Special Educational Needs - Autistic children don't need to change - you do
The lives of autistic children could be transformed if mainstream schools put more effort into training other students to understand their "odd" behaviour, a psychologist has suggested.
The approach currently taken by many schools - which puts the onus on the autistic student to learn to cope with their environment - is akin to "telling a child in a wheelchair to find a way to get to the top of a flight of stairs", according to Steven Stagg, an expert in child psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in the East of England.
Instead, students should be taught about the difficulties autistic children have with social skills, such as reading and responding to facial expressions, understanding jokes and taking part in conversations.
Children also need to be given the time and space to voice their fears and concerns - however unfounded - about fellow students with autism, Dr Stagg said. This would help to reduce bullying and would enable autistic children to make friends, something they are often "desperate" to do but can struggle to achieve, he added.
Dr Stagg made the comments after publishing research showing that children form negative impressions of their autistic peers after just a 30-second encounter.
Academics from Anglia Ruskin and from Royal Holloway, part of the University of London, showed a group of 11-year-olds short videos of the faces of autistic and non-autistic schoolchildren.
Although the subjects were not told which children were autistic, they rated those with autism as less trustworthy and less friendly, and were less likely to want to play with them or be their friend.
"The approach we have at the moment is we say to autistic children, 'You are not very good at facial expressions and emotions.'" Dr Stagg said. "They are put on intensive programmes and it's very difficult for them.
"But you wouldn't present someone in a wheelchair with a flight of stairs and say, 'You need to find some way to get up them.' You would adapt the environment.
"If other children in classrooms are aware of the autistic child's difficulties, if they are aware they might not smile in the same way, or might not get their joke, they will be able to self-reflect (and) not take it personally.
"Most autistic children desperately want friends, but they can be very bad at it. They might greet someone asking about their weekend with one word, but they might be desperate to carry on the conversation."
Dr Stagg said that some people on the autistic spectrum would always display behaviour that was "slightly odd", regardless of how much training they were given.
The best time to target children with autism awareness sessions was likely to be the final years of primary school, Dr Stagg said, although he is planning further research on this.
Another study, published earlier this month by University College London's Institute of Child Health, suggests that the diagnosis of autism in eight-year-olds has levelled off in the UK, after an increase in cases during the 1990s.
The National Autistic Society estimates that around one in 100 children in the UK are on the autistic spectrum, with the majority educated in mainstream schools.
In a 2012 survey by the society, more than two in 10 young people with autism said they had no friends at all, and one in 10 said their friends were mainly adults. Half the children surveyed said they would like more friends. But nearly two-thirds had been bullied at school.
Caroline Hattersley, head of information, advice and advocacy at the society, said: "Great strides have been taken in autism awareness over the past 50 years but there is still much work to do in shattering illusions about the condition and its effects.
"Lots of children with autism struggle to make friends and some may be picked on because they stand out as different. Teaching children who don't have autism about the condition will go a long way towards increasing understanding and awareness."