Is specialist autism training a good idea in ITT?

When I first came into contact with the education system, I made excuses. I hear the exact same excuses being made by other parents when I do my advocacy work. It generally goes along the lines of – ‘schools aren’t really set up for kids like mine’, ‘it’s not their fault, there should be special arrangements/teaching’, ‘they need more funding/support’ etc etc. I’ve since done a complete U-turn. While a few students might require a more therapeutic/nursing environment, these are few and far between. Warnock envisaged about 2%, everyone else should be supported in local schools with a bit of additional help. I have blogged about this before – are parents inadvertently perpetuating this social myth of ‘special’ needing ‘separate’ and schools happily playing their role of ‘not qualified enough’? What school is not ‘qualified enough’ to support a dyslexic student? Or a dyspraxic one? How about ADHD and Aspergers? Surely, all of these ‘conditions’ generally only require the Reasonable Adjustments that should be part of good practice?

Thirty-eight years on from the Warnock Report, I’m not sure we’ve actually got very far, although ASD is now going to feature in Initial Teacher Training (ITT). I’m not sure that’s a very good idea. The more we use labels, the more we perpetuate ‘special & separate’. In any case, what does the label actually tell us? Years ago, I would have been shouting ‘special & separate’ from the rooftops, now I’ve learned more about children’s development and learning and, funnily enough, it’s neither special nor separate. Yes, there’s typical and atypical, but labels are imposed. Typically, children learn to crawl, pull themselves up and then walk. A few, like me and my brother, skipped the crawl phase. My brother just got up & walked, I was a bum-shuffler. We were both atypical, but the outcome was the same as a typical child – we walked. Cognitive functioning isn’t so much different. Even if development is atypical, it doesn’t mean the end destination is also atypical. Where is the dividing line anyway? It may just be that it takes longer, or work-arounds are needed. A bit of wheeling and encircling rather than walking and running.

If I describe some functioning difficulties, can you tell what the label is?

  • Organisation
  • Working memory
  • Slow processing
  • Sequencing
  • Motor skills
  • Auditory/visual processing
  • Literacy (reading/spelling/comprehension/fluency)
  • Distractible

Suggested answers will probably depend on your child’s label – ASD, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia/DCD etc. The professionals often say that these ‘conditions’ overlap and children may acquire more than one label. Some have a whole list of them. Without knowing how a child is affected, the label is pretty much useless. One thing I do know about my students with ASD is that no two are alike. A few years ago I taught a chap who had very poor spelling and little understanding of number (I wasn’t then in a position to teach him these skills, he was, in part, some of the reason why I chose to specialise). Recently I assessed another student with ASD for exam concessions who was well above average for every test I did, but his comprehension just wasn’t there. He scored well in my ‘usual’ assessment of comprehension, but was citing the sentence rather than demonstrating understanding. I had to find an alternative test to show this. The first student was witty and quietly engaging, projecting an air of ability that was, actually, significantly impaired. The second appeared to be intellectually impaired due to his social language issues, but was otherwise highly academically able. So what, exactly, is going to be taught as ‘autism’ in ITT?

Will ASD-specific ITT cover the ‘core’ only, i.e. social communication and restricted/repetitive behaviours, or the whole wide spectrum of difference? Given the overlap with other Specific Learning Difficulties, wouldn’t it be better to teach teachers to organise their classroom practices around the cluster of issues listed above, so that it would not only be a catch-all safety net, but also so it removes the bulk of ‘special & separate’? What classroom could not be made to accommodate these various learning differences as standard? Surely by doing so, it would free up teachers to concentrate on whatever difficulty remains? What school, what teacher cannot do this?

If it is assumed, for example, that all children may find it difficult to copy from the board (for all sorts of reasons), an effective teaching strategy would be to have handouts available to those who need them. I’m a big believer in allowing students to choose for themselves if they need them and leftovers can be re-used for revision/lost books/absentees etc. I’m also a big believer in making my life easier! The more ‘differentiation’ that can be done at whole-class level, the less I need to do for individual students. I can spend more of my time on quality teaching for what difficulty remains. In other words, the bits of teaching that ‘are not of a kind generally made for peers of the same age in … mainstream’. A move to a whole-class approach also removes the need for a substantial number of students to require an EHCP.

It is not only the student with ASD who may need assistance with social use of language, shy students and those with limited English may also benefit from group work in this area. Likewise, a student with ASD and spelling difficulties may also be linked with dyslexic students and English-learners. Of course, it will all depend on age, stage and personalities!

Students with weaker working memories forget key pieces of information which can inhibit their progress. Likewise, those who are prone to distractibility will not learn efficiently in a high-sensory environment. Motor skills issues & visual/motor integration issues will slow a student down, so they run out of time/unable to complete ‘tidy’ work in the timescale available. Knowing these issues exist to various extents in a larger population, and the types of differentiation which may assist, has got to be far more useful than learning a label, surely?!?!

How are we ever going to move forward if we continue to insist on a label-led approach, which does not feature in SEND law?

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6 thoughts on “Is specialist autism training a good idea in ITT?

  1. Interesting but the reality says that without the label the differentiated learning doesn’t happen in my experience. Both my sen kids are mainstream but the older one still couldn’t read when he was in year 3, Salford reading score was 4.3. An outstanding school had one way of teaching to read and were not prepared to differentiate until told to by an ed psych intervention. The label unfortunately gives a diagnoses and when a child is complex as you say labels overlap, you get a child centred approach by professionals rather than a teacher who has one hour of training on sen. Unbelievable to think that teachers do not know the basics like call a asd kid by its name when it addresses the class to sit down I.e. Tom and everyone please sit down. It’s been one hell of a journey and if I hadn’t experienced it I would not believe the tricks that school and the la do, not to idientify a need and follow up with differentiated support! Xx

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    1. I think your comments show how much more work needs to be done. The law does not require a label, so nor should the LA or a school (e.g. s66 Governors Duties).
      The more a lesson self-differentiates, the more ‘quality teaching’ will be the norm. Teachers will be able to focus much better on the barriers to learning/inclusion that need addressing.

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  2. Some very interesting ideas. While I am probably still of the opinion some some ASD specific training should be included in ITT (on the basis that something is better than nothing) you are right that an overly simplistic understanding can cause problems. I certainly felt when my son was a school that some teachers used an ASD label as an excuse, oh he does that due to the ASD, implying that there was no point in trying to address whatever it was. In many instances the problem could be broken down into a specific issue with working memory or organisation and could and should be tackled as part of a Reasonable Adjustment. Tackled the right way for the individual, not the label, with imagination, understanding and common sense most issues are resolvable.

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    1. Yes, I think so (obviously!). I’ve seen statements that have stipulated things like visual timetables etc, yet the EP report states clear issues with visual memory! This is the problems with ‘generic ASD’.
      We parents assume that teachers know and understand the psychology of basic child development, not realising that it doesn’t form part of ITT. How is the more specialised knowledge going to hold up without the basic foundations in place?

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  3. You raise some important points in your post. I’ve had many disagreements with teachers on social media about labels. One is that there are so many medical/developmental conditions they can’t possibly be expected to know about them all or differentiate appropriately for each child.

    When I’ve argued that a small number of learning difficulties are common to umpteen conditions so they could be expected to know about those, they’ve told me I’m wrong. Despite my ITT (just prior to Warnock) including identifying and addressing learning difficulties and their more recent training not including anything of the sort.

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