The Need to Transform Autism Education

Special Focus : Autism: The Case for Quality Education
Access and Inclusion June 12, 2018

Autistic people, of all abilities and across the age range, have enormous potential to enrich our lives. They process and understand the world in a unique way, and we can all learn from their experiences and perspectives.
Sadly, there continue to be social barriers for this population, including severe financial and personal difficulties, as well as stigma from wider society. All over the world, many autistic people leave school unprepared for adult life. Long-term educational planning does not focus consistently enough on enabling these young people to achieve their desired outcomes as adults. Education is failing them.
There are some essential changes that need to be considered in order to start turning this situation around. Firstly, whilst educational provision and practice for autistic pupils vary a lot from country to country, improving autism education should be an urgent priority everywhere. Although there has been much progress in recent years, educators are still a long way from having a detailed enough understanding of the needs of autistic children, adults and their families throughout their lives.
Interactions and Relationships
Autism is a developmental and transactional condition that requires mutual adaptation on behalf of the autistic person as well as those who care for or work with them. Educators, therefore, need to consider how they can change their own practice whilst developing an increased understanding of and responsiveness to the pupil’s patterns of communication and interaction. Rather than viewing autism as an impairment, in which difficulties are located within the pupil, a much more helpful approach is to focus on the relationship between the autistic person and those around them.
Tweaking Language for Empowerment
In this process, there is a need to critically reflect on the words we use. At the Autism Centre for Education and Research (ACER) at the University of Birmingham in the UK, we reject the term ‘disorder’ when we describe autistic people. We do not want children to grow up thinking they are ‘faulty,’ nor that they have an illness or are deficient. If the focus is on what is ‘wrong’ with the person, and that they are somehow ‘faulty,’ anxiety and depression are likely to follow. A good education is about enabling people to meet their potential and that is rarely achieved by focusing on a person’s ‘weaknesses’ or ‘faults’. The focus should be to understand the strengths and interests of the individual and to tap into and build on those so that we can best support that person to meet their potential.
Listening and Providing Choice
Grounding practice and research in the lived experiences of the autistic community is essential in this process. Things will not change until we learn to listen to and act from the perspective of autistic pupils. Schools and educators need to make extensive efforts to ensure that these pupils have a say over the decisions that ultimately affect their lives, especially at key transition points.
One of the biggest challenges facing many educational settings is to move away from teaching approaches based on frequent use of adult directives and prompts to pedagogies and learning environments that give autistic pupils more autonomy, choice, and control over their environment. The opportunity to make meaningful choices and to engage in frequent problem solving needs to be built into all teaching, from very early on. In a practical sense, this means involving autistic pupils in setting their own goals, providing opportunities for problem-solving in social contexts and involving them in their own curricular planning, review and transition processes.
Providing Information to Educators
To do this, we need educators who understand autism, can individualize approaches according to pupil characteristics and can focus on real-life outcome measures. We also need educators who can teach skills and understandings that are generalizable to complex real-life conditions in multiple cultures and settings. Educators need opportunities for professional development, from raising awareness to in-depth credit-bearing study. This is particularly pressing as a recent survey in the UK found that 60% of autistic people said that that the main thing that would make school better is having a teacher who understands autism. Good personal and professional development can make an enormous difference in developing the kind of provision, approaches, and practice that is needed. This includes an educational provision that is designed around the person and focuses on a close partnership with parents, families and other professionals.  
Whatever the key barriers are in a particular country, we need to urgently find ways to more effectively support autistic individuals and their families throughout the lifespan. Otherwise, we are failing to support them to meet their aspirations and potential. This represents a substantial loss to society in terms of the positive contributions that autistic people could otherwise make.