Reaching their potential


Alison Worsley outlines some practical solutions to help teachers support pupils with autism

Around 120,000 young people with SEN in the UK are autistic. Many of these pupils should be entitled to extra support and protection at school to enable them to achieve, yet sadly we know that for many young people this simply isn’t the case. Autistic children are disproportionately at risk of exclusion from school. In the last few years, exclusions of pupils with autism have rocketed by almost 60 per cent in English schools. Meanwhile even more “informal exclusions” are slipping under the radar. These incidents – such as sending pupils home early or banning them from school trips – are unlawful but go unrecorded. 56 per cent of families of a child with autism surveyed by Ambitious about Autism (AaA) said their child had been unlawfully sent home from school or denied an education. All this evidence points to a school system that favours exclusion over inclusion; the result is that thousands of children with autism are denied their basic right to a fulfilling education that meets their needs.  

Help at school

There are many reasons why autistic children are being let down. It is well documented that schools and local authorities are under intense budget pressure, which is having a knock-on effect on the quality and volume of support being offered to autistic pupils.

A key way autistic children obtain support at school is via an education, health and care (EHC) plan, which places a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide resources to meet their educational (and other) needs. However, we know this system isn’t working as it should be. Nearly 40 per cent of parents surveyed by AaA have been waiting over 18 months for an assessment for an EHC plan. This is despite a 20-week statutory deadline.

The struggle to get children’s educational needs assessed promptly can have a drastic and long-term impact on their ability to learn in the classroom. Some autistic children become very isolated and quiet while others may struggle to regulate their behaviour, resulting in punishment or exclusion.

I believe that a medical diagnosis of autism should automatically trigger an assessment of children’s educational needs. At the moment this doesn’t happen and the onus is placed on parents – many of whom have just finished a lengthy diagnosis battle – to fight for their children’s support needs.

Another key issue preventing autistic children from reaching their potential in the classroom is a lack of understanding and awareness of autism within schools. Every child with autism is different and experiences the world around them differently. But without proper training to understand these differences, school staff are in danger of letting down these children. Of course, no teacher comes into the profession to do this. We know many are facing increasing workloads and class sizes that are placing them under significant pressure. 

This September, the first crop of student teachers received information about supporting autistic pupils in their initial training. However, autism training needs to be extended to all school staff who may come into contact with autistic children – from teaching assistants to governors.

In the meantime, there are lots of simple, practical steps that schools can take to better support pupils with autism in the classroom. For example, introducing a visual timetable for the day ahead helps autistic pupils to understand their routine, and helps to reduce anxiety about any unplanned changes to the day. Providing a “break-out” room or quiet space and looking at ways to reduce background noise in classrooms are also helpful, as well as providing structured activities during breaks and lunchtimes – which can be difficult times of the day for autistic pupils. 

In many cases good autism practice in the classroom will benefit all pupils, not just those with autism.

Opportunities after school

While many autistic young people are struggling to find the right support at school, we know they are also facing a cliff edge when they reach 16, despite the entitlement to an EHC plan up to age 25 to support in achieving education or training outcomes. Only one in four autistic young people go on to access education beyond compulsory schooling.

Young people with autism can often feel anxious at the prospect of moving from the safe and familiar atmosphere of school to a new, much larger college or further education establishment. There are, though, a number of things that providers can do to ensure autistic young people make a smooth transition into further education and continue their learning.

Again, simple adjustments and early intervention can make a big difference. Giving autistic pupils the opportunity to review, as early as possible, the options available to them when they finish Year 11 can really help them to plan and prepare for their future path. Some colleges have also appointed an autistic student ambassador who can help other students with autism to find their way and answer any questions or concerns they have about a new college environment.

It’s also important those with responsibility for autistic students ongoing education work closely together to ensure their learning can continue smoothly. For example, schools and colleges should work in partnership to share information on the student and provide opportunities such as taster courses or mentoring which will enable autistic pupils to familiarise themselves with their new environment.

Autism and employment

Sadly, employment rates for autistic adults are shockingly low. Only 16 per cent of autistic adults are in full time employment; this is lower than for any other type of disability and is a massive waste of potential. There are many factors at play in why autistic young people find it hard to get on the career ladder, including rigid interview processes, inflexible working arrangements and a lack of understanding of different sensory needs.

The key to increasing neurodiversity in the workplace is to create more opportunities for employers and autistic young people to gain experience of working together. Work experience placements are a vital part of this process. They give employers the chance to understand more about autism and how to make – often very small – reasonable adjustments to accommodate autistic employees. They also enable autistic young people to gain real experience of the workplace, helping them to determine the types of roles to which they would be most suited.

Further information

Alison Worsley is Director of External Affairs at the charity Ambitious about Autism: 

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