What can be done to help students with ASD to attend school?
Some young people with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) have extended absences from school. Take Paul, for example. Paul is an able student, as highlighted by his recent results at GCSE. However, he has experienced long-term issues with school attendance. These started at primary school, where he complained of feeling unwell. Although medical investigations proved inconclusive, it was apparent that something was wrong. As a result, he received support from a local child and adolescent mental health service. From Year 4, it was evident that his mental health meant he was not well enough to go to school, and Paul started receiving home tuition.
When he reached Year 10, Paul was referred to a non-maintained special school for young people with ASD that had a discrete centre for those who have been out of formal education for some time. Initially, Paul attended the centre on a part-time basis. As he became familiar with the staff and other students, it quickly became a full-time placement. Paul successfully achieved A* results in maths and science, as well as other qualifications, before taking up a science course at sixth form college.
Paul’s story is not particularly unusual among young people with ASD. Although extended non-attendance of mainstream schools is a pattern of behaviour that has long been recognised, a review of recent reports on the issue suggests that there remains little agreement as to terminology and underlying causes (Archer et al., 2003; Pelligrini, 2007; Kearney, 2008). However, one recurring thread that runs through reports is that many of these children and young people show signs of anxiety, including social anxiety.
Anxiety and stress
Young people with ASD are more likely to be excluded from school than any other students and their challenging behaviour, which is often the result of anxiety, may be the most significant factor. The classroom can be a daunting place that provokes this emotion, although the reasons for the apprehension may be different from those that concern the typical pupil.
Given the nature of the condition, young people with ASD have much to be anxious about in a school setting. It has been argued that they follow a dual curriculum. As well as following the set curriculum, there is a social curriculum, comprising areas of social understanding and skills that are usually intuitively understood by other pupils. This can cause a lot of additional pressure for students with ASD.
Modes of speech that are commonly used to enliven lessons can be misunderstood by students with ASD. For example, at the end of a workshop run by a colleague of mine, in which jokes were explained to a group of young people with ASD, one student said: “I still don’t understand why others find them funny, but now at least I know that they are not laughing at me.” For some young people, the pressure of social interaction and communication may be just too much and could contribute to extended school non-attendance.
Cognitive differences, such as having a narrow focus of attention, leading to a failure to understand lessons, as well as problems with organisation and planning are also likely to have an impact on the pupil’s emotional wellbeing. Increasingly, there is evidence suggesting that young people with ASD experience sensory differences and areas such as a noisy dining hall may make school a difficult place to tolerate.
Workloads and strains
Young people with ASD tend to be less flexible in their thinking and behaviour than others, which can put them at a distinct disadvantage in the classroom. This can manifest itself in a number of different ways, for example, not being able to spend time following a specialist interest may cause concern for some.
Some young people with ASD are perfectionists and set themselves very high standards which may be difficult to achieve. One student, having achieved A grades in almost all his work during the first term at secondary school, found the pressure of maintaining this high standard overwhelming. This was a significant factor in causing him to miss school for long periods of time, because in his mind, not going to school was better than going and “failing”.
Many young people with ASD also find undertaking school work at home extremely hard, not because the work itself is difficult, but because it is at variance with their established home routine. Failure to complete homework, however, may lead to obvious consequences in school.
Bullying, which may occur because the pupil is perceived by others as being different, is reported by many pupils with ASD (Humphrey & Lewis, 2008). Fear of the behaviour of others may also be an important factor contributing to non attendance at school.
A helping hand
Given these difficulties, it is remarkable that some young people with ASD are able to attend school at all. However, there are things that can be done to support students in these situations.
Kearney (2008) argues that the school climate and the feeling of being connected to the school are important. In Paul’s case, he was put into a small group where he had the opportunity to build relationships with pupils and staff. He was provided with support from a speech and language therapist to develop further social understanding and skills, and he was also given some down time when he didn’t have to engage with others. The pace of learning was adjusted to a level he could cope with, and the reduced curriculum he followed allowed him time within the school day to focus on his special interests.
Paul was also given the opportunity to discuss his autism and to learn more about it. He had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and was still coming to terms with this. He once said: “Sometimes my Asperger’s syndrome is like a little thing inside me and sometimes it is a big thing that I’m in the middle of”. Paul needed help to make sense of this, and support when his autism became “too big”.
Perhaps most importantly, Paul needed to know that he was valued, would not be pushed into things that he felt he could not manage, and that he had a degree of control over his school life.
Finding the solution
Prevention is usually better than cure, as once a young person stops going to school, it is often hard to go back. Although Paul’s return to education was facilitated by a specialist centre, mainstream schools can follow these examples of best practice to support young people with ASD – and there are some that do. For schools that need support with such students, there is help available.
However, attendance at mainstream school – or any school setting for that matter – is not necessarily always the priority. Sometimes, the challenges the young person with ASD faces are too great. In these instances, the priority is to ensure that the emotional wellbeing of the individual is promoted and maintained and this is achieved through understanding and personalisation.
Dr Steve Tyler is from the Together Trust’s Inscape Centre, a specialist service working with children and young people with ASD and related social communication difficulties:
Please note: the boy pictured is not one of the individuals mentioned in the article.