Autism petition approaches 10,000 signatures

29 Aug 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 29 Aug 2019

Autism NI is calling for mandatory autism training for all teachers in Northern Ireland –organising a petition they will present at Stormont next month. Scope speaks with CEO Kerry Boyd.

One in 30 schoolchildren in Northern Ireland has an autism diagnosis.

That amounts to almost 10,000 children and young people between the ages of four and 15 – with another 2,500 currently waiting for an assessment.

Over the past five years, the rate of diagnosis has increased by 62% for children in that age bracket.

Autism represents a large and rapidly growing challenge for NI. The way we deal with the situation has a lot of room for improvement.

Only 16% of autistic adults have full-time employment – despite the majority being ready, willing and able to work.

At the start of the summer, Autism NI created a petition calling for mandatory autism training for all teaching staff in NI. At the time of writing it has just under 10,000 signatures.

The organisation says: “It is critical that our children are given the support they are entitled to at school. We want them to have the best possible start in life and the best educational outcomes. No child with autism should miss out on a full and supportive education.

“Many of our teachers in Northern Ireland feel overwhelmed with the lack of training and resources they are given to teach autistic children. We are therefore calling for the Department of Education to introduce mandatory autism training for all teaching staff within mainstream schools.”

Autism is a lifelong condition which affects the way an individual relates to people, situations and their immediate environment.

Scope wrote recently about how much is still unknown about the condition. However, we do know plenty about how to handle it, and how to make reasonable adjustments so people with the condition face as few barriers as possible to full and equitable opportunities, compared with the rest of society.

Classroom help

Autism NI CEO Kerry Boyd spoke with Scope about why proper help for all teaching staff is so important, and why mandatory training could make a difference.

She said the prevalence rate of autism has dramatically increased in recent years and that is one reason the organisation is campaigning for change.

“Our Helpline receives over 4,700 calls per year, with education remaining one of the top three areas needing support. In a recent survey we conducted, it was revealed that a third of our children were on reduced timetables, with parents stating that autism training for all teaching staff would support their child to achieve the best educational outcomes.

“As 78% of autistic children are in mainstream schools, it has become an urgent need for those educational settings to fully understand and be able to support a child with autism. The Ulster Teachers Union also support this position with Susan Thompson, current President, stating that it is a critical need for the well-being not only of the child with autism but for the teaching staff and other children within the class too.

“The All Party Group on Autism are also in full support of this campaign. This Group is made up of cross-party representatives from all political parties throughout Northern Ireland. In England, mandatory autism training for teachers was introduced in September 2018 and I feel that Northern Ireland needs to follow suit.”

Finer details

The case for training is clear. However, there are practical concerns. This is a large undertaking. Scope asked how comprehensive any mandatory training should be.

Ms Boyd said: “Many teachers and classroom assistants throughout Northern Ireland have no training in autism at all. For this reason, even basic awareness and understanding of autism would go a long way. However, I would advocate that all teaching staff undertake an accredited training course in autism awareness which will include topics such as understanding behaviours and support mechanisms specifically within the classroom.

“The course should also cover reasonable adjustments which could be made to enable a child/children to have a better educational experience, taking into account their social and communication disability as well as their sensory issues.

“A good example of this could be that teaching staff write the homework on the whiteboard at the start of class, rather than explaining it verbally at the end of class when there will be a lot of noise as children are ‘packing up’ and this would be very distracting for an autistic child. This may sound like a simple measure, but unless teaching staff are aware of the issues that surround autism, they are not able to adapt their teaching style to accommodate it.

“However, I would also say, as explained in the example above, that good autism practice is good practice and will benefit all children too. For example, a quiet space, could benefit not only children with autism but also children that have high anxiety too.

“Ultimately, I would like this training to empower teachers to be able to feel confident in teaching a child with autism and in being able to spot the characteristics of autism and how to support them.”

Value for money

The rising prevalence of autism only increases the case for mandatory training – and that is before the knock-on effects of good training are considered.

Accredited teachers and teaching staff could share their knowledge throughout the entire school and, of course, not just to present-day pupils but also those in the future.

Ms Boyd told Scope: “Many autistic children are also on reduced timetables due to the inability of mainstream schools to support them. Therefore, the current cost to the Education Authority as a result of tribunals relating to this must be sizeable.

If teachers were adequately equipped and resourced to support autistic pupils, this would not be happening. It is also important to note that it is teachers themselves that are asking for training. They too feel the pressure and strain to work with children they do not know how to support. They feel that this is an unfair and unreasonable request of them and is unproductive for the entire class, as well as the autistic pupils. 

“The Ulster Teachers Union noted that strategies for autistic children are best practice and as such would benefit all the children in the classroom reach their potential in a broad and balanced curriculum.”

Autism-friendly NI

Currently four males are diagnosed with autism for every female with a diagnosis. However, the prevalence among girls has been increasing at a higher rate than among boys (at an average of 14% per year over the past decade).

Autism NI wants to see the barriers for those living with autism removed, to allow equality of access to rights and opportunities.

Mandatory autism training for teaching staff could make a significant difference. It would improve the educational experience of children with an autism diagnosis – and also help provide a culture shift, and promote better understanding amongst the peers of people with an autism diagnosis.

“If we educate our teaching staff in relation to supporting autistic children, they will cascade this learning and understanding throughout their school. This will undoubtedly have a positive effect on all school children, becoming more autism aware as their teachers lead the way in better understanding.

“We want all school children to grow up with a sense of compassion and understanding towards their autistic peers and to see autism as something different and a disability only by name.”

The organisation plans to deliver their petition to Stormont on September 11. It will hold a campaign rally for parents and supporters to officially hand the document over.

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