The Importance of Inclusion and Autism Peer Awareness
A head teacher giving a high-five to a little girl with autism and hunching down to chat to her at length—that’s inclusion. A teenage boy who feels confident to share some information with his classmates about his autism diagnosis—that’s inclusion. An autistic girl who is given a central role in a class assembly, even though she may decide to opt out at the last minute—that’s inclusion too.
The number of children receiving an autism diagnosis is on the rise. And 70% of these children are being educated in mainstream schools. This means that schools have had to adapt and introduce new measures to ensure everyone’s needs are met. The introduction of the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Code of Practice in 2014 in the UK placed an emphasis on the ‘inclusion’ of children with special educational needs. But what does this inclusion actually look like? With 1 in 100 people in the UK being diagnosed with autism, it’s heartening to see Islington schools catering to the needs of their students with autism and embracing their unique strengths.
At its core, inclusion should be mutually beneficial and work for every child. Recently, Sesame Street welcomed its first autistic Muppet character, Julia. In a clip that has been widely shared, Julia’s friend Abby asks her to play kickball, but Julia isn’t keen. Abby ponders how to play with Julia and finally realizes it’s best to find a game they can both enjoy doing, which is flapping their arms and pretending to be butterflies. Both of the children enjoy the same activity, which plays to both of their strengths. But, of course, unlike on Sesame Street, this doesn’t happen without careful planning and input from school staff.
From mealtime supervisors, to teaching assistants, to classroom teachers, to senior leadership teams, everyone is working to create more autism-friendly schools throughout the country. They attend after-school training, create specialized and tailored plans, and regularly work with specialist consultants, who guide them in creating the structure that autistic children need to feel a part of the class.
A fantastic example of providing structure for autistic children who may struggle with free play is the creation of Zoned Playgrounds. These are playgrounds divided into different activity zones, including ballgames, a Lego table, a drawing area, or simply a chatting area. A child with autism can then be supported to choose an arranged activity, rather than having to devise one. More organically, some Key Stage 2 classes have chosen novels with autistic protagonists, such as The Spaghetti Detectives and The London Eye Mystery, as their class readers. This includes everyone. The class learns more about autism, and autistic children can read about someone just like them.
School staff also work hard to adapt the school environment to suit the needs of their students with autism. They allow children to leave the classroom during the noisiest times of day (e.g. tidy up time), to avoid noisy hand-dryers and use paper towels instead, to go to lunch 10 minutes before everyone else to avoid the noisy crowds, or to sit on a chair instead of on the ground during Carpet Time and fidget with a fiddle toy.
Another highly-effective way of highlighting autism as a ‘hidden disability’ is through a planned series of Autism Peer Awareness (APA) sessions. In fact, research has shown that children are more understanding and accepting of their peers with disabilities when they are equipped with knowledge about those disabilities and have some personal experiences with them (Lindsay and Edwards, 2013).
Autism Peer Awareness lesson plans can include the following topics:
- How we are all different
- Visible and hidden disabilities
- Learning to use Makaton and the Picture exchange communication system (PECS)
- Reading a case-study or a book about a similar-aged student with autism
- Celebrating the strengths of people with autism
- Highlighting well-known people with autism
- Visiting a special school for children with autism
- Presenting a whole-school assembly about autism
Jan Greenman, author and mother of a son named Luke Dicker with autism, has said that at school, ‘One person can make all the difference.’ Indeed, there are individuals throughout the UK quietly working to improve the lives of their students with autism. They ensure students have access to a visual schedule, make photo schedules ahead of class trips to ensure that everything is safely predictable, prepare math and literacy boxes full of extra visual resources, and run social skills groups and weekly Reflection Sessions for teenagers with autism to help them make sense of their school week.
Great strides are being made in our schools every day. Children with autism are no longer expected to simply fit in. Teachers are making sure they are as much a part of school life and culture as every other child. Let’s celebrate the giant leaps being made in inclusion and the hardworking school staff who make them happen.
Claire Droney works as a specialist teacher for autism in the Bridge School Outreach Team. The Bridge Outreach team supports children and young people with autism in mainstream primary and secondary schools throughout Islington, as well as providing training sessions and resources for school staff. Claire holds a Masters degree in Education and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Special Educational Teaching from University College Cork. Previously, Claire worked as a classroom teacher for seven years in a special school for children with autism, and for three years as a class teacher in a special school for children with mild and moderate learning difficulties. She has written about special educational needs for publications including the Irish Examiner, the Islington Gazette, and Impact, the journal of the Chartered College of Teaching.
For further information on autism awareness and autism resources, please see the Bridge School website.
This article was featured in Issue 65 – Back-To-School Transitions