Autistic pupils receive raw deal

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
Some authorities have no planned method for teaching children with autism, writes Fiona MacLeod

Autistic pupils and teachers can become too reliant on support staff in mainstream classes, according to a report published this week.

HMIE's evaluation of education for autistic children in Scotland says responsibility is falling on classroom assistants, with mainstream teachers fearing they lack sufficient knowledge.

Although the report ackowledges training and qualification in special units and schools is high, it says some mainstream teachers, particularly in secondary, feel they are left to develop their own strategies.

The report says: "In none of the eduation authorities visited did staff in mainstream schools have appropriate levels of expertise in ASD (autism spectrum disorder)."

Some teachers are finding the unpredictable behaviour of autistic youngsters difficult to cope with. HMIE added: "In a few cases, some staff in mainstream schools demonstrated their lack of understanding of ASD by identifying pupils' difficulties as 'bad behaviour' rather than a form of communication disorder."

Inspectors visited 40 schools in five local authorities across Scotland and two centres for autism: 71 per cent of primary children and 72 per cent of secondary pupils with some level of autism were in mainstream schools.

The report is critical of a firefighting approach, with some education authorities reacting to sudden demands rather than having a planned approach to the education of autistic pupils. It calls for consistency in the quality of services and says more staff training and continuing professional development will play a crucial role.

HMIE concluded: "Teachers and support staff should be provided with high-quality training to enable them to meet the needs of pupils with autism spectrum disorders and to ensure they do not miss out on the educational opportunities they may deserve."

At secondary, inspectors felt schools could provide more access to the curriculum and national qualications, encouraging schools to use individualised educational programmes (IEPs) to fit in with A Curriculum for Excellence.

Schools should work with other agencies, such as health and social work, to create these IEPs where appropriate, with targets to fit in the curriculum's focus on successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.

The report acknowledges that autistic pupils can be victims of bullying in mainstream schools, a problem highlighted by the National Autistic Society (NAS) Scotland's new campaign which demands improvements in education for autistic youngsters.

Launched on the same day as the HMIE report, Make School Make Sense, claims 38 per cent of autistic children suffered bullying at school and called for earlier intervention and better understanding of the condition in mainstream schools.

According to NAS Scotland, 46,000 families in Scotland are affected by autism, although the HMIE report notes that some authorities were unable to quantify how many children with autism are in schools because of under-diagnosis.

Meanwhile, parents Fiona and Neil Sinclair are taking their fight with the Scottish Legal Aid Board to a judicial review. The couple want their 10-year-old son Gregor to attend the residential Horizon School in Staffordshire but were denied legal aid by the board in fighting South Ayrshire's decision to reject their placing request.

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