Planning post-16 education for young people with autism
Fewer than one in four young people with autism progress on to any form of education or training after school. This means that they miss out on the opportunity to learn skills, gain experience and realise their potential to prepare for fulfilling adult lives.
In particular for those with complex autism, post-school options are limited. For many young people with complex autism the only option is a move into permanent residential care away from their families and local communities, severely reducing their chances of ever taking up employment, further education and training.
Most further education colleges are unable to provide for young people beyond a certain level of complex needs. A significant gap exists in specialist support, with only 3,600 places in specialist colleges available and 39,000 young people who might need a place. This is particularly discouraging in light of the Children and Families Act 2014, which places a duty on local authorities to maintain education health and care plans for young people beyond the age of 18, and in some cases up until the age of 25, if continued special educational provision is required for them to achieve their outcomes.
Levelling the playing field
Young people leaving school today generally have a variety of options. They can go to college, embark on a career or even travelling. For those with autism and other learning disabilities, things are a little different. Their desire to lead a fulfilling adult life is the same, but the variety of options is not available on an equal scale. Just having the option of going to college is the first step to ensuring they are on a level-playing field with their peers.
Day centres have long been an alternative or even a first choice for some over college. Good day centres can provide the opportunity for stimulating and fulfilling activity that can meet the needs of the young people and adults that they are designed for. However, recent high-profile closures of these centres have made things even more difficult for young people and their families and limit their choices even further.
Moving on from school is daunting for both the young person and parents and carers alike. It is a huge step from childhood and is the first step towards adulthood. That is why it is crucial to have options; a one-size-fits-all approach is not what is offered to others and so shouldn’t be expected for young people with autism.
There can be an understandable reluctance from parents, carers and professionals to have these young people move from school to college as it can sometimes be difficult to tell how they will react to the change in routine. Being nervous about the process is perfectly understandable. It is critical that schools and colleges have good, well thought out transition processes. And of course, it must be remembered that transitioning out of college with positive outcomes and to positive destinations is equally as important as an effective transition into college. Having open paths of communication between school, college, transition officers, parents or carers and local authorities is a simple but often overlooked solution. Making the time to meet and speak with each other can be difficult with heavy workloads, but just one conversation can uncover new ideas and the opportunity to share intelligence. Autism awareness training for all involved is an important and widely accessible tool to helping these young people. Many charities, both local and national, provide government-funded training of this type across the UK, and there are many resources online.
Partnership working and co-location with mainstream colleges also provides learners with the opportunity to access vocational learning and social opportunities alongside their peers and join mainstream classes and activities wherever possible. Providing extra support for young people with autism and other learning disabilities within a wider context of further education gives all those involved the opportunity to see what further education can do for these young people. It also means these colleges can build relationships with local schools, offering them a wider range of services for more of their learners. Having these young people interact with the learners at the mainstream school is an important step to including them into the wider community. The presence of these learners in a wider college campus harnesses the potential in other young people to change attitudes and make life easier moving forwards for those with complex needs – an important aspect of reverse inclusion.
Providing further education for young people with autism with the most complex needs can sometimes be portrayed as a difficult task. Tailored study programmes within individualised timetables at specialist settings can enable them to move towards their goals of independence, employment, better health and community inclusion. Key skills such as literacy, numeracy and ICT can be embedded into the specialised curriculum. Whilst the curriculum can look different, the aim of this kind of college education is the same as any other – to prepare for adulthood in a meaningful way, whilst helping the learners to access activities that many of us take for granted.
Pathways to employment
Only 15 per cent of those with autism are currently in employment, according to figures by IHAL, the NHS funded Learning Disability Health Observatory. Only around seven per cent with a learning disability in the UK are in any form of employment. Employment can sometimes be an overlooked route to improving the lives of people with autism and/or learning disability at the same time as improving attitudes in the wider community.
With this in mind, creating pathways to employment is a crucial part of college education for young people with autism. Finding opportunities for learners to gain work experience in the local area can be a hard task, but the opportunities for learning that it provides are crucial to personal development. Travelling to the workplace, interacting with people out in the community and having a sense of responsibility are all essential learning curves for young people that go outside of learning how to do the job itself.
A college education can be the first step to living an ordinary life in a local community. If we don’t present young people with options to continue their learning as they move into adulthood, the chance of them living the kind of life they want is vastly reduced. Over the past 50 years we have seen huge strides forward in how we view autism and learning disabilities; it is time to bring this into focus and create more and better options for further education for young people across the autism spectrum.
Vivienne Berkeley is Principal of Ambitious College, a day college in London for young people with autism and complex needs which is run by Ambitious about Autism, the national charity for children and young people with autism.