Learning for life

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How to help learners with autism make the difficult transition to college

Going to college after leaving school is an opportunity most young people and their families take for granted. Further education is a rite of passage that enables a young person to develop his/her skills, interests and independence. However, many young people with autism do not have this option; latest figures suggest that less than one in four of this group access any education beyond school.

There are currently an estimated 66,000 young people with autism aged 16 to 25 in England, and just 10,440 learners with autism accessing further education. This means that over 50,000 potential students aged 16 to 25 are not able to enrol in further education to develop their skills. This problem needs tackling because:

  • young people with autism and their families describe facing a “black hole” after school which creates great anxiety and stress for them
  • young people with autism are being denied the chance to work, achieve and live independently because of the lack of effective education options. We know that only 15 per cent of adults with autism are in full-time employment
  • huge wastes in funds occur as the gains young people with autism have made at school are lost rather than translated into success in adulthood
  • adult social services face increased costs due to the failure to support young people to live in their local communities and contribute to society. The annual cost of supporting people with autism in the UK is £25.7 billion (Knapp et al., 2007, The Economic Consequences of Autism in the UK).

The learning offer

All colleges want the best for their learners and further education has a strong history of engaging excluded groups and enabling students to achieve their potential. There are a number of compelling reasons why colleges should improve their offers to learners with autism:

  • new legal duties on colleges to admit and support learners with more complex disabilities are proposed in the Children and Families Bill, which was published on 5 February 2012. They are due to come into force in 2014
  • improving support structures should enhance retention and achievement for learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities
  • new funding structures coming into practice this year should better support the inclusion of learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities
  • what works for disabled learners works for all learners, as improving accessibility of curriculum, environment and support improves outcomes for all students
  • many local authorities are looking to support learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities to stay in their local communities, and colleges have an active part to play in this
  • more learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities aged 16 and 17 will be staying in education longer as the participation ages rises. Local authorities will be looking for education provision to meet the needs of these students.

Colleges can help prepare students for independent living.Colleges can take simple and effective action to appropriately support young learners with autism and be more inclusive of students with learning disabilities and/or difficulties. NESCOT College in Epsom, Surrey, is a mainstream college that supports learners with disabilities, including autism. The College has a Preparation for Life and Work Department which supports 170 learners, 30 per cent of whom have autism. It runs 17 full- and part-time courses ranging from life skills courses to diplomas in vocational studies. Lynn Reddick is the Head of the Preparation for Life and Work Department and says it is important to work holistically with learners and discuss with them and their families what their interests are and what they want to achieve. “One of the most important things we do is that we never judge or underestimate a student when they come here,” she says. “We prepare them to live independently because coming to the College is so much more than sitting in a classroom.”

One way the College does this is by inviting potential learners, their parents/carers and teachers to an open evening to see what facilities the College offers and discuss their needs before they decide to enrol. Potential learners then have an in-depth interview and the opportunity to discuss which subjects interest them. Once a student decides to attend, the College creates a profile of each learner, which incorporate the student’s statement of SEN, any of his/her triggers and what strategies work best for helping the student to learn. This information is shared with tutors before the young person starts at the college so staff know how to work effectively with him/her.

The College also runs a transition programme working with local schools. It allows pupils aged 15 to attend the College one day a week with a support assistant, to familiarise themselves with the environment before beginning full-time at 16. There are currently 12 students involved in this initiative and Reddick say it helps makes the transition between school and college easier for learners. “We say to parents and carers that this is a partnership between them and us and developing this is a long road. We have to create this relationship because parents and carers do worry if their child is going to struggle at college,” she says.

Students with disabilities are allowed to enrol at the College in June, to avoid the busy September enrolment period. Once term starts, they have an induction to the College and meet their support assistant and personal tutor.

Supporting learners

There are many other useful things that colleges can do to support learners with autism. Colleges should:

  • start planning early, based on the aspirations, needs and views of each learner
  • ensure that all staff have an understanding of autism and that teaching staff draw on specialist expertise to effectively adapt the curriculum and develop inclusive teaching methods for students with autism
  • adopt a flexible approach enabling learners to progress and gain meaningful qualifications in the settings and time frames that work best for them
  • run a social support programme, created in partnership with local external agencies, to enable learners to enjoy the broader social life of their setting and community
  • focus on outcomes and destinations, including employment and independence, for each student.

Jacque’s story

Jacque is 19. After attending a special school, he moved, at the age of 16, to a mainstream college with around 1,000 students. Jacque’s mother Nikki says that “he was not impressed because it was so busy.” However, the family were reassured that Jacque would receive appropriate support navigating the college, as it ran a buddy system. Nikki says: “I thought it was perfect because Jacque wouldn’t be on his own and he’d be assigned a buddy to help him get around.”

For the first year, Jacque attended a skills for life and work course four days a week. Although the first term went well, Nikki says the remainder of the year was rocky because a few of the tutors did not understand Jacque’s autism and shouted at him when his behaviour did not conform. Despite this, Jacque got along well with his buddy and made friends with other students.

At the end of his first day of his second year, Nikki collected Jacque and immediately knew there was a problem because he was very distressed in the reception area. She discovered Jacque had spent two hours sitting alone in the refectory after lunch because his buddy was not there to escort him to class. Without informing the family, the college had stopped the buddy system because of funding cuts and had expected Jacque to manage alone. Nikki says: “It was a horrible time for Jacque; he was a mess.”

After two days off, Jacque tried to attend college for one day a week without a buddy, but found it too difficult. In January 2011, Jacque stopped going altogether and has spent his time since then staying at home playing computer games. Nikki says that Jacque told her he never wants to go to college or study for any qualifications again after his traumatic experience. Instead, he has just got a personal assistant two days a week to help build his independence.

Freddy’s story

Freddy, aged 22, studied a life skills course at college between September 2009 and July 2011, after going to a special school.

His mother Rose did not want him to go to a residential college because she thought it would be too far away and she wanted him to remain in the local community and create relationships. The college offered Freddy the chance to study locally and build on the skills he learnt at school.

Rose says that one of the college’s advantages is how students with disabilities are actively involved in college life and meet mainstream learners who also attend the college. Other mums from Freddy’s special school said that they wouldn’t send their child to a mainstream college, but at Freddy’s college students with disabilities learn their way around and get used to mixing with mainstream students and in the community.

The college staff also show dedication and commitment to empowering students with disabilities to learn in a way that suits them. The college has small classes and a sensory room because they are aware of the issues some young people with autism may have with noise and lighting. It also offers a variety of courses to prepare them for work and it has good links with other local agencies and employers.

Freddy completed two 10-week local work experience placements while at college, working one day a week at a Sainsbury’s and one morning a week at a Holiday Inn. Rose says it helped Freddy learn what working was really like and boosted his confidence. He was happy at the college and, as Rose says, “he felt cool there.”

After leaving college, Freddy was able to complete a four-week work placement for Waitrose two mornings a week. He is now considering studying drama.

Further information

Anabel Unity Sale is Press and PR Officer for Ambitious about Autism, the national charity for children and young people with autism.

The charity launched its Finished at School campaign in October 2011 to help secure more and better educational options for young people with autism aged 16 to 25. For more information about the campaign and for a free copy of the Creating inclusive colleges for learners with autism good practice guide, visit: www.ambitiousaboutautism.org.uk

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