Autism in schools, crisis or challenge

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The following report was prepared by the National Autistic Society (England) in 2002 surveying teachers and school administrators from seven local education authorities across England, Wales and Scotland about present state of autistic children in schools. This report is a follow up to a 2000 report titled 'Inclusion and Autism: is it working?' which was taken from the perspective of parents. The surveys completed totaled 373, which makes up 30% a response rate. This represents a total pupil population of 132,646.

Teachers surveyed said that 1 in every 86 children they teach have special educational needs that are related to an autism spectrum disorder. The schools also reported that 1 in every 152 children in their schools had a formal diagnosis of an autism disorder.

From the survey, it was discovered that there are three times more autistic children in primary school than in secondary school.

Statement School-based Total #/10,000 Ratio

stages

Primary 250 712 962 125 1 in 80

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Secondary 75 124 199 37 1 in 268

Whether or not the underlying rate is increasing, there are more children with autism spectrum disorders in English and Welsh schools than ever previously reported. Continuing to place children with Autism in mainstream classrooms without adequate support places unfair pressure on teachers. For the child in question, it will lead to integration with social inclusion or educational progress at best, and destructive behavior and exclusion from school in the worst cases.

Educating children with autism spectrum disorder is a huge challenge requiring high levels of skills, expertise and support. While all pupils with autism have individual needs and requirements, certain key issues must be addressed for successful education provision across the spectrum. The key areas include: gaining attention and motivating pupils; promoting social communication and social interaction; structured teaching and behavior management. This places a burden of responsibility on all teachers of pupils with autism, whether in a mainstream or special school setting.

Current teaching methods employed for the majority of pupils may be entirely inappropriate for children with autism. Similarly, successful education of autistic children all almost invariably require input from a variety of specialist professionals, including educational psychologists, speech and language therapists and occupational therapists.

For the vast majority of children with autism, exclusion represents a failure on the part of the educational setting to provide appropriate support and training to manage their behavior effectively. Frustration can easily be engaged in children with autism by a lack of awareness and understanding on the part of teaching and support staff.

In addition, the challenge is magnified many times over in a mainstream environment, where teachers and pupils who may have no experience or understanding of autism need training and support to make inclusion work.

So, the question is: 'Is inclusion working? 65% of the teachers surveyed felt that inclusion is working. There is strong support for the policy of inclusion but the need for training is a major concern in making it work in practice.

Inclusion describes an entitlement to education and support for children and adults with disabilities within the mainstream of provision. However, for children with autism, it is vital that inclusion is not viewed as an issue solely for mainstream schools. Despite the governments welcome policy direction towards facilitating mainstream inclusion where this meets the needs of a child, there will undoubtedly always be some children with autism whose individual circumstances require special provision. All children with autism need to be included within the curriculum and the life of the classroom, regardless of their type of educational provision.

It remains the case that whatever type of educational provision is deemed to be appropriate for a child, this provision will need to adapt itself to the child's needs to ensure genuine inclusion occurs. This distinguishes 'inclusion' from 'integration', which best describes the situation when a child with autism or asperger syndrome is placed in a school with no support and is expected to adapt to the curriculum and classroom environment.

The teachers were also asked to rank seven measures for meeting the needs of children with autism by relative importance.

1. Promoting social interactions 70% rate high

2. Building strengths/self-esteem 62%

3. Dealing with behavioral problems 57%

4. Speech and language help 49%

5. Structuring the day 47%

6. Preventing bullying and teasing 39%

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7. Helping child find the right classroom 20%

Children with autism and aspergers have particular problems in communication and social interaction such that, if they are to be successfully included in all aspects of classroom life, they need additional support. Learning support assistants can play a vital role in facilitating peer relationships for children with autism, as well as helping with learning-based functions such as differentiating the curriculum.

The following is a quote from a teacher "Much faster diagnosis and then adequate, trained support, plus training for the teaching staff. None of this happens in any systematic way. We're all working in the dark!"

The findings show a majority of teachers who have received training in autism have only received between one and hour hours training. In such a short time, they are unlikely to have received sufficient training to understand crucial areas such as how children with autism learn and how to manage challenging behavior associated with autism.

The results of our survey suggest that training teachers and support staff in autism awareness and educational approaches is the most urgent policy priority in the education of children with autism spectrum disorder.