Schools make autistic pupils feel isolated, report warns

Schools are inadvertently contributing to autistic pupils seeing themselves as 'different' to their classmates, say researchers

Helen Ward

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Negative experiences in mainstream schools have harmful long-term effects on pupils with autism spectrum conditions, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the University of Surrey identified different ways in which schools contribute to autistic children seeing themselves as “different” to classmates in a negative way.

For example, sensory sensitivity, which is a common characteristic of autism and can magnify sounds to an intolerable level, can lead to everyday classroom and playground noises being a source of anxiety and distraction.

This can affect a pupil’s ability to concentrate in the classroom and to socialise with others, further increasing isolation and a sense of being "different", reports the study, published in the journal Autism.

The paper says that experiencing social and emotional exclusion in mainstream schools can increase autistic pupils’ risk of developing low self-esteem, a poor sense of self-worth and mental health problems.

The researchers, who examined 17 previous studies in the area, discovered that autistic pupils tended to internalise negative attitudes and reactions of others towards them, which led to a sense of being "different" and more limited than peers.

'Small changes can make a big difference'

But pupils with autism who developed supportive friendships and felt accepted by classmates said this helped to alleviate their social difficulties and made them feel good about themselves.

Dr Emma Williams, lead author of the paper, said: “Inclusive mainstream education settings may inadvertently accentuate the sense of being ‘different’ in a negative way to classmates. 

“We are not saying that mainstream schools are ‘bad’ for pupils with autism, as other evidence suggests they have a number of positive effects, including increasing academic performance and social skills.

“Rather, we are suggesting that by cultivating a culture of acceptance of all and making small changes, such as creating non-distracting places to socialise, and listening to their pupils’ needs, schools can help these pupils think and feel more positively about themselves.

“With over 100,000 children in the UK diagnosed with autism, it is important that we get this right to ensure that pupils with autism get the education they deserve and leave school feeling accepted, loved and valued, rather than with additional mental health issues."

The research comes after a Department for Education-funded study published earlier this year found that children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) were more than twice as likely to be unhappy with school than those without SEND.

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