The problems of school exclusion faced by autistic children and young people are well known.
This exclusion can take many forms, and the reasons for this situation are complex and multi-faceted.
And while this exclusion might not be deliberate, few can doubt the negative impact on autistic children of exclusion of any type, in terms of their health, wellbeing, attainment and longer-term outcomes.
Autism in schools
In my PhD research study, teaching staff complained that they felt they lacked training in autism. But while good-quality training in autism can, of course, be extremely beneficial, the concept of training can also be problematic.
This is because it may reinforce the idea that school staff can only make sense of these apparently mysterious beings if someone else provides specialist knowledge. In other words, pinning everything on the concept of training can contribute to the notion that autistic pupils are different, strange or "other".
Alongside these issues is the question of representation. The five schools in my study were all in a large, culturally diverse, urban environment. They did an admirable job, it seemed to me, of validating that cultural diversity, through themed events, wall displays and classroom activities.
But there was a lack of representation of disability and autism in the broader school culture which amounted to another, subtle form of exclusion.
A new approach
If we put these two issues together – training and representation – this does suggest the need for a new approach if we want to improve educational inclusion for autistic children and young people.
If school staff feel they need training in autism, what if some of those staff are autistic? And if they are, does everyone else know? If not, why not? What are the problems autistic school staff face in their work? What needs to be done to encourage more autistic people into teaching? And how would autistic children and young people feel if they were represented in school, not only through its pedagogy and culture but by the person sitting in front of them every day – the class teacher?
It could be, that for decades now, by focusing on strategies for inclusion and staff training, we have been looking in the wrong direction, even if these approaches have a role to play.
By shifting our attention onto facilitating and enabling a more diverse school staff, the apparent need for external specialists diminishes, as understanding of pupil diversity becomes more integral to the ethos and culture of schools.
I have therefore launched an anonymous pilot survey – intended as a stepping stone to a larger project – into autistic school staff.
If you are over 18, and work or have worked in schools in an education role in the UK, please consider completing the survey.
And for all education professionals, please share the survey on your networks.
Overall findings from this survey will be shared publicly and, who knows, this could represent an important step in understanding and supporting autistic pupils and those who teach them.
This project was initially developed as part of Rebecca’s ESRC postdoctoral Fellowship at King’s College London, where her mentor was Professor Francesca Happé. Rebecca is now a visiting researcher at KCL and a Senior Lecturer in Special Education at the University of East London.