Over 7,000 people, including MPs and school staff, have signed a letter calling on the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, to make autism training mandatory for teachers in England.
The letter, written by our charity and Ambitious about Autism, says that autism should be included in the Initial Teacher Training (ITT) framework for England, which the Government is reviewing.
With more than 1 in 100 children on the autism spectrum, and over 70 per cent of them going to mainstream schools, every teacher will have autistic students in their classes throughout their careers. Yet autism training is not mandatory for teachers and some have no special educational needs training at all. We think this is shocking and is letting children on the autism spectrum down by not giving them the support they need to excel.
58 per cent of children and young people on the autism spectrum surveyed by our charity 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 autistic children have kept their child off school because of a lack of appropriate classroom support.
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 in 2013 also found that 60 per cent believe they haven’t had the training they need to teach pupils on the autism spectrum.*
The Department for Education has already funded the development of autism training for mainstream schools through the Autism Education Trust, which the charities say could be adapted easily for ITT.
Siobhan, a teacher of English and Drama working in a London secondary school, said:
Looking back, I do think I could have supported my past autistic students better if I'd had the understanding of autism that I do now.
"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."
Jody Coxon's sons Cameron (13) and Harry (11) are on the autism spectrum and are now in specialist schools. But prior to this, they both struggled in mainstream schools which simply weren't equipped to meet their complex needs.
Jody, who lives in Sittingbourne, said, "It's hard for mainstream teachers to teach autistic children, as their needs aren't always obvious, certainly in the case of Cameron and Harry. My sons look like any other child but have high anxiety in social situations and are so sensitive to noise that they really struggle in busy and loud classrooms.
"But with more knowledge of autism, their teachers would have been better able to pick up on these difficulties and work with me to help address them. While my children would have always needed more specialist support, this would have made their time there so much easier and probably helped them get the right support earlier.
The teachers I've met want to make a difference and some of them have been amazing with Cameron and Harry. But they can't help if they don't have the tools. A base level of understanding among all teachers would make such a huge difference to them and the children they teach.
Mark Lever, Chief Executive of The National Autistic Society, said: “Thousands of autistic children are being let down each year because teachers aren’t being given the training they need. 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.
“We don’t expect teachers to be experts in autism. But a basic knowledge of the lifelong disability and where to go for extra help would make a huge difference to their students. 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. Simple changes, like to the seating arrangement so the student is away from the light, or letting them wear ear defenders, can make a huge difference.
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.
Jolanta Lasota, Chief Executive of Ambitious about Autism, said: “It is crucial that teachers receive training on how to identify a child who may have autism, and how to refer them for further support. Too many children with autism miss out on the vital support they need to succeed at school because their autism isn’t recognised. Excellent training is available – through the Autism Education Trust and others – and we need to share expertise in autism better across schools. We don’t need every teacher to be an autism expert – but we do need them to know how to help families access that expertise.
“The lack of autism awareness training for teachers is also likely to have serious knock-on effects. For example, teachers need better support when it comes to recognising the difference between disability and disobedience, otherwise children with autism will continue to be excluded from school due to a lack of support for them to access learning in the classroom. Also, research shows that 40 per cent of children with autism have been bullied. Again, teachers need to be trained to prevent the bullying of children with autism.”
*NASUWT Support for Children and Young People with Special Educational Needs (June 2013)