Back to School: Understanding the Path to Re-Integration for Autistic Children Who Previously Experienced Educational Exclusion
All children have the right to receive an education and to be included in school, yet young people on the autism spectrum, who are already vulnerable to poor health and social outcomes, are at increased risk of being excluded from so-called inclusive settings. In fact, in England, over a quarter of children and young people on the autism spectrum have been excluded from education at least once. Being excluded from formal education can have drastic consequences, yet little is known about the realities of being excluded from school for autistic children and young people. There is also no research on the most effective ways for teachers to get these children back into school.
The aims of this project were twofold. First, we examined students’ experiences in an Inclusive Learning Hub; an educational environment specially designed to increase the opportunities for children with the most complex behaviours to access education. Second, we sought to identify strategies employed by staff to improve students’ well-being and re-engagement with school.
Nine cognitively able students (8 male, mean age 13.3 years; mean non-verbal reasoning score: 97.5), all with a diagnosis of autism and the majority with a history of demand avoidant behaviour, were seen multiple times over a 6-month period to complete questionnaires and semi-structured interviews. Their parents and 20 members of teaching staff completed a battery of measures examining the students’ educational experience and socio-emotional wellbeing and the researchers also observed the young people in situ.
Young people and their parents gave overwhelmingly negative accounts of their previous school experiences, which meant that these children were unable to engage in and access education and, in most cases, were permanently excluded from school. Unsurprisingly, these events often left the young people highly anxious, lacking in confidence and disaffected by school. Re-integration into school (the ‘Hub’) was therefore gradual, with staff making extensive efforts to attend to students’ mental health needs. Despite often-traumatic educational histories, students’ developed a newfound enthusiasm for school and their parents were extremely positive about the gains children had made. The Hub, seemed to provide a safe, secure environment for these young people, with dedicated staff who were highly attuned to the students’ individual needs and challenges. Key strategies employed included an individualised student-centred approach avoiding the use of direct demands to reduce levels of stress and anxiety. Young people were also given greater autonomy in controlling their physical environment and daily schedule.
This project contributes to a better understanding of the educational experience of previously excluded students and, critically, identifies transferable strategies for educators and those supporting these and other students, especially those with a history of demand avoidant behaviour, to ensure their well-being and engagement in learning. Future research needs both to identify the factors that place these children at risk of educational exclusion and to determine the best ways of re-integrating young people into learning environments beyond the safe space of the Hub, ensuring that they are adequately prepared for their future lives.