UK offers some of the best understanding of autism

23rd June 1995 at 01:00
We write, as professionals involved in research into the educational needs of people with autism and in training professionals to work with such individuals, in response to your feature article on the Boston Higashi School (TES, June 9). Although the National Autistic Society has been quoted, there has been no attempt to consult the professional organisations for educators of individuals with autism or to obtain a balance to the polemic presented.

We both recognise that the approach adopted by the Higashi school has some strengths in meeting the needs of pupils with autism, but it also has weaknesses and it is not appropriate for The TES to suggest that parents or funding authorities need to look outside the UK for effective education for pupils with autism. Schools for pupils with autism in the UK will vary in effectiveness and approach, but almost all of the positive effects identified in the Higashi School can be found in the UK.

An overall point is that the article hardly mentions education at all; the examples of practice (rather than what is claimed) and the focus of the parents' comments are about behavioural control. Nor does the article show any understanding of the educational needs associated with autism and gives the impression that the Higashi School does not either. What is the point of recognising that pupils with autism are "socially isolated, and often anxious and fragile" and then going on to say that they "treat autistic children like any other children". This is to act as if it were the behaviour that was "autistic" whereas one may be isolated, anxious and fragile for a number of reasons and it is the pattern of disabilities, and the underlying psychological mechanisms, that make it autism and determine the treatment. The approach as presented here appears to deny the autism, an approach that has long been abandoned as a total curriculum approach by schools in the UK and elsewhere in the USA and Europe.

The recognition of the harm that may come from the Higashi regime concentrates on the earlier problems of suspected abuse but does not analyse the problems with the approach itself and the naive views of autism that underlie it. It is clear also from research that physical exercise (even the struggle through a tantrum while restrained, as is used in other approaches) does have an initially calming effect in autism, but the effects are short-term and addictive. In the long term such an approach builds up the need for increasing quantities of exercise and an obsession with exercise, while it might be better than some other obsessions, still presents problems in management and education. We have advocated regular aerobic exercise in autism, and would support its use in Higashi, but it must be part of a curriculum which also addresses long-term educational needs.

We would not claim that all schools for children with autism in the UK have got it right or could not improve their practice. Schools are variable in expertise, as well as approach and even the best struggle to keep pace with our growing understanding of autism and the most effective teaching approaches. But we have both seen examples of practice here, in Europe and in North America and some of the best practice we have seen is here in the UK. We cannot "cure" autism and no educational approach is likely ever to be able to do so, and perhaps it is this which is at the root of the parental dissatisfaction displayed in your article.

RITA JORDAN Lecturer in autism University of Birmingham STUART POWELL Reader in educational psychology University of Hertfordshire

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