Thursday, 1 November 2012

Does inclusion work in autism education?

This just in from Disability Scoop:
Inclusion is often believed to be the best option for students with disabilities, but a new study calls into question whether or not the practice truly leads to better outcomes long term.
Researchers found that students with autism who spent 75 to 100 percent of their time in general education classrooms were no more likely to complete high school, go to college or see improvements in cognitive functioning than those who spent more time in segregated environments.
The results published Thursday in a special supplement to the journal Pediatrics come from a study of nearly 500 young adults with autism who received special education services at public schools nationwide. Researchers assessed data on the students collected in the federal government’s National Longitudinal Transition Study-2.
“We find no systematic indication that the level of inclusivity improves key future outcomes,” researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Johns Hopkins University wrote.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students who qualify for special education are supposed to be served in the least restrictive environment. However, the study authors said their results call into question whether or not that requirement is associated with achieving the best long-term outcomes.
I am reporting on a report here without having read the actual article (I cant access it as I’m not subscribed to the journal it was published in).  As far as I can tell from the report in Disability Scoop, the researchers seem to have concentrated on the outcomes of completing high school, going to college and improvements in cognitive functioning.  I wonder what they would have found if they had looked at other key outcomes that contribute to a good quality of life, such as friendships and relationships, level of independence, self-esteem and self-confidence, and maybe even, experiences of bullying.
In 2006, the NAS ran the ‘Make Schools Make Sense’ campaign.  Their report (2006) showed:
- Over 50% of children are not in the kind of school their parents believe would best support them.
- 45% of parents say it took over a year for their child to receive any support.
- There are more appeals to the Special Educational Needs (SEN) and Disability Tribunal in England about autism than any other type of SEN. 79% of parents who appealed to the Tribunal in this survey won their case.
- Parents say the biggest gap in provision is social skills programmes.
- 1 in 5 children with autism has been excluded from school, and 67% of these have been excluded more than once.
The above statistics are not from exclusively mainstream placements – they include special schools as well as resourced units and mixed placements.
For those of you considering educational placements for your children with autism, in 2011 the UK’s Centre for Research into Autism Education (CRAE) surveyed a diverse range of schools educating pupils from right across the autism spectrum, finding several consistent themes despite the diversity of placement and whereabouts on the spectrum.  Good practice schools:
- Had high expectations for their pupils with autism
- Used multiple assessments to monitor progress beyond those statutorily required in order to monitor children’s progress in terms of academic skills but also social and behavioural outcomes
- Were well versed in individualising and adapting the curriculum for each pupil acknowledging that pupils with autism have additional and unique needs and unique approaches to learning and the broad ‘autism curriculum’ reflected these needs
- Encouraged effective and sustainable relationships with specialist health and social care practitioners, in particular SALTs, OTs and CAMHS
- Nurtured expert, highly motivated staff for whom training was a priority both inside and outside the school gates
- Had very high levels of communication with parents and carers, both about approaches to learning and on strategies to promoting positive social and behavioural outcomes and well-being
- Were characterised by strong leadership and vision, which saw their school as fully inclusive and deeply embedded within the local community, taking on an ambassadorial role to raise awareness about autism
- Worked hard at developing fully reciprocal relationships with families – parents and carers and children and young people.
The full report is available here.
I would be interested to read others' views on inclusion - please post comments!


  1. For my two autistic children (a boy with ASD, a girl with aspergers), mainstream has been a disaster. By the time they were 10 years old, they could no longer manage and ended up with mental health problems and school refusal. Even though we battled and battled for additional support for them, their mainstream school did not understand, or want to understand ASD. They were very anti statementing too so it took ages before we got their statements of SEN by which time they were ill and out of school.

    We eventually got a special school place for my son. Its better than the mainstream option; the school is small and teachers are better trained. There is a lot of emphasis on social skills and behaviour and opportunities for practical or academic qualifications.

    HOwever, its not perfect. My biggest complaint is that there is little communication between them and the mental health services. My son has an anxiety disorder but the teachers don't appear equipped to deal with this. Neither do they appear to have support from CAMHS. As a result my son has ended up out of school again due to his anxiety not being managed properly. It is something I want to raise at a local level because I feel CAMHS could have done more to support my son in school.

    As a result of all of this, my son has missed out on several years of education which I mainly blame on mainstream education failing to support him early enough. We're now on an uphill battle to rebuild his confidence but its difficult and I worry for his future.

    As for my daughter, I am just as worried. Mainstream is too demanding for her but special school is not right for her either. for the time being she is going to a pupil referral until until she is emotionally strong enough to attempt school but which school she will go to remains uncertain. On looking around schools and talking to various people, there seems to be an inadequate understanding of the needs of girls on the spectrum. Most peoples understanding seems to be based on how boys present with ASD and most special schools are mainly attended by boys.

    So in answer to your question, I would argue that inclusion in mainstream education has not worked for my autistic children. If anything it has left us with greater challenges.


    1. Hi Deb
      Thanks for your very detailed comment. I am really sorry to hear about the difficulties your children (and you as parents) have experienced in relation to their educational placements.
      Unfortunately, this kind of story is all too common.
      I am currently working in a multi-disciplinary team (via a Child in Need meeting) with colleagues from social care and health (CAMHS) relating to one of our pupils from a neighbouring authority. So far, the experience is extremely positive but I recognise that this is because of the individual people involved - I struck lucky with this team. My experiences with similar situations in other local authority areas are more like the ones you describe in your comment. When it comes to children with autism, (especially those with complex presentations) teamwork is key.
      I hope you manage to get provision sorted for your children. If you'd like to challenge CAMHS on their lack of input, I can put you in touch with a solicitor and a barrister who could support you to do this. DM me on twitter if you want to discuss further.

  2. Hi Zoe
    Thanks for this post. My ten-year-old daughter has Aspergers and is in a mainstream school. We've got a statement and she has one to one help, but progress is very up and down. Much of the problem lies with her deep-rooted hurt at previous years of bullying and lack of understanding which, though the school is now working hard to support her, she is struggling to process. I think we're not doing enough to teach other children and mainstream school staff about autism (within the spectrum of other differences), which has got to be the bedrock of any inclusion policy. I worry endlessly about finding the right fit for my lovely girl. I don't think she should or needs to be at a special school, and I can't afford to do home education if I'm to pay my mortgage. So we carry on, though a lot of the time it doesn't feel quite right.

  3. Hi Sophie
    Thanks for your comment. It's a dilemma, isn't it? I guess I am lucky that its very clear for me that my son needs to be in a special school - he is the inspiration behind Bright Futures School that we opened in 2010.
    I find it easier to change my own practice than to fight to change the practice of others, which is really the crux of why we set up our own school, why I resigned as a Councillor from the NAS and why I no longer get involved with local autism campaigning. The fight to change others' thinking/raise awareness in education just seemed too overwhelming for me, especially when I started thinking about how daunting that would be in relation to a mainstream secondary school. In the end, I decided...dont tell them, show them, so thats one of the things we're trying to do with our school now.
    I wonder if a special, personalised programme with mixed placements might work for your daughter? In theory it should be easier to secure this type of provision when the new SEN legislation comes into place......of course, theory is one thing, and practice can be quite another :( but maybe thats worth thinking about? Good luck.

  4. As far as I can tell from the report in Disability Scoop, the researchers seem to have concentrated on the outcomes of completing high school, going to college and improvements in cognitive functioning.
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