Urgent action needed to train all teachers in Autism

Last week, the National Autistic Society and Ambitious about Autism sent an open letter to the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, calling on her to make sure that all teachers receive autism training.

As the parent to two boys with ASD, I know that schools having better autism training may have meant I didn't need to move my sons to a specialist school. I also believe teachers' understanding the limits of their knowledge and calling in extra support is just as important.

The recent Carter Review of Teacher Training illustrated just how little training in SEND a trainee gets. This makes the requirement in the SEND Code of Practice that 'Every teacher is a teacher of children with special educational needs,' a dangerous joke.

Today on SNJ, Mark Lever, Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society, explains further why every autistic student should have a teacher who understands them.

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Urgent action needed to train all teachers in Autism

With more than 1 in 100 children on the autism spectrum, and over 70 per cent of them enrolled in mainstream schools, every teacher will have autistic students in their classes throughout their careers. Yet, autism training is not mandatory for teachers, which means that 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 students reach their full potential if they don’t understand the basics about autism?

The lack of autism training is letting down children and young people on the autism spectrum across the country. This is one of the reasons that children on the autism spectrum are four times more likely to be excluded than those without special educational needs. Action is clearly needed.

Right now, an expert group is developing a ‘framework of content’ for Initial Teacher Training (ITT) courses for the Department for Education. We believe this should include autism and are calling on the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, to make this happen. Giving every teacher the training they need would make a huge difference to the futures of children and young people on the autism spectrum.

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Explaining autism

As parents, you know that autism is different for every child. But for most, 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 and can overload.

This can make school life very difficult. For instance, many children on the autism spectrum are so sensitive to light or sound that an overhead light or humming computer can be physically painful and make it almost impossible to follow a lesson. For others, a small change to the day’s schedule, like the school bus turning up late or a sudden change to the seating plan, can feel like the end of the world.

But our experience has shown how the right educational placements and understanding teachers and classmates can help children on the autism spectrum reach their full potential  - whether that’s to go onto further or higher education, into work or to live as independently as possible in their local community.

Every teacher stat

What do parents and teachers think?

58% of children and young people on the autism spectrum we surveyed last year 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 per cent believe that they haven’t had the training they need to teach students who are on the autism spectrum.

We spoke to a Siobhan earlier this month. She’s a teacher working in a London Secondary School. She feels that she could have supported her past autistic students better if she’d had the understanding of autism she does now.

Siobhan told us: “My own son was diagnosed with autism just last year and it really opened my eyes to the hidden difficulties faced by people on the spectrum, particularly being under or over sensitive to things like light and sound. I also realised how changing small things, like using more visual resources and making the lesson structure clearer, could really help them - and the rest of the class too.

"I did receive some special needs training during my initial teacher training, but it was for just two afternoons. It was very useful, but rather generalised and there wasn't much focus on autism; it only really scratched the surface.

"This is a very complex and vulnerable group of people and teachers need to be given the right tools to support them. All the teachers that I know would be open to this, it would be a huge benefit to them and their students. What people may not realise is that this training benefits the whole class, not just students on the spectrum, and remember: every child matters."

What can be done?

We don’t expect teachers to be experts in autism. But a basic knowledge of the lifelong condition and where to go for extra help would make a huge difference to their students.

This is why we want to make sure that every teacher starts school having been trained in autism. We’ve teamed up with Ambitious about Autism and written 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. We were overwhelmed by the response, with over 7,000 people signing, including MPs, autism experts and education professionals, in just a couple of weeks. The Education Secretary must listen to their voices and take action.

The Department for Education has already funded the development of autism training for mainstream schools through the Autism Education Trust. This could be adapted easily for ITT.

The Education Secretary could transform the prospects of a generation of autistic students by including autism in Initial Teacher Training in England. Every teacher deserves the right training, and every autistic child needs a teacher who understands them.

For more information about autism or the charity’s campaign, visit: www.autism.org.uk

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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two young adults with autism. Tania is a member of the Whole School SEND Expert Reference Group for SEND Leadership, the Ofsted SEND Inspections Stakeholders Group, and sits on the Advisory Board of the Royal Holloway, University of London Centre of Gene and Cell Therapy.
She is also an experienced broadcast and print journalist & author. Tania also runs a PR, web & social media consultancy, SocialOro Media. She is a Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate with Ehlers Danlos syndrome.
Tania Tirraoro
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