Show me the evidence

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Does autism education focus too much on “good practice”, rather than “effective practice”? 

We were recently commissioned by the Autism Education Trust (AET) to conduct a small study reviewing aspects of good practice in autism education settings. It was both a stimulating and engaging piece of research to conduct. Sixteen schools, selected as leaders in the field of autism education, were included in the research, ranging from Early Years provision to provision for 19-year-old pupils, educating pupils with autism across the ability range in special schools, specialist autism schools, and autism resource bases within mainstream schools. The primary data collection encompassed in-depth interviews with school staff and, in some schools, with pupils and parents and carers.

Good practice in action

The findings build on and extend previous research and practice recommendations concerning autism education and education for pupils with SEN. Yet we also uncovered some aspects of good practice that had not been recognised fully in previous work.

Photo: www.geniumcreative.comWe found that school staff:

  • had consistently high ambitions and aspirations for pupils with autism
  • were modifying the curriculum to include not just academic skills but also social communication and independent living skills (with several staff interviewed talking about an “autism curriculum” alongside the national curriculum)
  • had developed “hubs of expertise”, where staff would share knowledge about autism with schools and professionals in the local community, and with parents
  • were ambassadors for autism, raising awareness about autism in the broader community
  • worked hard at developing strong reciprocal relationships between teachers and parents, and teachers and pupils.

Many of the themes that emerged from this research were reflected strongly in the proposals outlined in the government’s SEN Green Paper published earlier in the year. These include joint working between education, health, social care and voluntary organisations, the need for staff to have high expectations, to be well-trained, and to have a thorough understanding of autism, and for networks of schools to work together with specialist schools working as “centres of excellence” in autism education practice.

Joint working with health professionals also emerged as a strong theme. Many schools work closely with or employ speech and language therapists (SALTs) and occupational therapists (OTs), although many schools also expressed a wish for greater access to this expertise. The proposal for a joint Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) in the Green Paper holds promise, and in future could benefit pupils with autism. Yet, at least under the current system, schools saw their access to this expertise as inadequate.

Schools also expressed a wish for more contact than was currently available from educational psychologists (EPs). EP input was sometimes restricted to formal assessment of need as part of the statementing process, rather than providing expertise on planning for learning and managing behaviour. One potentially effective way of harnessing the expertise of EPs would be to ensure that they support, and are supported by, specialist teachers within “centres of excellence”, as described above.

These findings are extremely valuable and should form the foundation of a set of basic standards for the delivery of good practice in education provision for children and young people on the autism spectrum. However, as is so often the case with research, at the end of it we were left with as many questions as answers. One question in particular was the importance of addressing the differences between our understanding of good practice in autism education, on the one hand, and effective practice on the other hand. Our report represents one of several reports on “good practice” funded by different UK government agencies over the past decade. This contrasts with the relative paucity of government-funded research into effective practice for children and young people with autism over the same period.

Recent policy and practice initiatives are encouraging on autism and SEN education practice, engendering optimism that pupils with autism will receive the education that will best meet their needs and help them to attain independence. However, one crucial piece of the jigsaw is missing: research evidence. Developing evidence-based practice in education settings relies on a sound body of evidence of sufficient quantity and quality being available to draw upon. Such evidence is seriously lacking in autism education research and practice. There are many approaches used in schools by professionals working with pupils with autism, some of these are autism specific and branded, and indeed sold, as such. Many of these approaches seem to be based on sound principles. But this is not the same thing as sound evidence.

Evidence-based research

Many approaches to autism education are intended to support the learning of pupils with autism in a way that fits well to the difficulties that we know they have. However, when we look for research studies that demonstrate in what ways they are effective (what do they change?), the limits to their effectiveness (what do they not change?), and for whom they are effective (in whom do they affect change?), rigorous studies in the field of autism education are hard to find.
This is not to say that current approaches are not effective. Rather, it is to say that we do not know for sure that they are. There are exceptions, where the effects of some programmes have been studied using randomised controlled trials (RCTs). These trials test the effect of a specific programme or approach against “usual practice”, but the allocation of groups, following assessment of eligibility, is done randomly. RCTs provide both the strongest and the least biased form of evidence. However, RCTs are rarely conducted in the education field. This is in part due to theoretical and philosophical issues about what counts as evidence in education practice, but also in part due to practical difficulties with research programmes that must be enacted within the education system.
Our report gives us a good idea of which factors might be critical to good autism education. With the imminent arrival of an SEN Bill and the forthcoming NICE guidelines on management (due in 2013), now is the time to improve on the evidence base for autism education practice. We hope that the next report commissioned on autism education will be able to do just that. We need to be able to inform policymakers, the practitioner community and parents about what really does constitute effective practice in autism education. Improving the research evidence base is certainly the first step.

Further information

Professor Tony Charman and Dr Liz Pellicano are based at the Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE), Institute of Education, University of London:
www.ioe.ac.uk/crae

Professor Charman has served on a number of expert panels for the UK Medical Research Council, the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), and the US National Institutes of Health. He is a member of the Advisory Group to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism.

The report, What is Good Practice in Autism Education?, can be downloaded at:
www.autismeducationtrust.org.uk/Resources/Good practice report.aspx

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