Autistic school staff: why do we need research?

teacher

I have spoken and written a number of times about the problems of school exclusion faced by autistic children and young people. This exclusion can take many forms (e.g. both from school and within school itself), and the reasons for this sorry situation are complex and multi-faceted. But few can doubt the negative impact on autistic children in terms of their health, well-being, attainment and longer-term outcomes.

At the same time, many of the school staff in my PhD study complained that they felt they lacked training in autism. Autism training – and where to find it – is also the most common question put to me after conference presentations. And while good quality training* in autism can of course be extremely beneficial, the concept of training can also be problematic. This is because it may reinforce the idea that school staff can only make sense of these apparently mysterious beings if someone else provides specialist knowledge. In other words, pinning everything on the concept of training can contribute to the notion that autistic pupils are different, strange or ‘other’.

Alongside these issues is the question of representation. The five schools in my study were all in a large, culturally diverse, urban environment. They did an admirable job, it seemed to me, of validating that cultural diversity, through themed events, wall displays and classroom activities. But as one parent expressed passionately, referring to the lack of representation of disability in her son’s school, “there’s no heroes as in a disabled person“. As far as she was concerned (and I agreed with her), the lack of representation of autistic children in the broader school culture was another, subtle form of exclusion. And yet the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) asserts the importance of ‘mainstreaming disability issues’ (preamble g), and also states that there must be ‘respect for the right of children to preserve their identities’ (article 3).

And so if we put these two issues together – training and representation – this does suggest the need for a new approach if we want to reverse the negative cycle of exclusion for autistic children and young people. If school staff feel they need training in autism, what if some of those staff are autistic? And if they are, does everyone else know? If not, why not? What are the problems autistic school staff face in their work? Is being autistic an advantage in the education profession? What needs to be done to encourage more autistic people into teaching? And how would autistic children and young people feel if they were represented in school, not only through its pedagogy and culture, but by the person sitting in front of them every day – the class teacher?

It could be, that for decades now, by focusing on ‘strategies for inclusion’ and staff training, we have been looking in the wrong direction, even if these approaches have a role to play. By shifting our attention onto facilitating and enabling a more diverse school staff, the apparent need for external specialists diminishes, as understanding of pupil diversity becomes more integral to the ethos and culture of schools. This in turn could represent a major step forward in improving school inclusion.

In order to explore this issue, I have launched an anonymous and confidential pilot survey – intended as a stepping stone to a larger project – into autistic school staff. It was developed in collaboration with a committee of autistic adults who work in schools, and is fairly quick to complete.** If you are over 18, and work or have worked in schools in an education role in the UK, please consider completing the survey. And for all education professionals, please share the survey on your networks (or contact me if you would like a hard copy of the survey and the participant information sheet). Overall findings from this pilot survey will be shared publicly and who knows, this could represent an important step in understanding and supporting autistic pupils, and those who teach them.

This project was initially developed as part of my ESRC postdoctoral Fellowship at King’s College London, where my mentor was Professor Francesca Happé. I am now a visiting researcher at KCL and a senior lecturer in Special Education at the University of East London. I can be contacted on rebecca.wood@kcl.ac.uk or rwood@uel.ac.uk

*At the Scottish Autism conference in November 2019, I defined “good quality training” in autism as training which has been “substantially informed by autistic people, or entirely devised and led by them”.

**On the survey it is stated that the survey takes 20 – 30 minutes, as it was felt by the autistic committee that participants should not feel pressured to complete the survey quickly, especially if they wanted to think about their answers. You can take over 30 minutes if you need to, but equally it can be completed in as little as 5 minutes.

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