Natalie’s Blog – Barriers to Education Faced by Autistic People
There is a social disparity in the educational experiences of autistic people versus their neurotypical peers. I have worked in secondary schools and sixth form colleges for over 15 years, and throughout this time I have seen first-hand the lack of support for neurodivergent learners begins from a young age.
Autistic children are often mislabelled ‘naughty’ or ‘difficult’, and receiving a diagnosis in the first place can be a timely process. The National Autistic Society found that in 2021, a quarter of parents waited over three years to receive an autism diagnosis for their child. From the time a child’s referral is processed and an agreed Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP) set into motion, the child has either disengaged with school, suffered from inadequate educational provisions, or is starting to sit their exams with no access arrangements in place. Worryingly, the same report found that more than one in five parents said their child had been temporarily or permanently excluded from school, demonstrating how mainstream education is failing to meet the needs of autistic children.
Autism is significantly underdiagnosed in women, with men being 4 times more likely to receive a diagnosis. One reason for this is that females are more able to ‘mask’ and mirror their peers. In a 2020 study by University College London, researchers explored school attendance rates of about 500 autistic female students and found that a staggering 43 percent of these students were persistently absent from school. This lack of diagnosis has contributed to 1 in 6 autistic children in the UK developing anxiety disorders and being unable to attend school.
Following tireless campaigning and the 2022 Autism Review, the Government has stated that funding for SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) will increase by more than 50% by 2024. The long-awaited SEND improvement plan, published in March this year, will support teacher training and creative new provisions. However, the current education system is not built for neurodiverse children, with a lack of adequate staff training and resources. This funding is needed to rectify this oversight, as SEND support can make a real impact on neurodivergent children. The National Autistic School Report (2001) states that “7 in 10 students felt that school would be better if their teachers understood autism”.
Research by the University of Birmingham found that autistic students are twice as likely to be regularly, and unlawfully, excluded from school for a fixed term than those who do not have SEND. Over the last 5 years, every region in England has seen an increase of between 45%-100% in the number of school exclusions for students on the autism spectrum. This has led to many students not accessing education, leaving them behind their peers and facing difficulties as they get older in finding suitable employment.
This lack of adjustment and training continues into further education. The North East Autism Society found that 36% of autistic students do not complete their university courses, and are 10 times more likely to drop out than students who are neurotypical. Charity Ambitious about Autism found that a quarter of young people with autism were not currently in education, employment or training (NEET), which is almost double the rate of the general population.
This lack of qualifications, along with limited support throughout their education, can impact employment opportunities. The Office for National Statistics found that fewer than three in ten autistic adults were in work. The Buckland Review of Autism Employment, supported by the National Autistic Society and the Department for Work and Pensions, aims to change this. They state that in order to attract autistic employees to the workforce and safeguard their working environment, employers need to identify and better support autistic staff already in their workforce.
The ‘Ask Listen Do’ strategy aims to make it easier for people with a learning disability or autism to give feedback or raise a concern. By adopting this strategy, autistic voices can have access to reasonable adjustments to be happy and productive in their work. Working at Creative Support has shown me how adopting this ethical approach to inclusion in the workplace creates a productive and happy environment where everyone is valued. Employers should also regularly review working practices or initiatives, where many adjustments would also benefit a wider group of neurodiverse people, including those with ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia.
A fundamental overhaul of the diagnosis pathway to support students is desperately needed to eradicate autistic children being denied their human right to an education. Without qualifications, employment opportunities are prohibited, and an isolating experience in their formative education can leave an autistic person with emotional scars that make the workplace seem like a daunting and unobtainable prospect.
We know that reasonable adjustments in schools and the workplace make a real difference to the lives of autistic people. Such adjustments could be as simple as clear communication; realistic deadlines with fair expectations; an environment that does not provide sensory overload; and creating a caring and inclusive culture that celebrates difference. These small changes will benefit us all.