I thank the committee for the invitation to address it on the issue of mandatory autism training for teachers, which has featured in every submission that AsIAm has made to the Department of Education and Skills in the past five years. Whether we are discussing the need for additional autism classes, the special needs assistant, SNA, scheme, reduced timetables, better outcomes for autistic students or children out of school, the issue of teacher training cannot but be central. It is no surprise to us that it has been brought to the attention of this committee by concerned parents and we congratulate Ms Boles and others who took the initiative to get the matter on the committee's agenda.
By way of context, I am the founder and CEO of AsIAm, Ireland’s national autism charity. We will be five years old this year. We endeavour to bring about an autism-friendly Ireland, that is, a society where every autistic person is respected and accepted as they are and has the opportunity to participate in every aspect of Irish life. Central to this aim is an inclusive education system that universally respects and values autistic students and their unique way of communicating, understanding and interacting with the world. It is important that we treat it as an accessibility issue. In the context of the discussion about mandatory training for mainstream teachers, we must recognise that the right to access mainstream education is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
We are at something of a crossroads in respect of autism access to education in Ireland. A total of 86% of autistic students enrolled in school now attend a mainstream school, which is a sea change compared with the norm perhaps 20 years ago. As a young child, I spent the first three years of my education in a special school due to a complete lack of support or knowledge of autism in the mainstream school system at the time. It is clear to us, however, that while the quantity of children attending mainstream school has vastly increased, the quality of their experiences is greatly varied and significant change is required to ensure that every autistic student has a positive, empowering school experience. Sadly, that is not currently the case. Every week, my team deals with cases of autistic children being disciplined because of their autism and how they may interact with others or due to high levels of anxiety. We also deal with children who do not have a school place or are on reduced timetables, often because of a lack of suitable teacher training, and a sense of rejection when a child is not understood, respected and celebrated within a school environment.
To include autistic students meaningfully, there are numerous essential ingredients. Schools must be adequately resourced, that is, they must have access to the staff numbers, capitation and clinical expertise they require to include students universally, a point which is repeatedly raised. The environment of schools must be autism friendly. When we consider accessibility, we often think of wheelchair ramps and lifts but we often overlook the sensory needs of autistic students in busy, loud and often congested mainstream school environments. Even buildings currently being constructed lack autism proofing in their design. School policies must be autism proofed. Policies that, for example, deal with discipline, assessment and enrolment cannot remain the same as before the introduction of autism inclusion in school. They must reflect the specific support needs of a cohort of students who may need to do things in a substantially different way to get through stressful school days, which affects the culture of schools, including the language we use to describe autistic students. Everyone in a school community must be informed and respectful of autism. This includes peers, parents, non-teaching staff and members of the boards of management. Perhaps most critically, all teachers within a school must understand and accept their role in teaching students on the autism spectrum and must be able to access whatever training they need to provide a differentiated, accessible education for such students.
I have outlined these different issues because it is right that we understand meeting the needs of autistic students as something of an ecosystem as opposed to any one action. Although we are in attendance to speak specifically about teacher training, it is important we also acknowledge the need for the State to do more to support schools. For those who may not be very familiar with autism, it is perhaps useful to provide a short explanation of the condition and why, as a result, students may need teachers to be further equipped to support them. Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that relates to how a person communicates and interacts with others and how they experience the world around them. In practical terms, this means that autistic students may communicate in a different way from others.
This might include using alternative communication systems as opposed to speech, understanding language very literally or not using facial expression or body language in the same way as other people. A student might see detail as opposed to the bigger picture. A student might not be able to fill in the blanks in social situations as other people can. If a student perceives his or her environment very differently from others, this may lead to sensory overload and significant discomfort. When these issues are misunderstood, it is easy for breakdowns in communication to occur, frustration to develop and a lack of understanding to become evident. Unfortunately, we often take a deficit approach to autism. If we accept that autistic people sometimes need to do things differently, we can unlock the potential of students whose insight is different from others and who often excel in areas in which they are most interested.
Given that one in 65 students in our education system has a diagnosis of autism and that autism is a vast spectrum, with every autistic person having different levels of need and different challenges and strengths, it is easy to see that every teacher will encounter many autistic students in his or her career and will need to have the capacity to adjust his or her pedagogy and classroom environment accordingly. We can think about this from an accessibility point of view. If a teacher does not have these skills, the school is not accessible for students. Many teachers are already taking action in this regard. AsIAm has been inundated with requests from schools to access training and talks during Croke Park agreement hours. The Middletown Centre for Autism is playing a vital role in providing a range of high-quality free training to teachers across the island of Ireland. We are lucky to meet incredible teachers every week who have learnt about autism through their own initiative, and are now playing a vital role in ensuring their students can fully participate and succeed. However, ad hoc efforts like this are simply not enough. This cannot be optional because inclusion is not optional.
The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 is 15 years old. If we consider this in the context of a student’s journey through school, we will understand that a generation of students is now ageing out of the school system. It is regrettable that not enough has been done in that time to ensure every teacher knows and understands autism. Autism education does not constitute a compulsory element of initial teacher education. There is no mandatory training for existing teachers. Many teachers who are assigned to autism classes have little or no training on the condition prior to taking up their posts. This is a recipe for disaster because it places students and teachers in an entirely unacceptable position. Unfortunately, many students are being failed today as a result. I am sad to report that we hear each week from students who have fallen out of school or are attending school irregularly. A key factor in these cases is teachers who are not equipped to meet the needs of autistic students. This must stop.
I would like to make some practical recommendations to the joint committee. Autism training must form a compulsory requirement of initial teacher education, in line with recommendations already made to the Department and the Teaching Council by the National Council for Special Education. As I have explained, autism is counter-intuitive in many respects. As a result, it requires teachers to have a discrete knowledge of the condition. Autism training can improve their overall teaching skills. Mary Immaculate College in Thurles has taken the first steps in this direction. I encourage the committee to learn more about its rationale for making this decision and to encourage all other initial teacher education institutes to follow suit.
There is also a need for a national programme of training and continuous professional development for all teachers in autism and other disabilities. We need to get beyond the concept of autism being the purview of any one teacher. It must be the responsibility of every teacher in every school. We welcome the similar calls that have been made by teacher unions. We urge the Department to commence consultation with stakeholders on what such a training programme should include and how it should be conducted. While I recognise that an evidence base is needed in this regard, it stands to reason that if a teacher does not have the knowledge to meet the needs of an autistic student, that student would be better served if the teacher were to acquire that knowledge. That is pretty intuitive.
Our next recommendation relates to the range of offering. It continues to be the case that a significant cohort of students who need autism classes or special school places cannot access them. Greater consideration must be given to the voices of parents when decisions are being made about school placements. Teachers in special classes must have advanced training and significant expertise. When we talk about training, we must remember that the people best placed to provide insight into their access needs and strengths are autistic students. In our work with young people, we have found that when students are not consulted on how they are supported, this reduces their self-esteem and their openness to accepting help. The voice of students must be built into the individualised planning process for autism because it is true that someone who has met one autistic student has met one autistic student.
I would like to highlight a positive example of partnership between educational stakeholders and our organisation. AsIAm, in partnership with the joint managerial body and the Irish Primary Principals Network, has developed a reflective online tool for teachers and schools to explore their own practice regarding autism. This will include three hours of free online training for every teacher in the country, aimed at a whole-school level of understanding. We will pilot this programme with 200 schools in September. Schools and teachers are often asked to be autism-friendly without a clear or fair picture of what this looks like. We hope this tool and training will help to make that relationship attainable. Teachers can massively improve the lives of autistic students. The teachers I had in school made such a difference in my life. The profession is already doing a lot, but we must put in place supports and standards to ensure inclusive practice is a universal reality in our education system.