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Who are the experts? Why autistic voices should be central to autism training in schools

Clare Lawrence, Bishop Grosseteste University

Autism is the most common type of identified need for pupils in English mainstream schools (DfE, 2018), yet despite the considerable focus on training, teachers continue to lack confidence in supporting autistic pupils (Vincent & Ralston, 2020). Perhaps one reason for this is that autism training tends to be delivered by neurotypical people to an implied audience of neurotypical teachers. Although some autistic people may sometimes be included at some stages, this training is seldom instigated by the autistic community, and the ‘authoritative voice’ of the training is seldom that of an autistic person (Bartlett & Carrington, 2021).

The short film Broken was created by artist John Rimmer working in close collaboration with young autistic adult ‘Fauxparl’ (a pseudonym) to portray a first-person narrative through the eyes of an autistic pupil. The film uses the medium of collage and computer-generated imagery to express events in a mainstream classroom, and the experiences of making the film were recorded in a short article published in 2020 (‘Fauxparl’ et al., 2020).

The use of the film to enhance neurotypical teachers’ understanding of autism has been explored through its inclusion in the PGCE course at Bishop Grosseteste University. A pilot study exploring use of a draft version of the film was undertaken with the 2019 cohort (Lawrence et al., 2020), and the film was revised and modified in response to the feedback. One of the most important impacts of the film (and one missed by many) is that the communication breakdown is caused as much by the teacher’s inattention as by the autistic pupil’s ‘dysfluency’. Nor is the primary issue that disrupts learning caused by autism. The pupil struggles to gain the teacher’s attention to indicate that his glasses are broken and that he needs to move closer to the whiteboard. The resulting images, excerpts from computer games, recalled sounds, and so forth are part of the pupil’s rich inner world to which he defaults while disengaged. They are sources of interest and comfort, yet are mistaken by many teachers who view the film to indicate ‘distress’ or ‘sensory overload’.

 

‘One of the most important impacts of the film (and one missed by many) is that the communication breakdown is caused as much by the teacher’s inattention as by the autistic pupil’s “dysfluency”.’

There is a disconnect in experience evident here and, indeed, of perception of what autism ‘is’. This may be due to issues of ‘double empathy’ (Milton, 2012). An autistic pupil, this theory suggests, may not have instinctive insight into the thoughts of a neurotypical teacher, but neither does a neurotypical teacher have insight into the world of the autistic pupil. If progress is to be made in the mainstream education of our children, the education of neurotypical teachers needs to address this dichotomy.

Of course, not all teachers are neurotypical, and the inclusion of the voice of autistic teachers is of urgent importance if the experience of those who are autistic in our education system is to be better understood. Material for Rimmer’s latest film addressing the concept of autistic ‘stimming’[1] is drawn from autistic students, autistic adults (including autistic teachers), parents of autistic children and those who span these categories. Responses to the film as it evolves will similarly be sought from teachers and trainee teachers, parents and students who are both neurotypical and autistic. These films, and resources made to accompany them, will form part of the teacher education element of the West Midlands pilot of the Autism Schools Project later this year. The aim of the project is to promote better understanding of the lives of autistic people and their families, and, through this understanding, to enable real and tangible improvements. It is hoped that collaborative working across the neurological divide as manifested in Rimmer’s films may support an environment where differences can be discussed and celebrated rather than hidden. For, as Eve Curie – citing her mother Marie Curie – suggests, it is curiosity that leads to understanding, and it is through understanding that we learn not to fear (Curie, 1938).

[1] Stimming refers to self-stimulating behaviour, including repetitive or unusual movements or noises such as arm or hand-flapping, finger-flicking, rocking, jumping, spinning or twirling, head-banging, and so on.

References

Bartlett, T., & Carrington, S. (2021). Autistic voices in autism education research. In Suzanne Carrington, Beth Saggers, Keely Harper-Hill, & Michael Whelan (Eds.), Research approaches to supporting students on the autism spectrum in inclusive schools: Outcomes, challenges and impact (1st ed., p. 13). Routledge.

Curie, E. (1938). Madame Curie. Gallimard.

Department for Education [DfE]. (2018). Special educational needs in England: January 2018. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/729208/SEN_2018_Text.pdf  

‘Fauxparl’ (Pseudonym), Rimmer, J., Lawrence, C., & Mahon, L. (2020). ‘I can’t understand a word he says’: A personal exploration of autistic dysfluency in film. Disability & Society, 36(2), 332–336. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2020.1838262

Lawrence, C., & Rimmer, J. (2020). Pilot study: Can the draft film Broken support trainee teachers’ understanding of autism communication issues in mainstream classrooms?. Teacher Education Advancement Network Journal, 12(1), 65–74.

Milton, D. E. (2012). On the ontological status of autism: The ‘double empathy problem’. Disability & Society, 27(6), 883–887. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2012.710008 

Vincent, J., & Ralston, K. (2020). Trainee teachers’ knowledge of autism: Implications for understanding and inclusive practice. Oxford Review of Education, 46(2), 202–221. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2019.1645651