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School for kids with Autism: Is ‘autism friendly’ attainable?

I read an article in the Times Educational Supplement this morning about how to make schools better for kids with Autism. The article made some brilliant points and it got me to thinking about making the adjustments that are needed to support young people with autism in a mainstream setting.

Like the writer of the article, I wholeheartedly believe that there is not one way to make school ‘autism-friendly’ and that you can’t make generic adjustments for young people with autism; provision for young people needs to be much more nuanced that that I feel. I haven’t done much research into autism as part of the neurodiversity family and this evening, that’s not my focus. I base this on anecdotes from my professional experiences and that of those within my family and how I’ve done what I can to support the learners with ‘autisms’ as diverse as there are young learners in a school.

Some young people with autism need to have quiet spaces when they are bombarded with sensory information as they progress through the day. As noted by the writer in the Times Educational Supplement article, this is something that can often be managed sufficiently within a primary school setting, due to the smaller numbers and greater contact between learners and one or two key members of staff. However, when they ‘hit’ secondary school, young people often don’t have a key member of staff or a safe space that they can retreat to when they need some ‘down time’. Things can start to unravel.

But this isn’t the case for all young people with Autism. Autism is a spectrum which means that there are many different manifestations of it, and that it can have varying degrees of severity. Other young people with autism find that the classroom is manageable, and they enjoy learning but they may struggle with social situations within school. Rather than a quiet space, these young people may need time during the week to reflect on tricky situations with a trained adult, who can help them develop their social skills. Some of the young people who have severe autism may need specialist provision outside of the mainstream setting, where they are given life-skills or where they are challenged intellectually.

As I see it, there isn’t a sole model for ‘good practice’ for all learners with autism. Rather overall awareness of autism as a condition and its effects, as well as specific knowledge of the learners in our care should inform how we support our students to achieve outcomes that allow them to be their ‘best self’. It’s not easy and it’s not ‘ticky-boxy’, and it probably won’t please everyone within the establishment that is out currently educational culture, but I think it’s the way forward through discussion with learners, their families and educators.

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