Autism in education

Promoting a culture of safeguarding in educational establishments for autistic students, where they are included, empowered and safe from bullying and sexual harm

Autism is still a relatively new idea to the general public and despite the proliferation of autism ‘awareness sessions’, new developments in our understanding of autistic minds can be difficult to keep up with, rendering such training quickly out-of-date. Combine this with the age of the internet, social media and identity politics, and it makes for a heavy mix of issues.

First – a brief introduction to autism:

Autism has been described by autistic people as having “a different kind of brain [which] influences everything we do and how we think” (Fede & Laurent, 2020). In particular, autistic brains are characterised by high levels of synaptic activity, with a propensity to sensory-overload – smells, touch and lights can be excruciating for them and cause intense anxiety, especially when events (and people) are unpredictable. They experience social relationships differently and due to the euphemistic and unreliable nature of non-autistic people (or neurotypicals), it makes it understandably difficult to understand other peoples’ thought patterns and motivations. Bearing this in mind, the social challenges they face of being in a world where people are hard to understand and vice versa can leave them isolated & vulnerable. The more severe the autism, the bigger the gulf of understanding between either party (See Double Empathy Problem – Milton, 2012).

As technological advances have revolutionised the way we teach and assist learners in class, the internet has also alleviated the stresses of situations where learners are expected to be ‘social’, give eye-contact and communicate face-to-face. As social media has grown, so autistic people have been able to socialise without these demands. This easy accessibility has a downside however and has left teachers/professionals struggling to manage myriad safeguarding dilemmas.

Last year, Estyn produced a report, entitled, We Don’t Tell Our Teachers: Experiences of peer-on-peer sexual harassment among secondary school pupils in Wales. In its analysis, peer-on-peer harassment happened more frequently online, specifically through social media and gaming; both popular pastimes for young autistic people. This poses serious safeguarding problems for schools and colleges. Some establishments use security systems which flag ‘abusive’ terms exchanged over messaging services to try to monitor harassment but this in turn raises dilemmas over learners’ privacy and data protection.

To make matters more complex, the creeping ideology of all things ‘gender’ is weaving its way into online discussions, particularly in autistic groups, where young people are bombarded with propaganda about sexuality and gender-identity, which are often conflated (and conflated further with autistic identity). The proportion of autistic folk who are gender non-conforming, gay, lesbian or bi, is higher than it is for neurotypical people. Gender non-conformity can be as a result of the sensory issues – hyper-sensitivity to clothes and fabrics, manifesting in atypical dress preferences. This can then lead to them being agreeable with the suggestion they are at odds with their natal sex (neatly framed as ‘gender’) and must be transgender or non-binary. Their non-conformity means they are frequently bullied and excluded.

In Estyn’s report on harassment in schools, it specifies as an intervention, “pupil-friendly training on Autistic Spectrum Disorder for the rest of the class”. While no doubt well-intentioned, such interventions could have the unintended effect of placing the onus of responsibility onto children, risking resentment among peers and establishing an ‘us and them’ mentality between autistic and neurotypical children; a partisan attitude which is reflected in autism groups on social media.

The internet and social media appear to be both blessing and curse for autistic people and for the establishments trying to educate and safeguard them, which need to tread the fine line between ensuring online safety without draconian curtailment of privacy and independence. When we have policies in place which can do this, we will be on a more even footing to approach the complex and essential task of helping young people to do the work of adolescence, which is to establish their own unique identities.

According to a document from the Office for National Statistics, ‘Abuse during childhood’, disabled and/or long-term ill adults aged 16-59 were “significantly more likely” to have experienced all kinds of abuse in childhood compared to non-disabled/long-term ill adults.

Disabled/long-term illness: 32%
Non-disabled/long-term illness: 18%

With regards to LGB adults who experienced any form of childhood abuse:

LGB: 38/39%
Straight: 18%

Combine the above statistics with the fact autistic people are often disabled and LGB (or gender non-conforming) and you have the perfect storm of safeguarding issues, especially online. Therefore, the stakes are high and it is imperative we get it right. What then, can be done?

We need to create an open and trusting atmosphere between students, teachers and parents/guardians, taking the form of open discussions, debates and forums where dilemmas can be posed, learners can air views respectfully (sensitively monitored/moderated by staff) and discourse can take place. Enabling learners to speak about where they go online, the things they see and the content they are confronted with can go a long way to assuage any anxieties over safety, as it will afford staff the chance to discuss with young people what they get out of being online and in turn, allow the learners to express any concerns in a safe environment.

Depending on the learners and how they respond to their learning environment, there will be alternative and differentiating ways to engage them. This will be explored in greater detail in the webinar and in future.

Christian Wilton-King will be speaking at our webinar on Sat, 19 March 2022, from 10:30 – 13:00 GMT. Book your tickets here.