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Helping children with autism reach their full potential

Earlier this year, the National Autistic Society held its first ever Schools’ Autism Awareness Week and wrote to the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, calling for all teachers to receive autism training. Mark Lever, Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society, explains why it’s so important that schools, including both teaching staff and students, understand autism.

With more than 1 in 100 children on the autism spectrum, and over 70% in mainstream schools, every teacher and student will encounter autistic people in their classes.

How well do schools really understand autism?

Over 99% of people in the UK say they’ve heard of autism, but autistic people and families say that knowing there’s something called autism doesn’t mean they are understood – 87% of them say the public don’t understand autism in a meaningful way. This lack of understanding is clearly having an impact in schools, with surveys indicating that 63% of children on the autism spectrum have faced bullying, often due to fellow students misunderstanding their behavior. This can have a devastating impact on their self-esteem, in some cases creating problems that last into adulthood.

What is autism?

Being autistic means you see, hear and feel the world in a different, often more intense, way to other people. There are roughly 120,000 school-aged children on the autism spectrum in England and none of them will experience autism in the exact same way. Some people may be skilled in certain areas while others find social situations and change such a challenge that they face almost unbearable levels of anxiety.

Understanding autism

Awareness sounds like a relatively small thing but it can have a transformative effect. Autistic people and their families don’t expect or want people to be experts. But having some knowledge about the situations autistic people might find difficult and how they may respond will make a huge difference. It would reduce instances of misunderstanding and bullying, help autistic people feel more accepted and to reach their full potential.

Our role

To make this happen, the National Autistic Society encouraged schools across the country to get involved in their first ever Schools’ Autism Awareness Week and help their students and staff improve their understanding of autism and raise vital funds for the charity. We were overwhelmed by the response, with almost two thousands schools signing up to get involved.

We know how busy schools are so we created a range of resources and activities so they could do as little or as much as they like – from Early Years Foundation Stage right up to Key Stage 4. Some schools adjusted their lesson plans to include autism, making use of our resources,autism word searches and book lists. It was a brilliant week and truly remarkable to see the sheer range of activities. None of this would have been possible without the commitment of staff within each school to improve understanding of autism.

Every teacher should have autism training

But autism awareness shouldn’t be a thing that happens just once a year. We believe that all teachers, from their first day, should be given the training they’ll need to teach autistic students. Yet, autism training is not mandatory for teachers and some start school without any autism or even special educational needs training at all. People are often shocked when we tell them this. How can a teacher help an autistic student if they don’t understand the basics about autism?

Of those surveyed, 58% of children and young people on the autism spectrum said that the single thing that would make school better for them is ‘if teachers understood autism’. Research by Ambitious about Autism found that over half of parents of children with autism have kept their child off school because of a lack of appropriate support in the classroom. It’s not only children on the autism spectrum and their families who think compulsory autism training would make a huge difference. A survey of teachers by the teachers’ union NASUWT also found that 60% believe that they haven’t had the training they need to teach students who are on the autism spectrum. And 11,500 teaching staff have signed up to get regular updates, tips and resources on autism through the National Autistic Society’s award-winning MyWorld service.

We have asked the government to help

This is why, this Schools’ Autism Awareness Week, the National Autistic Society has teamed up with Ambitious about Autism and wrote an open letter to the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, calling on her to include autism in the Initial Teacher Training (ITT) framework for England, which the Government is currently reviewing. Over 7,000 people signed our letter, including MPs, autism experts and education professionals, in just a couple of weeks. We have asked the Education Secretary to listen to their voices and take action.

Autism Infograph