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MOSCOW, RUSSIA NOVEMBER 21, 2019: The 5th Abilympics Russia vocational skills championship for people with disabilities, at Moscow’s VDNKh exhibition centre. The competition is aimed at ensuring social adaptation and job opportunities for people with disabilities. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery SharifulinTASS via Getty Images)
Autistic children deserve teachers trained to help them

Autistic children deserve teachers trained to help them

MOSCOW, RUSSIA NOVEMBER 21, 2019: The 5th Abilympics Russia vocational skills championship for people with disabilities, at Moscow’s VDNKh exhibition centre. The competition is aimed at ensuring social adaptation and job opportunities for people with disabilities. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery SharifulinTASS via Getty Images)

They are routinely failed by our education system – but skilled, sensitive and early interventions make their lives radically better

I had never heard the term “managed move” until last week. It’s one of those bureaucratic phrases that reduces a momentous and traumatic life event to the neat click of a rubber stamp. 

The person who brought the term to my attention is Max J Green. Max is autistic. He went to a mainstream state secondary school with a specialist ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder] unit where he struggled to make friends and was bullied in his first year. He was put on a reduced timetable for a while, then suddenly, in year 8 when Max was just 12, his Mum was called to a meeting with the school. Max was facing exclusion. 

Data from the charity Ambitious about Autism published in 2018 showed the number of autistic children being excluded from school annually had grown almost 60 per cent in five years. In the same period, the number of exclusions of kids who aren’t autistic grew by 4 per cent. Those are just the “official” exclusions. 

In a further survey by the same charity of over 900 families with autistic children, 56 per cent said their kids had been “unofficially” excluded from school at some point. Unofficial exclusion can mean anything from being told to “go home and cool off” to being disinvited from school trips without an official letter. These unofficial exclusions are unlawful. They go unrecorded. 

A third way that autistic children can find themselves removed from mainstream education is by a “managed move”. In a “managed move”, a pupil and their parents “voluntarily” agree to a school move in order to avoid exclusion. Of course, pupils never want to be excluded and all school leaders would agree that exclusion is always a last resort, not only for the pupil but for the school too. Exclusions aren’t great for a school’s reputation. “Managed moves” alleviate the stalemate. 

Max didn’t want a “managed move”, but he didn’t want to be excluded either. His parents reluctantly agreed to his old school’s proposal on the basis that the new school, they were promised, was a specialist in teaching autistic kids. The thing is, it wasn’t. Max found himself in an SEND [Special Educational Needs and Disabilities] school in a classroom with kids who’d suffered extreme trauma. “On my first day I was thrown to the ground. There were about six fights every day.” He is at pains to praise the staff at the SEND school, though. “The difference was they never gave up on anyone, no matter what. They really cared. Everyone graduated, everyone finished the year.” 

Recent UK governments don’t have a bad track record on taking the wellbeing of people with autism seriously. The Autism Act was passed in 2009, followed quickly by the Think Autism strategy in 2010. In July this year, the current government published a new five year national autism strategy which, for the first time, includes specific consideration of the needs of autistic children and young people. It rightly highlights the significant health and social care inequalities faced by autistic people and identifies that, “improving health and care staff’s understanding of autism is crucial in enabling us to make progress on reducing health inequalities for autistic people.” A key year one priority is the development and implementation of mandatory training for all health and social care staff. The training programme is named after Oliver McGowan, a young autistic man who died in 2016 as a direct result of a catalogue of errors by medical and care teams who misunderstood and mistreated him. 

The new strategy also identifies reducing exclusion as a critical factor in improving the lives of autistic people. Key actions in the plan include a new anti-bullying campaign, renewed focus on early diagnosis, the opening of 37 new free special schools and increased funding for parent-carer support. All of which are welcome, I’m sure. But the strategy is peppering the target. Unlike health and social care staff, there is no mention of the introduction of mandatory training for teachers. Instead, the strategy flags a £600,000 investment in “staff autism training and professional development” – but this is continuing existing funding and only earmarked for year one. 

Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of Ambitious about Autism, points out, “At one point the government announced mandatory autism training for initial teacher training, but then withdrew it. There has never been a commitment to the whole workforce or school system, which is a real gap given that 70 per cent of autistic children are in mainstream education. Many of the issues that arise at school are due to a lack of a basic understanding of autism and these issues also impact on health and social care i.e. if children are excluded from school or bullied they can quickly escalate.” 

Max’s experience reflects that lack of understanding. “With the teachers at the unit [in the mainstream secondary school] I felt they didn’t understand how I was feeling, or how to make my school life better. Then you see other kids from the Unit getting managed out and you’re like, OK where am I on the list of people they don’t want? From that point you lose trust.” 

Getting excluded from school, whether autistic or not, can scupper a child’s life chances. In the worst cases, permanent exclusion is strongly linked to homelessness and even prison in later life. Exclusion is not a badge of honour, it’s a horrible stigma and a very practical barrier to progress. In addition to the obvious snookering of the chance to get the qualifications needed to land a job (only 1 in 5 autistic adults in the UK are in paid full or part-time work), the boredom and isolation of exclusion very often trigger, or exacerbate, mental ill-health. And so the health and social care inequalities kick in. 

In December 2020, a petition calling for autism training to be made a mandatory part of initial teacher training failed to reach the required 100,000 signatures to prompt a debate in the House of Commons. It did get a government response though, which states that autism awareness and understanding is adequately covered already because trainee teachers need to demonstrate that they have “a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils” in order to qualify. I’m not a teacher, but this seems like wishful thinking at best, and actively careless at worst. 

Around 1.8 per cent of pupils in England have an autism diagnosis. (Prevalence rates vary a little for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and between English regions). For England, that’s around 160,000 kids, not including the ones still waiting for a diagnosis or the ones who haven’t even made it that far yet. It seems reasonable to suggest that all teachers will encounter an autistic child in their classroom at some point. It is unfair on the teacher (and borderline cruel to the child) to expect them to just instinctively know how to handle it. 

Training teachers to understand the condition and the various ways in which it can affect children’s learning and behaviour is not just urgent and necessary but a good investment. The principle of early intervention is well-established across the board, from preventing knife crime to encouraging healthy eating. There’s plenty of good stuff in the new strategy, but the government has missed a key opportunity by omitting even a trial of mandatory autism training for teachers. 

Although Max left school without GCSEs, he took it upon himself to get some work experience by calling up directors of local IT companies, “just by looking on the internet”. He went on to take his functional qualifications in English and Maths (“I had to sit Maths seven times!”) and is now working as a senior IT administrator in a school, alongside his acting, producing and campaigning work. It’s an impressive achievement by any standards. But stories like his – succeeding against the odds – are not the norm. Max’s story demonstrates the huge potential of autistic people. Without the early intervention of a clued-up and caring teacher, many more like him are going to keep on getting shuffled out of school and out of sight.

Max joined us at our ThinkIn last week: “Why do so many people with autism die young?” You can watch the whole discussion below.

Max can be found here on Youtube, Twitter and Facebook.

Photograph Getty Images