'We need an autism and learning disability champion'

Scotland could become first country in the world to appoint a commissioner for autism and learning disability

Laura McConnell

'We need an autism and learning disability champion'

The Our Voice Our Rights campaign was launched on 27 January and, if ultimately successful, would make Scotland the first country in the world to appoint a commissioner for autism and learning disability.

The campaign is led by a leadership team of autistic people and people with a learning disability in coalition with Scottish Autism, the National Autistic Society Scotland and Enable Scotland.

A commissioner would work across all sectors in Scotland to improve access to human rights, to make Scotland more inclusive by ensuring equal access to services and support  and that autism and learning disability do not prevent young people from achieving their full potential.

Background: Call for autism and learning disability commissioner

Enable Scotland: Children 'put at risk by often-barbaric practices’

ASL review: ‘The whole concept of inclusion is not fully embraced’

Autism: ‘Dare to see the reasons behind behaviour’

Quick read: Children 'failed' by drop in specialist teachers

As an autistic teacher of autistic children, I long for the possibility of a Scotland where young people like me feel able to live authentically without fear of discrimination. But, in order for us to be seen as equal, first we have to be seen. 

While most people have heard of autism, certainly within the education sector, the condition is often not understood in any depth and that understanding may not be accurate. Learning disability is further misunderstood and often confused with the term "learning differences". There is also confusion about the relationship between autism and learning disability, all of which can lead to judgement and misunderstanding.

Published in June 2020, the review of additional support for learning in Scotland noted that “training is key to support the attitudes and ethos of practitioners”. But, alarmingly, the same review also found that “98 per cent of the education workforce feels that initial teacher training education does not adequately prepare teachers for teaching young people who have additional support for learning needs, including Learning Disability”.

While the report confirmed what most teachers knew anecdotally, it paints an embarrassing picture of a sector that is supposed to be "getting it right for every child", to use the official terminology

It has been a long time since the Additional Support for Learning Act (Scotland) became legislation in 2004, yet we are in 2021 and there is no national standard of consistent, evidence-based training for schools across Scotland. Instead, we have a mixture of local authority, NHS, third-sector and private consultants delivering face-to-face training; schools will have to pay for it, or teachers are left to look up information about autism online, which is why the sector is riddled with tropes and misconceptions. 

Giving evidence in response to the review, Scotland’s largest teaching union, the EIS, said that there is too little dedicated time for professional learning on additional support needs (ASN) and too few resources to meet the array of needs (for more on this, see volume 105 – specifically p22 – of the Scottish Educational Journal).

It is, therefore, vital that a commissioner is appointed to make a case for a standard of quality-assured and evidence-based training, as well as adequate resources in the Scottish education sector, so that we can properly support young people  and ensure that autism and learning disability will not be a barrier to them achieving their goals.

Laura McConnell is an autistic teacher of autistic children, based in Scotland. She tweets @LauraFMcConnell

Links and references

Enable Scotland campaign

Scottish Autism campaign

National Autistic Society Scotland campaign

Our Voice Our Rights website

Our Voice Our Rights campaign e-form

Review of Additional Support for Learning Implementation report

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