Written by Jill Pluquailec and Gill O’Connor
Our recent research project about autistic young people’s and families’ educational experiences during the pandemic has made two things evident: 1. Better educational experiences for autistic young people are possible 2. They are made possible through increasing flexibility in the system.
The education system has long since failed autistic young people whether that be through a disproportionate risk of school exclusion, or the swathes of young autistic people with poor mental health. It would therefore perhaps seem natural to assume that the pandemic could have only made things worse as education (both in school and in home education) faced monumental disruption for the past two years. State and media discourse around the impact of the pandemic on young people has been that it is an unprecedented and enduring educational disaster. Indeed, the little but growing research that touches upon the impact on disabled young people in general, has in the main recognised that inequalities have become further entrenched during Covid restrictions. Our research project carried out with autistic young people in a special school, and autistic young people and their families in communities, found that the pandemic had indeed been an enormous challenge for many. Interestingly, however, we also found that some of the forced changes that pandemic brought to education have actually resulted in significant improvements in aspects of young people’s educational experiences.
For us, the most powerful findings were around the difference that autonomy made to young people’s experiences. Whether that involved exercise, socialising, or academic learning, having choice and control over what they were doing and how, made a significant difference. Being able to choose whether to be on camera in online lessons for example, or being able to choose when, what, or how to learn or exercise, were all raised as small changes that improved young people’s experiences. Autonomous learning provided opportunities for some young people to work with, rather than against, their natural preferences for the first time. For others, structure and routine provided by schools in taught lessons was vital in maintaining a reassuring distinction between home and school.
<Image: comic strip finding: some autistic young people thrived at home due to increased bodily autonomy – choosing what to wear, when to eat, when to sleep, and when to learn led to more learning, and that learning was more expansive and more enjoyable>
Our recommendations largely centre around the opportunity the pandemic has given policy makers, school leaders, and education practitioners to conceive and practice education differently, in ways that better allow autistic young people to thrive.
Flexibility is crucial for young people to be able to learn. This includes flexibility of when, where, and how learning is understood to take place and a recognition of young people’s bodily autonomy such as choosing how to dress, when to eat, and when to take breaks.
Young people want, and need, to move their bodies beyond the tight confines of timetabled PE lessons. Where exercise can be built into young people’s educational lives, and freely chosen, it can lead to young people feeling more ready and able to learn.
Autistic young people don’t universally experience change as a negative particularly when that change brings about positive improvements to their previous educational experiences. This means recognising that autistic young people and their families hold expertise about possible alternatives in challenging situations and that pursuing routine for the sake of avoiding change is potentially detrimental.
Young people’s autonomous learning needs to be better recognised both within schools, beyond the confines of the curriculum or assessments, and within policy and practice relating to home educating families. In schools, this means educational practitioners taking a keen interest in young people’s interests and ways of demonstrating their knowledge which might not be immediately apparent in busy, assessment-driven school environments. In Local Education Authorities this means supporting home educators by ensuring that autonomous, child-led learning is valued and respected.
Education policy and practice needs to better account for young people’s emotional wellbeing. Recommendations 1 to 4 already provide a way forward. Each young person comes to their learning environments with their own needs. Learning does not happen in isolation of other life events. During the pandemic, there has been collective awareness of the strain on individuals. This awareness can and should be applied in wider policy and practice.
<Image: comic strip finding: when autistic young people did attend school, covid-related mitigations (such as signage, ‘bubbles’, and physical space changes) changed dynamics. For some this was confusing and overwhelming, whereas for others, the increased predictability and simplifying of school life was a significant improvement in their everyday experiences>
What is apparent throughout this research project’s findings is that in circumstances where young people and families thrived, it was where previously restrictive or disabling features of education had changed or disappeared. Many of those features are socially conceived functions of education institutions rather than being fundamental to effective pedagogy. For example, where families spoke of improved learning due to lack of uniforms, or timetables dictating when and where one should move one’s body, there is a lesson to be learned about how the logistics of mass education impose restrictions on young people being able to learn in the ways most conducive to their natural rhythms. Those logistical decisions and social conventions of education as an institution, both at local and national policy levels, could be conceived otherwise, as the dramatic changes of the pandemic have shown us.
It should not take a public health crisis to enable an education system to be more responsive to the needs of young people. This is a small but significant window of opportunity. With the long overdue SEND Review finally published last week, it is vital that decision makers in education policy and practice seize the momentum of change that began with the pandemic.
For further details, please read the project report, explore our digital collection of autistic pupils’ artworks, view our comic strip findings, or contact the project lead: Dr Jill Pluquailec firstname.lastname@example.org.