The truth about autism and school attendance

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Pupils with autism benefit from school routine and structure. So why are so many excluded? Barney Angliss considers the contradictory data on attendance and autism and considers how schools might help.

Summary

  • Schools can be difficult places for the autistic child but they also offer routine and organisation.
  • Children with autism are sometimes ‘airbrushed out’ through being placed on a reduced timetable or as a result of an illegal exclusion.
  • Through understanding autism, no child need disappear below the radar.

Attendance data for pupils with autism in the mainstream is complex but immensely important. This is because:

  • it tells us something about how effectively schools manage the needs of these pupils
  • it helps us to understand the effect of this developmental condition on children’s learning and wellbeing
  • it reveals much more about the impact of autism on families.

Just over 33,000 pupils with autism were enrolled in our primary schools in the last school year. This number fell slightly in secondary schools to a fraction under 30,000 as some transferred to the special school sector.

We know that children with autism face a constant struggle before and after school, in the classroom and out in the playground. They often display intense anxiety at night or early in the morning, manifesting itself through challenging behaviour at home or through an intense desire for strict routine. I know children on the spectrum who are lining up their uniform at 05:30 every day.

Schools can be a difficult place for them to come to. They can have the experience of sensory overload and feel overwhelmed by the noise, lights and movement surrounding them in school. They take jokes from their peers literally, leading to distress and frustration and they are more likely to have additional needs such as ADHD, dyslexia and hypermobility.

The playground can be problematic too. They can have difficulty in managing social interaction and communication so they are often isolated, which becomes more obvious at breaktimes and at the school gate.

Attending well

Yet pupils whose primary special need is autism appear to have almost the lowest rate of unauthorised absence in Years 1 to 6 and are still at the lower end of the range in Years 7 to 11. Even when their authorised absences are included, their attendance compares well with other types of special need. Most surprising of all, pupils diagnosed with autism have an absence rate just 1.5% higher than all pupils.

This is a remarkable statistic when you look at the news headlines and the research on the number of autistic children who are excluded, have no school to go to or are home educated because their parents have given up trying to find a school which can meet their child’s needs.

However, this is precisely the problem; those children are not included in the absence data. They are airbrushed out because the data is based on enrolments – the number of children on school registers and the number of sessions offered.

The hidden children

Research last year by the charity Ambitious about Autism found that around 20,000 children have either:

  • been placed on a reduced timetable
  • been sent home early without the required formal exclusion process, or 
  • been asked not to go into school on days when there were tests, trips or other special events.

The researchers surveyed 745 families in the UK. They found that not only are children with autism four times more likely to be permanently excluded from school than other children, but they are also missing out through these unrecorded exclusions. These exclusions are typically signalled by a phone call from the school requesting someone to take the child home.

The data tells us that schools probably have a slightly contradictory response to autism, either supporting pupils or excluding them, according to the pressures of the day – and not necessarily understanding when or why they are doing this.

The importance of routine

Although it is inappropriate to generalise about the needs of children on the spectrum because they are as individual as any other, it is true that most benefit from strict adherence to routine and many, in my experience, positively demand it. Schools are, superficially, geared to routine. Everything from the timetable to the seating plan to the book boxes to the rotas; each classroom has a name on the door (at least until you get to secondary school) and every activity has a sequence. This routine is a positive feature of the school set-up that schools could work to the autistic child’s advantage.

However, there is a threat to this benefit. Schools can also fall victim to constant change, each of which can have a hugely disproportionate effect on the child with autism. Failure to protect the autistic child from these changes and not anticipate the impact they can have, makes a potentially successful placement fail quickly.

Autistic children have a fixed idea in mind of how the day will proceed and, when schools value routine as much as the children do, this works well. The anxiety reduces throughout the day as each piece of the jigsaw gradually slips into place so that, by lunchtime, there’s a very good chance they will make it to the end. That builds confidence for tomorrow, for next week and for next term.

Motivation for rule-following

The very consistent attendance of some autistic pupils shown in the data reflects their strong motivation to meet expectations, even when their experience tells them that failure is possible. Many have an almost rigid sense of right and wrong and they face their difficulties quite stoically, determined to do what the rules say should be done, no matter how annoying or discomforting they find certain voices, music, laughter, touch, texture, smell, or just the proximity of another person.

We should also remember that, when they go home, this sensitivity to everything that’s going on doesn’t switch off. Parents describe home life as treading on eggshells as the list of intense dislikes and unbreakable rules grows ever longer. Invitations from friends, family and neighbours dry up. It isn’t only the child with autism who suffers isolation: it will also touch siblings, parents and carers and they can start to feel isolated from each other.

How can schools help?

Schools must build on their tendency towards routine and anticipate and prepare the autistic child when it changes. These children don’t respond well to unplanned change such as noisy events, celebrations, school photos or supply teachers. Personalised visual timetables and reminders can help and walking through an upcoming event together is useful.

Don’t ask, ‘Are you okay?’. You will always get a ‘Yes’, which means nothing.

Children usually just want to say what they think you want to hear. To really find out how things are for the autistic child at your school, look at patterns of attendance, eating, toilet use, play, mood and ‘stimming’. Stimming is the repetitive habits used while processing information or feelings.

Meltdowns happen. Work through them slowly and carefully, recording your observations afterwards to share with the family or carer. Understand the triggers, which can be as simple as too many layers of clothing or too many changes in a day.

Eye contact is not essential. Pupils with autism are generally more comfortable having a conversation if you sit side by side and look at something together rather than sitting face-to-face.

Working with others

Finally, remember that you are not on your own. There are a number of organisations that can help you.

For autism, some key contacts are as follows:

  • The autism outreach service: This may be provided by a specialist school in your area or by the local authority directly. It can advise teachers, support staff and parents and even have them on speed dial.
  • Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS): In most areas, CAMHS provides assessment, diagnosis, treatment and support, but some areas may still use paediatric or neurodevelopmental practitioners.
  • The Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG): If you experience real difficulties in getting the health support your pupils need, try building links with the CCG in your area. There are 209 CCGs in England and they commission the healthcare for young people; some are extremely helpful.

In order to know how best to help your pupils, you need to begin by understanding what is happening in relation to autism at the moment. To do this, you might complete an autism action plan in conjunction with others who have responsibility in this area. The school’s SENCO should already have additional information and if an audit hasn’t been conducted already, this might be something you could put in place together.

Evidence suggests that there is no reason why autistic children cannot have a high rate of attendance.

All schools can develop the routine and structure to make it possible, and protect it rigorously for their autistic children.

Further information

  • ‘Nearly half of autistic children “have been illegally excluded because teachers cannot cope with their behaviour”’, Daily Mail, 17 October 2016: http://dailym.ai/2ei23jT
  • ‘When Will We Learn?’, Ambitious about Autism, October 2016: http://bit.ly/2pz7BHI

Toolkit

Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

Barney Angliss is a teacher, trainer, consultant and researcher in special educational needs and disability (SEND), working with schools, colleges and local authorities. He is an adviser to the National Star Foundation and the DfE’s Independent Supporters programme. He can be contacted at: barney@adlzinsight.org

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Sarah Murdoch

Sarah Murdoch is Publisher for Attendance Matters Magazine. She is supported by an experienced team of commissing editors, editors, and designers.

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