Autism training

Written by: HTU | Published:

The first national autism training programme for schools is offering free CPD for a range of education professionals. Steve Huggett explains

Awareness of autism has grown markedly in the last decade. This improving awareness has increased the number of children getting a diagnosis, in turn placing greater demands on schools and local authorities.

The current prevalence of autism among children is about one in 100, which equates to just under 134,000 children in the UK at present. The majority of these attend mainstream schools, which means that any school is likely to have several children on the autism spectrum, yet a high proportion of teachers do not feel comfortable teaching these children.

Lack of experience and training can often be a source of anxiety for teachers when faced with a child with autism: they just do not know what to expect. Lack of knowledge about autism itself can also be a source of fear for staff, making them feel unprepared.

For example children on the autism spectrum might be disruptive or walk out of lessons when their stress levels are high, and staff may worry about how to handle this type of situation. Training is vital, but many teachers finish their initial teacher training courses with only a sketchy understanding of autism. And this lack of training is one of the reasons there is such a high exclusion rate among children with autism.

There is clearly a need across the education system for better knowledge of the autism spectrum and more effective strategies for supporting those affected, so that children with autism can access all aspects of school life and reach their full potential.

It is important that all school staff – from those newly qualified to experienced headteachers, and not just teaching staff, but governors, caretakers and lunchtime assistants – have an awareness of autism.

This is why the Department for Education has tasked the Autism Education Trust (AET) with launching one of the most wide-ranging professional development programmes in autism education.

This ambitious programme is now swinging into gear and beginning to have an impact in primary schools across England. The AET has been awarded £1.2 million over two years from the Department for Education’s Voluntary and Community Sector grants.

Children with autism are now often being diagnosed at an earlier age than in the past, so many already have a statement of special needs when they start primary school. This is not always the case for children with average levels of intelligence or above, whose difficulties can be masked by their strengths and who may be diagnosed with High Functioning Autism or Asperger Syndrome much later. Whether a child has a diagnosis or not is less important than providing the right support at the right time.

Early identification of autism should mean that schools can be better prepared to support these children. But as autism affects each individual differently, the diversity of a child’s specific needs and abilities poses a huge challenge for the school, calling for a high degree of flexibility and a personalised approach. There is no one-size-fits-all solution – in all cases it is a specific knowledge of the individual child that is vital.

The key for staff when supporting a child with autism is to get to know him or her well and to involve their parent or carer, so that they can better predict how the child will respond to things and ensure that they are prepared for any changes to the child’s routine which might cause them anxiety. It is also vital to build effective support plans for the child around other potentially anxiety causing times such as transition to secondary school.

Three levels of training

Until now there have not been any nationally recognised standards for teachers in autism education, yet all teachers, including NQTs and teaching assistants, can expect to teach a child or young person on the autism spectrum at some point in their career.

The AET’s three-tier training programme is aimed at a broad range of school staff, and is delivered by seven regional training hubs. The programme forms an essential part of CPD and uses a range of teaching tools including video, case studies, problem-solving scenarios, presentations, practical resources and activities.

Alongside this, a set of national autism education standards are being developed to allow schools to evaluate their capacity to support young people with autism, as well as a competency framework to support professional development.

Level 1 is basic autism awareness training for teaching and non-teaching staff within any education setting. As well as teaching staff, these may include office staff, governors, caretakers, drivers and escorts.

Level 2 is for all staff working directly with children on the autism spectrum. As well as teachers, these might include teaching assistants and lunchtime staff.

Level 3 is for all staff who need further knowledge of autism or who may wish to pursue a training role and might include SENCOs or lead practitioners in autism.

Training at Level 1 is free and the AET aims to train at least 5,000 people at this level in 2012/13. Levels 2 and 3 will be rolled out from September. All three levels focus on children and young people aged five to 16 and span the full range of special and mainstream settings. The AET has commissioned Birmingham University’s Autism Centre for Education Research to develop materials for the training programme.

Regional training hubs

Training is delivered by a network of specialist training hubs in seven different regions in England. The hubs currently cover London, South East, West Midlands, East Midlands and the North West, but it is hoped this will be expanded to cover other regions. Hubs are run by a range of bodies, including schools, local authority specialist teams and voluntary and maintained sector organisations.

National standards

In parallel with the training programme, the AET has commissioned the development of a set of standards to enable schools to evaluate their practices in addressing the needs of their pupils on the autism spectrum. They were piloted last term and are available on the AET website.

Competency Framework

The last interlinked part of the AET programme is a professional competency framework for autism education. It focuses on those working directly with children on the autism spectrum in educational settings, defining the skills and knowledge required and matching these with a person’s knowledge and qualifications.

Helping schools

With the implementation of a new legislative framework following last year’s SEN and Disability Green Paper, this is a period of significant change for schools, local authorities, families and young people.

Moreover government policy encouraging the autonomy of schools risks fragmentation. It is important that support for different SEN is aligned so that schools can take a consistent and integrated approach.

The challenge is significant but the prize of a better-trained workforce and more effective schools is crucial. Crucial to the professionals involved but most importantly crucial to the children who they serve.

For further information, visit

• Steve Huggett is director of the Autism Education Trust, a partnership of organisations with an interest in autism education founded by Ambitious About Autism, the Council for Disabled Children and the National Autistic Society.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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