Steve Huggett: “It is very important to be flexible in the way that the curriculum is taught”

Special Focus : Autism: The Case for Quality Education
Access and Inclusion February 03, 2014

According to a report by the Autism Education Trust (AET) in the United Kingdom, “pupils with autism have ambitious goals in life and they must be supported to achieve them, alongside their peers.”

On World Autism Awarenesss Day (April 02), we interviewed Steve Huggett, Director of the Autism Education Trust  and the organisation’s Project Manager Sarah-Jane Critchley to look at what more can be done to make sure students with Autism Spectrum Disorders can achieve full potential. We also discuss how mainstream schools can better integrate students with special needs. Scroll down to read the interview.

Question: What is lacking in the current autism education system?

Answer: At present, there is no way for parents, individuals working in schools, schools as a whole to assess how effective their provision is for children and young people with autism. 

The AET is developing a set of Autism Education Standards which will give schools in England a self-evaluation framework against which to measure their performance.  This will also prove an invaluable tool for Ofsted as part of the overall schools evaluation. Working alongside the Autism Education Standards, the AET’s Competency Framework enables individuals and groups within schools to examine how they work, identify good practice and areas for development.

Many interventions are recommended for young people with autism.  Whilst there is a body of research into the effectiveness of a range of different interventions, much of it is small scale and falls behind the quality of research in other areas of health. Given the variability of the way that people experience autism and the completely natural wish of parents to improve the life chances of their child as far as they possibly can, it is even more important that money is invested in randomised control trials to establish independent assessment of interventions.

Question:  How can the curriculum in mainstream schools be made more flexible to integrate children with special needs?

Answer: As with all good schools, those who successfully integrate young people with special needs do so by looking at the profile of the child and using teachers’ expertise and enthusiasm for their subject to capitalise on the strengths of the young person they are teaching. In the case of a young person with autism, their special interest can be used to help them focus on the subject being taught. Re-framing a maths problem in terms of Darleks and Cybermen (characters from the popular Doctor Who programme) is more likely to engage a young person with a special interest in Doctor Who, for example.

It is very important to be flexible in the way that the curriculum is taught and to be really clear about the objective for the lesson, and wherever possible to reduce the load on other elements of the learning.  If, the purpose of the lesson is to learn information about the Tudors, and would normally involve group work, consider whether differentiation for the young person with autism means that it could be worked on as an individual instead, thereby removing the stress involved in that lesson.  There should be other lessons where social interaction is the purpose of the lesson, in which case the cognitive load in terms of content could be reduced.

For young people with autism, research identifies that it is good practice to include an autism curriculum which includes life skills training, such as how to travel independently for example.

Question: What are your recommendations to improve teachers training in the mainstream system?

Answer: A lot of the approaches that are particularly useful for pupils with autism are also good general teaching practice. For example being clear what your expectations of pupils are, listening carefully so you hear what they are saying rather than what you think they are saying and using visual techniques  to communicate and help planning are good practice for all special needs education. Indeed many would argue that these approaches are useful for all pupils. So the particular work schools put in to address the needs of autistic children often have significant spin offs for other pupils as well.

1. Look for high quality training specifically for autism that incorporates the voice of the child or young person with autism; 

2. Look at ways to consult their parent or carer

3. Get the teacher to begin to appreciate the strengths and differences that a young person with autism might have.

4. Ensure that teachers understand that every child with autism is different. Each experiences autism in his or her own way, so tailoring what they do to that child is vital.  

Question:  How can technology help evolve the Autism Education System?

Answer: Technology can be a useful tool in helping children and young people with autism. For some highly vulnerable young people who are unable to attend school due to their anxiety, the use of Virtual Learning Environments and remote schooling offers an opportunity for them to continue their education which would previously have been impossible. For pre-verbal students, additional augmentative communication (AAC) can enable them to communicate more effectively, reducing the level of frustration experienced by the child.