Children with autism need the dedicated support that only specialist schools can provide, says Chris Lovell
Imagine a 13-year-old boy with an autistic spectrum condition (ASC) is engrossed in his art lesson at a mainstream school. The bell goes off, signalling lunchtime. Chairs scrape. Students shriek. The corridors become crowded. The boy becomes frustrated as he heads to the cafeteria; the hustle and bustle, the noise, the people pushing him and the smell of food confuse him.
During his next lesson, he becomes disruptive. Even though his secondary school has a resource base for children on the autistic spectrum, the teachers don’t understand his condition. It’s not their fault; they just don’t have the training. He is pulled out of class and sent to study in a room by himself.
This example is fairly typical of the experiences of thousands of autistic children who are sent to mainstream schools. It highlights, once again, the argument for specialist autism education.
Children with an ASC are often locked into their own world. They 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. Their needs are very specific – no two children with autism are the same – and this demands dedicated schools and colleges.
While some mainstream schools have strategies in place to help autistic children make progress, such as sloping writing boards to address coordination difficulties, the emphasis shouldn’t just be on education; it should be on developing life skills. This goes beyond teaching autistic children to wash and dress; it is about helping them to understand relationships, social rules and everyday situations such as going to the doctor or going swimming. It is about showing them how to communicate even simple needs such as wanting a sandwich or a glass of milk, whether through signing or visual cues.
Autistic children need a routine. They find change stressful and tend to panic if they don’t know what’s going to happen, for example, when they wake up in the morning. Showing them pictorial symbols to explain their timetable can help them to process information and reduce anxiety. Images of things such as getting up, brushing teeth, having a shower, getting dressed and going to a maths class can be very helpful.
Many children with an ASC also have problems with sensory integration; some are sensory avoiders, where loud sounds, light touches and bright lights can cause discomfort; others are sensory seekers and crave deep pressure and other types of sensory input. If you don’t understand their individual sensory patterns and needs, and incorporate that into their learning, then the child’s mind becomes like an old telephone exchange, where all the phones are ringing at the same time and the wires are crossed. Everything becomes jumbled up. Again, it is never just as simple as saying “All autistic children should wear deep-pressure weighted jackets”. You need to develop a unique sensory diet for every single child.
Educating an autistic child within a mainstream school is a tough feat. When you single out individuals within a group because they are “different”, you get segregation. It is easy for that individual to become the subject of attention – often bullying and teasing – from other children at the school, leading to depression, low self-esteem or challenging behaviour. Data from the Department for Education shows that around 20 per cent of autistic pupils have been suspended from school more than once and around 50 per cent say they have been bullied at school, which is much higher than for non-autistic pupils.
Many argue that autistic children should be given the opportunity to integrate and build friendships within regular schools. However, the normal rules of relationships simply don’t apply. Autistic children don’t seek out friends; their main relationships are with their immediate family and their siblings. It is difficult for them to tolerate large groups of people and noisy environments; they tend not to make eye contact, pay attention to conversations or join in games like other kids.
The benefit of having a dedicated autistic school or college is that you can respond to all of these needs. You can carefully control the environment and you can reduce the level of stress on children. Specialist autism schools have invested time and money to respond to the condition to get the best out of the children, to prepare them for later life and to encourage them to achieve their full potential.
Getting it right
The costs of caring for an autistic person throughout their life can add up to more that £2m, but if you get their education right from day one, those costs can be dramatically lowered. Work with autistic children at an early age and you can help them to integrate into the community, you can help them make a contribution to society and you can reduce the need for them to go into specialist residential care.
Many mainstream schools do have specialist autism units, but the motivations behind some of these units have been called into question. With cuts to education funding right across the board, certain schools are building special needs units as a means of attracting more government money. Do they really have the experience and expertise to educate autistic children or are they more concerned with their own budgetary needs?
There are now 61,570 schoolchildren in the state-funded sector who have been recorded as having some kind of ASC. Just five years ago, that number was 39,465. What is behind that 56 per cent rise? Have some children been wrongly labelled as requiring extra help for the same reasons of funding?
That’s not to tarnish all schools with the same brush, or to say that children with certain special needs – high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome, for example – shouldn’t be educated in mainstream schools with dedicated support. In fact, mainstream schools and specialist schools should be working together, sharing expertise and training, and running joint events.
However, for children with moderate to severe classical autism, the case is clear: specialist autism education, where teachers devote their energy every day to every student, is the best start towards greater emotional maturity, stability and inclusion.
Chris Lovell is Director of Clinical Services and Business Development at Beechwood College: