Academics Identify Lack Of Understanding

York St John University study highlights autism provision failings in mainstream education
December 1, 2022

An academic study of the challenges faced by autistic pupils in secondary education has found a new approach is needed.

The York St John University study findings found a variety of important issues that worried autistic children including: sensory stress in busy school environments, difficulties in forming and maintaining friendships, peer victimisation and negative perceptions of difference, classroom practices that made learning harder to access, being disciplined for behaviours that are characteristic of autism and low expectations of ability from some teaching staff. 

The work was led by the university’s Sue Mesa, senior lecturer in occupational therapy and Dr Lorna Hamilton, associate professor in psychology and was conducted in partnership with the specialist autism teaching team at York Council and was supported by the Institute for Social Justice.  

The team worked with 15 young people, their families and teachers over a four-year period. The pupils attended 12 primary schools and five secondary schools across the borough.   

The feedback from young people into the daily challenges they faced, included a lack of understanding by teachers and pupils with one pupil saying they were a target for school bullies, while another said they were labelled as being “weird”.

Further, the report shows autistic pupils resorting to ‘masking’ or hiding their condition because they wanted to fit in, or refusing extra support to avoid seeming different from their peers.

Researchers found that acting ’normal’ at school could take a severe toll on young people’s wellbeing and their behaviour at home. It could also mean teachers were unaware of a young person struggling until they reached a point of crisis. 

Sue Mesa of York St John University

Ms Mesa explained: “There are more than 166,000 autistic pupils in schools in England, a figure that’s increased by 8 per cent since 2020. Over 70 per cent of autistic children are educated in mainstream schools, but rates of exclusion are disproportionally high, and many autistic young people say they are unhappy at school.  

“We all know the importance of these young people getting the best support possible and listening to them and their families is key to understanding the best ways to help.” 

The local authority’s team have also made some key recommendations in the report, which relate to: universal training for school staff, educating the wider school community, making adjustments to the physical and sensory school environments, inclusive neurological diverse teaching practices, more effective home school communication and individual pastoral support for pupils with autism.

The team’s Maxine Squire said: “City of York Council highly values the partnership work with York St John University. This is crucial in developing an evidence base to inform the development of strategic approaches to improving the lived experience of neurological divergent children and young people in York.”  

The researchers are now running a series of workshops to share their findings with education providers as well as parents and carers.  

The Report on the Autisms Transitions Research Project can be read in its entirity HERE