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Blog post Part of special issue: Spotlight on SEND: Curriculum design and practice

What does/should inclusion even mean to the autistic learner?

Luke Beardon, Senior Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University

I feel that the equity versus equality ‘debate’ (Baily & Holmarsdottir, 2015; Bird, 2018) is more than pertinent when any discussion about autistic inclusion takes place. The idea that all children, regardless of neurotype, should be treated the same lays the groundwork for increased risk of direct and indirect discrimination – usually at the doorstep of the autistic student (my focus here is autism; I suspect that a similar narrative could easily be applied to the wider neurodivergent populations within education). And with that increased level of discrimination comes poor self-esteem, lower academic achievement, higher levels of exclusions, labels of ‘school refuser’, meltdowns at home, higher chances of long-term trauma – this disturbing list could go on and on. In fact, ‘school refuser’ is just one example of so many that is an indication of how biased against the autistic student much of the narrative within education is – after all, is it a ‘choice’ that a student is refusing to go to school, or are they so traumatised by levels of anxiety that it is, in fact, their only option? It’s obviously not as binary as ‘one or the other’, but the very fact that some autistic students are traumatised by their school experience, which then leads to them not being able to access school, is very worrying indeed. Treating all students as if they have the same needs will only increase the possibility of that trauma. 

For me, inclusion for the autistic learner is all about the following: 

  • based on autistic quality of life 
  • non-pejorative language throughout in reference to students 
  • meaningful to the individual 
  • includes reference to a full sensory profile 
  • relates to autistic communication and sociality 
  • takes autistic teaching and learning styles into account 
  • understands the spiky profile of the autistic learner. 

Based on autistic quality of life 

Inclusion must take individual quality of life into account. What motivates the student? What causes her anxiety? How is it best to communicate effectively with him? What are the ‘no go’ areas of interaction that we need to be aware of so that we can avoid them at all costs?  

Non-pejorative language throughout in reference to students 

This one could be so easy to implement – evaluating our language within education when it comes to autism and removing pejorative, pathologising terms (such as disorder, impairment, condition) completely from all paperwork will allow for a far greater inclusive feel for the individual. Referring to autism as opposed to Autistic Spectrum Disorder is simple, but effective. Identifying distressed behaviour, or anxiety-provoked behaviour – as opposed to challenging behaviour – gives a very different tone to the conversation.  

Meaningful to the individual 

Inclusive practice has to be meaningful to the student rather than the school – otherwise how can it possibly be deemed genuinely inclusive? Having FAMe (Facts About Me) implemented (Leatherland & Beardon, 2016) might well be an excellent starting point to understand individual needs. 

Includes reference to a full sensory profile 

The sensory environment within school can cause untold damage to the autistic student if their sensory profile is not understood. The child for whom having her top button done up is the equivalent of being strangled; the student with tactile sensitivity for whom having to sit squashed in among other students at assembly is physically painful; the pupil who goes without food because she cannot tolerate eating in the canteen – all real-life examples when a school lacks the required understanding of sensory needs. 

Relates to autistic communication and sociality 

If inclusion doesn’t take differing types of communication and sociality into account, then it is almost certainly not genuine inclusion. Having an array of different ways to engage – both academically and socially – including different ways of knowledge transfer (such as alternative forms of assessment) is essential if autistic learners are to be given the same chances of success as their non-autistic peers. 

Takes autistic teaching and learning styles into account 

Not all individuals learn in the same way – we know this within education. It stands to reason that if one is of a neurotype that differs from the majority, then traditional teaching and learning styles are less likely to be effective. Adapting teaching, offering different ways of learning, and embracing the diversity of the student population will go a long way towards fostering an inclusive environment. 

Understands the spiky profile of the autistic learner 

It is highly likely that the autistic student will have a spiky profile; being cognitively more able in some areas than non-autistic peers, while at the same time having more problems in others, often means that incorrect assumptions are made around ability which can lead to high levels of anxiety. This needs to be understood if the student is going to have any chance of feeling accepted and safe. And, after all – how can we claim that inclusion is working if a child doesn’t feel accepted and safe? 


Baily, S., & Holmarsdottir, H. (2015). The quality of equity? Reframing gender, development and education in the post-2020 landscape. Gender and Education, 27(7), 828–845.   

Bird, C. (2018). Accommodating disability: Barriers and burdens of a movement toward equity in an equality-based justice system. Texas Scholar Works. 

Leatherland, J., & Beardon, L. (2016). Introducing FAMe™: Can improved teacher access to individualised classroom support information impact positively on levels of anxiety in autistic pupils? The Bridge: Journal for Educational Research-Informed Practice, 3(2).