Studio 3 reviews 'Championing Your Autistic Teen at Secondary School: Getting the Best from Mainstream Settings' (2022) by Debby Elley with Gareth D Morewood
This recent publication from Jessica Kingsley Publishers (available online here) sees Debby Elley, co-founder and co-editor of AuKids Magazine, and Gareth D Morewood, Educational Adviser to Studio 3, team up to provide a comprehensive guide to supporting autistic teenagers in their transition to and placement within secondary school settings. From their combined perspectives of parent and teacher, the pair decided to write this book in response to a plethora of queries from parents and carers about supporting the transition to secondary school, and how to advocate for the best possible outcomes in their young person’s new setting.
Throughout this book, Debby and Gareth emphasise the importance of co-production, and that only by families and schools working together can a shared, open and communicative approach be attained for autistic learners.
The authors provide advice and support for creating inclusive learning environments, identifying and collaborating with inclusive secondary schools, and some common hurdles autistic students may face and how to overcome them. The foreword, written by Peter Vermeulen, highlights the need for inclusive education, particularly in mainstream settings, where autistic children are more likely to be bullied, isolated, and relegated to the periphery of the social world of the school without proper systems in place to build an inclusive environment – ‘a society that leaves no-one behind.’ Unfortunately, where there are only good intentions for including autistic children and providing equal chances for learning and developing, a lack of school policies and practices fail to create cultures where this is possible:
‘The thing is, good intentions alone will not get you very far. What is needed is knowledge about strategies to realise inclusion in practice. Practical tips to ensure that autistic children can thrive at school and that they love to go to school.’
That, as Peter states, is where this book comes in to offer advice, support and guidance for parents and teachers alike:
‘It does not offer a complicated academic analysis of all the possible difficulties and barriers that can pop up when an autistic student goes to school. Instead, it offers a wealth of useful and easily applicable tips. Tips that come from a lived experience with autism, a thorough knowledge of how autistic students experience the world in general and school in particular and – above all – a respect for all parties in the inclusion story: the student, the parents and the teachers.’
Indeed, this book contains a positive focus on practical methods for families and teachers to apply to improve well-being, boost confidence, and ultimately make a child’s time at school more rewarding and compassionate. From choosing the right setting for your child and building collaborative relationships, to overcoming common hurdles in secondary school and communicating difficulties in ways that will encourage productive and proactive responses, this book is an essential guide for families and teachers supporting autistic children through secondary education. Included throughout are step-by-step guides, checklists, charts, and links to further resources to help you along the way.
The first portion of the book focuses on choosing the right secondary setting for your young person by outlining some key signs you should look for when choosing a school. The authors indicate a number of ‘danger signs’ to look out for, such as notices and posters which show a punitive focus on behaviour, as well as green flags such as openness to try things in a new way, and a willingness to learn and adapt, which is key.
‘If school staff are willing to listen to you and work with you to tailor their approaches to suit your child’s needs, they don’t have to be autism experts in order to be effective.’
Creating learning environments that encourage autistic pupils to thrive may seem like a daunting task for teachers, but as Debby and Gareth point out, even under-funded mainstream schools can make small but effective changes in order to be more inclusive. The first step, of course, is ensuring that every adult in the setting has some knowledge of autism, and how this may impact a learner’s needs, behaviour, and ability to cope throughout the school day.
‘Schools need better resources, training and management when it comes to SEND: there’s no question of this.’
In any setting that supports autistic learners, constant consistency is key, as Gareth says throughout the book. ‘It’s only when all features of a setting work in harmony that an inclusive system really works,’ he states. Teachers should have an understanding of how autism and other SEND can impact learning, such as sensory processing and communication needs. Children should be taught self-regulation and interoception skills as part of their toolkit at secondary school, and teachers should be able to identify and manage distress before it builds up. This involves, amongst many other strategies, creating a Low Arousal environment throughout the school. Remember, ‘an autism-friendly school is identical to a student-friendly school’ says Peter. At Studio 3, we have always stated that everyone benefits from low-key, calm, Low Arousal environments where understanding, communication and compassion are key. Creating calm, stress-free environments where sensory stressors are proactively managed allows for greater learning opportunities, and evens the playing field for autistic pupils. A great example Gareth uses is that of school bells to signal the end of a period – in an age where everyone uses watches, there is no need to create chaos and panic every 50 minutes!
There is an emphasis on ensuring families and teachers are well prepared in the lead up to transitioning to a new setting, including making early connections with key staff and developing a narrative about your child before they have entered the new setting. This will ensure that staff are aware of what methods have worked in the past from primary school or at home, and can begin to implement them from Day 1. The book provides a detailed guide to starting these conversations without conflict, and maintaining good relationships between schools and families throughout the child’s education. Co-production is key. Sometimes, it can feel like you are in an ongoing battle, but in reality, you are both working to provide the best education for your young person:
‘Families may not have all the answers, and teachers may scratch their heads, too, but your pooled experience will bring more in the way of solutions than just one person’s reflections. It’s essential also to listen to the voices of young people themselves, finding out what is challenging for them and designing solutions together.’
By asking for openness and honesty, and providing the same in return, you increase opportunities for young people, and move one step closer to solving problems as a team.
When communication breaks down, the authors provide a guide for navigating conflict with the carer/school, and provide solutions for avoiding misunderstandings, ensuring productive communication, and navigating differences of opinion. The book demonstrates common assumptions families and teachers can make about one another, and encourages empathy and compassion as a means of better understanding and co-production. The book encourages you to advocate for your child, despite what ‘experts’ may say. ‘The expert on your child is you,’ encourages Debby, and you will know their needs better than anyone else. Advocate for the level of support you know they need, and encourage them to advocate for themselves too. Including your child at the centre of all decision-making that involves their future and empowering them to make their own choices will make all the difference.
Debby and Gareth also emphasise the importance of including peer groups in SEND education, and for non-autistic pupils to have an understanding of neurodiversity and the ways in which their classmates might do things differently from them:
‘By giving adequate peer training, including an explanation of how the demands of an environment can overload an autistic person, schools can ensure that other pupils won’t need to ask constant questions, singling out one individual for unwanted attention.’
The book also shares the experiences of Alfie Bowen, a photographer who struggled growing up autistic in mainstream education. It is extremely important to learn from people with lived experience in order to improve provision for the children of the future: after all, those who have lived through it know best. Alfie’s insight demonstrates that mainstream education can be an alienating experience for many autistic learners when their needs, interests, and differences are not recognised, met, and celebrated by their school setting:
‘I remember so many years of my mainstream education were spent sitting in a class with other students, being taught at their level rather than at mine, and that experience had a significant impact on me and my educational journey – I got frustrated, lost interest and withdrew not just educationally but also socially.’
Equal opportunities cannot be provided if education is not tailored to the level, needs, and interest of the individual. In addition, the curriculum needs to be flexible in a way that enables every pupil to thrive, not only those talented in academic subjects such as Maths and English. Academic success should not be the marker of ability, and individualised timetables offering additional subjects of interest and importance to pupils should be available. Alfie speaks about doing badly in exams, and says he realises now that ‘this didn’t mean I was unintelligent, it just meant that I was forced into a system that failed to highlight my intelligence.’
In conclusion, this book is a comprehensive guide to supporting autistic children and young people through secondary school, which covers a lot of ground for families and teachers alike. The authors share their knowledge in a clear and concise way, and the book is full of practical tips for families and teachers to implement in order to support autistic children to thrive at school and at home. The resources provided throughout are excellent tools to easily apply in practice, and we would highly recommend this book for educational staff in secondary school settings – mainstream and specialist – as well as parents and carers with a young person transitioning to or already implemented in secondary level education. In this book, the authors share their vision of a better future where SEND provision is engrained into every educational setting, and neurodiversity awareness and acceptance is the norm. Whilst we may not be there yet in every setting in the UK, we can begin to implement the practices within this book into our schools, starting with the simple things: working together, communicating honestly and productively, and being more aware of autistic pupils’ needs and how to meet them.
‘We can be planning for a better future – a future in which SEND isn’t sidelined but becomes part of policy and planning at every level.’
Get your copy now from Jessica Kingsley Publishers, or from your local bookseller.
Studio 3 Social Media and Information Coordinator