Autism awareness – why inclusion matters

Autism awareness in schools is crucial.  There is a social disparity in the educational experiences of autistic people versus their neurotypical peers. Autistic children can be mislabeled as ‘naughty’ or ‘difficult’, and receiving a diagnosis can be a timely process. The National Autistic Society found that, a quarter of parents waited over three years to receive an autism diagnosis for their child. From the time a child’s referral is processed and an agreed Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP[1]) set into motion, a child may have disengaged with school, suffered from inadequate educational provisions, or is starting to sit their exams with no access arrangements in place. Worryingly, the same report found that more than one in five parents said their child had been temporarily or permanently excluded from school, demonstrating how mainstream education is failing to meet the needs of autistic children.

Autism is significantly underdiagnosed in females, with males being 4 times more likely to receive a diagnosis. One reason for this is that females are more able to ‘mask’ and mirror their peers. In a study by University College London, researchers explored school attendance rates of about 500 autistic female students and found that a staggering 43 percent of these students were persistently absent from school. This lack of diagnosis has contributed to 1 in 6 autistic children in the UK developing anxiety disorders and being unable to attend school.

Following tireless campaigning and the 2022 Autism Review, the Government has stated that funding for SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) will increase by more than 50% by 2024. The long-awaited SEND improvement plan, published in March last year, will support teacher training and create new provisions. However, the current education system is not built for neurodiverse children, with a lack of adequate staff training and resources. This funding is needed to rectify this oversight, as targeted support makes a real impact on neurodivergent children.

Research by the University of Birmingham found that autistic students are twice as likely to be regularly, and unlawfully, excluded from school for a fixed term than those who do not have SEND. Over the last 5 years, every region in England has seen an increase of between 45%-100% in the number of school exclusions for students on the autism spectrum. This has led to many students not accessing education, leaving them behind their peers and facing difficulties as they get older in finding suitable employment.

The lack of reasonable adjustments continues into further education. The North East Autism Society found that 36% of autistic students do not complete their university courses, and are 10 times more likely to drop out than students who are neurotypical. Charity Ambitious about Autism found that a quarter of young people with autism were not currently in education, employment or training (NEET), which is almost double the rate of the general population.

The lack of academic qualifications, along with limited support throughout their education, can impact employment opportunities. The Office for National Statistics found that fewer than three in ten autistic adults were in work. The Buckland Review of Autism Employment, supported by the National Autistic Society and the Department for Work and Pensions, aims to change this. They state that in order to attract autistic employees to the workforce and safeguard their working environment, employers need to identify and better support autistic staff.

The ‘Ask Listen Do’ strategy aims to make it easier for people with a learning disability or autism to give feedback or raise a concern.  By adopting this strategy, autistic voices can have access to reasonable adjustments to be happy and productive in their studies. This ethical approach to social inclusion creates a productive and happy environment where everyone is valued.

We know that reasonable adjustments in schools and the workplace make a real difference to the lives of autistic people.  Such adjustments could be as simple as clear communication; realistic deadlines with fair expectations; an environment that does not provide sensory overload; and creating a caring and inclusive culture that celebrates difference. These small changes will benefit us all.

[1] Not all autistic children require an EHCP.