightening, and you are made to feel vulnerable and like a bad parent. It is so daunting,” she says.


Dr Glenys Jones, who led the team of researchers, does say there is cause for optimism. “There are some examples of good practice in schools, but this needs to be better disseminated,” she says. “There is no one-size-fits-all strategy because each autistic child is different. Not every child will need a specialist school or unit.”


From next March training materials will be available under the government’s Inclusion Development Programme, aimed at those working with children on the autistic spectrum.


The study concludes that those working with autistic children need specific knowledge of their individual needs and to provide the appropriate support, and that there should be “effective engagement” with their families.


Good progress


John’s mother says her son is now in a new primary school with staff who can support his needs. “He is happy and making good progress, but it has been a struggle to get him there,” his mother says.


Bob Lowndes, chairman of the Autism Education Trust, which commissioned the study, says: “There is a growing commitment from education professionals to respond to the needs of children with autism, and provision now is much better than it used to be. Teachers continue to find it difficult to access the appropriate training to enable them to frame their knowledge of individual children with a real understanding and knowledge of the condition, and this needs to be addressed.”


Lowndes hopes the findings will shape future provision. “The report should have real value, not just for teachers and other professionals working in schools, but also policy-makers who have responsibility for framing services in their area,” he says.

[This article was amended on 28 June 2011. John Davis, a pseudonym, was substituted for the name of the child featuring in the report at the request of the family.]


Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/nov/11/special-needs-autistic-children-education


comments (2)


1. Kim left…

Thursday, 13 November 2008 12:23 am

I used to be a teacher for children with Autism in a private school setting. Although we used many tools to assist students with Autism, the emphasis was still on making children behave “normally” enough to be able to attend a mainstream educational facility. If we were unable to do so, both the teacher and the student were branded as “failures,” and were “encouraged” to “leave” the school setting for a “more appropriate environment.”


This is why my heart is gladdened by your blog. I’m not a “regular” reader, but I do drop by when I see something in the “community” pages that twigs my interest. Having kept up with you for the last few months, I’d like to thank you for all of the research that you are generous enough to share. Although it reminds me that there is still much work to do to help people understand about the nature of Autism, and the discrimination that people who are on the Autism spectrum face every day, it heartens me that there is someone out there like you – someone who recognises that people with Autism are just like everyone else … unique in their own right, and as such, are worthy of respect. It still really gets me that “normal” people have such a sense of entitlement to this respect for their differences, yet they will deny it to everyone else that falls outside of this sphere.


Anyway, enough of my rambling … I just wanted to tell you that you are doing a marvellous job to raise the consciousness of people in the community about Autism.


2. Julie left…

Thursday, 13 November 2008 10:48 pm

Thanks for taking the time to stop by Kim, and for the kind words. While there are some wonderful teachers, advocates and organizations doing their best to promote a positive attitude toward difference out there and who share the message ‘never underestimate the potential of the individual child’, there is undoubtedly alot of room for improvement in both attitude and understanding from a host of others. Your thoughts and attitude make a difference – thankyou. It was lovely to hear from you.

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