National autism awareness month: supporting students with autism to thrive with learning

This April marks National Autism Awareness month, an event dedicated to raising awareness and understanding around autism, the challenges it brings and ways we can create a more inclusive society for people with complex needs.

Autism covers a spectrum of social, behavioural and communication challenges which affect people in various ways, from struggling to read body language and social cues to difficulty expressing emotions. The British Medical Association estimates that around 700,000 children are diagnosed with autism in the UK, with around 70 per cent of children with autism attending mainstream schools.

Despite the high proportion of young people living and thriving with autism in society, a lack of understanding and empathy around what autism involves, and how best to support children with autism in schools, can leave many students feeling isolated. It was only in 2016 that it became mandatory for teachers to receive training on supporting autistic students in their Initial Teacher Training, following significant campaigning led by the National Autistic Society. While this was long-overdue and a necessary change to equip teachers with the skills to support students with complex requirements, there is still much work needed to create an inclusive education system for autistic learners.

Just before the pandemic hit in 2019, an 11-year-old boy from Devon struggling with autism went viral with his YouTube video in which he shared his experiences of bullying and misunderstanding from peers and teachers. Fast-forward to the present day under Covid-19, and the disruption to learning routines, lack of face-to-face support and adjusting to remote learning has been especially difficult for autistic children, who rely on routine and structure more than most. As with many areas of education, the pandemic has created a unique opportunity to reassess teaching and learning practices. Now more than ever should we consider how we can improve these practices going forward, to empower children with non-mainstream needs to fulfil their potential.

Supporting children with autism to excel in education

While remote learning understandably created challenges for many children with autism who were unable to attend schools staying open during lockdowns, due to shielding or mental and physical health challenges, it also brought surprising benefits for others.

A study conducted by The Autism Centre for Education and Research (ACER) at the University of Birmingham asked parents of autistic children about their experiences during the first lockdown. Findings concluded that some families found that their child benefitted from a more relaxed pace of life and greater involvement in their education from their parents at home.

Indeed, learning in a virtual environment can enable children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) to benefit from increased flexibility and more personalised support from teachers. As the Chartered College of Teaching highlighted in its latest report into effective distance learning strategies for students with SEND, online learning helped some learners to be more independent and learn at a pace which suits their learning style. This can be helpful for autistic children who might find it easier to concentrate in hours outside of the normal school day, or for those who may feel anxious and distracted in a traditional classroom environment.

As Liz Rumsey, Lead SEND teacher at online teaching and learning partner, Tute, explains: “one of the biggest immediate benefits of online learning is the ability to reach and impact a wider range of learners with specialist needs across the UK… who might otherwise not have been able to attend school in person or access full curriculum opportunities.”

Other responses in the University of Birmingham study highlighted stumbling blocks that children faced in staying motivated and engaged with learning through a screen. Additionally, this included the negative impact which lockdown had generally on their mental health and wellbeing. Part of the challenge for teachers adapting to remote learning has been the lack of practical information and guidance available. The Chartered College of Teaching sought to address this with its effective distance learning strategies report, compiling the latest research to support teachers and improve remote education for students with learning difficulties. Amongst its recommendations, the report highlighted the importance of designing content for accessibility. For instance, using captioning and visual aids to support children with SEND, and making sufficient time for children to adapt to the shift in routine and learning environments.

Autism encompasses a wide spectrum of needs, so making sure each student receives personalised support will mean they can stay on track with their learning and maintain a positive mindset. London Borough of Havering’s Education Services (HES) has been working closely with children with SEND during this period to help them understand and navigate the changes brought on by Covid-19, providing both virtual support and a range of resources for families to access. This includes creating visual timetables with familiar prompts to help students break down their day and prepare for the next activity in their schedule, as well as using social stories to illustrate and help children cope with unfamiliar situations. These are useful strategies, not just for the pandemic but beyond, to help autistic learners get to grips with unexpected changes they might come across in everyday life.

While it’s not been easy by any stretch, lockdown learning has enabled families and teachers to better understand what works and what needs to change to provide the best learning experience for autistic children. One of the biggest takeaways is arguably the potential of a blended learning environment, incorporating digital technology and face-to-face support. This approach may not only suit students with a wide variety of needs, but also autistic children who struggle in conventional education settings and in some cases, cannot easily attend physical schools.