Category Archives: The Autism Centre

Are you being reasonable?

This Blog entry was inspired by the collaboration between Dave and Luke which resulted in some spectacularly positive student feedback, the majority of which came from autistic students – and much of which was spontaneous from the students themselves. Over coffee Dave and Luke discussed how the use of technology might not only go some way towards providing equitable provision within student feedback – but also the possibility that by not offering it as an option we might be putting some students at an unfair disadvantage. We concluded that the coffee and chat were lovely – and that we needed to do something more formal about the latter.

In 2010 the UK Government set out an amalgamation of discrimination laws to create The Equality Act as a single piece of anti-discriminatory legislation. One of the areas that is covered by the Act is the requirement for public bodies which provide a service to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that persons with a disability are not at an unfair disadvantage as a result of their disability. Sounds fairly straightforward, yes? No one reading this, I suspect, would think that they might be breaking the law, sometimes on a day-to-day basis – right? No one reading this would willingly, and knowingly put their disabled students at an unfair disadvantage – right? Quite aside from the ethical side to supporting students to the best of one’s ability and the pedagogical elements of good teaching practice, teaching staff would (presumably) want to ensure that they operated within the laws of the land while going about their daily business. The following is (almost embarrassingly) simplistic – and yet serves to highlight just how discriminatory – and unreasonable – we might actually be.

Screencast-o-matic (https://screencast-o-matic.com) is free, simple to use, and could possibly be utilised to avoid unfair discrimination. If you already use it, then share with a colleague – if not, then perhaps you might not be as reasonable as you previously thought! Take the following (fictitious) case study:

Kim is an autistic student with difficulties in processing the written word. She submits work on Black Board as per her university’s regulations, and she is given formative feedback with comments on her script. Compared to students without similar processing difficulties it takes Kim significantly longer to understand her feedback – sometimes as much as three times longer.

Is Kim at a disadvantage as a result of her disability?

However…

Kim is an autistic student with difficulties in processing the written word. She submits work on Black Board as per her university’s regulations, and she is given formative feedback via a recording of her tutor’s narrative feedback in line with her written script using screencast-o-matic. She can see her own work, the grade descriptors (marking rubric), and follow the tutor’s verbal comments in line with the recording. Her processing issues no longer apply, and she can utilise the feedback in the same length of time as her peers.

Is Kim any longer at a disadvantage?

Are you using this kind of feedback as an option for students? Are you being reasonable?

One concern of identifying something as simple as using software to reduce the potential of discrimination is the fear of being patronising to colleagues; however, as one of the two authors of this Blog entry (no prizes for guessing which one) is a Senior lecturer in Autism and is only recently making use of screencast-o-matic (to the great delight of his students) despite being very aware of the legislation – having been on the Government working party for what was previously the Disability Discrimination Act – we are confident that one of us (ok – it’s Luke) is probably the lowest common denominator amongst colleagues – so we are willing to take that risk! And if Luke can be taught how to use the software within a matter of about ten minutes, then it won’t pose a problem for others. The other author (Dave) has already taught and supported a great many SIoE colleagues in using Screencasting for feedback (and for other things too) and will be only too delighted to help more colleagues with this. Luke and Dave have written a case study, which is available on the staff intranet pages if you want to read more detail of Luke’s real students’ feedback and progress as a result of his use of screencast feedback. Other colleagues have used screencast feedback for other reasons and all colleagues are encouraged to share their uses with others.

Disability discrimination can take so many varied forms – and yet our Duty is to pre-empt as much as possible in order to ensure Equality whenever we can. Our argument is that by not providing this kind of visual feedback as an option we could potentially be doing some of our students a disservice.

Luke Beardon is a Senior Lecturer at Sheffield Institute of Education

Dave Darwent is a Senior Lecturer and E-Learning Technologist at Sheffield Institute of Education

The Autism Definition Debate – Language Matters

Education is all about teaching and learning. Well, it should be all about teaching and learning, however, for all teachers to teach and all learners to learn, it must also be about equality of access. From my perspective, as a member of The Autism Centre, equality of access, through the genuine inclusion of autistic students – which sometimes means adaptation, and sometimes means making reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act – always means that practice should be based on a good understanding – not necessarily of autism per se, but of how autism impacts on the student, within his or her own specific environment, at any given time.

But where is the starting point for all this understanding? What are the building blocks upon which to develop educators’ understanding, which might lead to good teaching and successful learning, and reduce risk of inequality for autistic learners?

There are currently two diagnostic manuals that are generally used to identify (my alternative term for diagnose) autism in children and adults. These are the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Psychiatric Disorders (DSM-5, 2013) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10, 2015). The issue for me is that both these texts are rooted in the medical model of disability. If one is inherently opposed to the concept of autism as a medicalised ‘problem’, then neither set of criteria sits at all neatly within one’s paradigm. I certainly do not subscribe to the concept of autism always being a problem or disability. Being autistic may well be problematic for the individual, living in a society made up primarily of the predominant neurotype (PNT), but this is not synonymous with autism being a problem. Being autistic could instead be understood as being at a higher risk of disadvantage – rather than being disabled, or impaired, deficient, or somehow ‘lesser’. But, if this is to be the case, how can autism be (re) defined to move educators’ thinking away from the medical model in a way that is of some benefit to the autistic student population? I found myself in the position of attempting to identify a narrative that outlines my perspective of autism in my recent published book, and this is the resulting text:

Autism refers to a neurotype that leads to a cognition that is qualitatively different from that of the predominant neurotype (PNT) in the way that information specific to communication, social interpretation and interaction is processed and understood; and to a perceptual reality of the sensory environment that differs considerably from one individual to the next (Beardon, 2017:19)

After publication, I became aware that one of SHUs Institute of Education PhD students had also written a definition which is, irritatingly, far better than mine. I have her permission to share it here:

Autistic individuals share a neurological type, which is qualitatively different to that of non-autistics, and which will necessarily impact, both positively and negatively, on aspects of their thinking and learning; sensory processing; social relational experiences; and communicative style, abilities and preferences. An autistic person’s experience of and ability to be successful in the world, will be dependent on the closeness of compatibility, between their individual profile of skills and requirements and their physical and social environment. Levels of sensitivity to environmental factors vary between individuals, and within the same individual over time, so that the presentation of autism is ever changing. A person’s neurological type, however, remains constant, and being autistic is a lifelong identity (Leatherland, 2017).

Despite the latter being more comprehensive than the former, there are some clear overlaps between them and also very clear disparities between both of our ‘definitions’ and the current diagnostic criteria, not least in the language used. What is abundantly clear is that the two attempts above are firmly rooted in a social model – they do not define autism as ‘the problem’. Leatherland’s depiction takes it a step further, and notes that the physical and social environment might cause problems for autistic individuals – something that could well be adopted more closely across educational institutions as a philosophy to build their autism understanding on.

If society in general, and education in particular (in this instance) wishes to adhere to, or at least work towards a state of equality for autistic learners, then surely base philosophical, ethical, and moral stances are critical from the outset. Inferring that an autistic student is somehow ‘lesser’, by adopting – or not challenging – medical model thinking and language, will likely have an impact on the lived experience of the individual, and that impact will, most probably, be negative.

Under the auspices of The Autism Centre, within an Institution that promotes social inclusion and equality, I am so proud that our students reflect on language and narratives, recognise how important they are, and genuinely begin the lead the way at the forefront of inclusive philosophies.

Luke Beardon is a Senior Lecturer in the Autism Centre at Sheffield Institute of Education

Autism Awareness – How Donald’s story shows attitudes are changing

In the 1930s a young boy called Donald Grey Triplett was the first person to be diagnosed with autism. Now in his 80s, he is regarded in a celebratory fashion, and not as a curiosity or a statistic. He drives a car, a Cadillac no less, and is well-liked by those who know him. His autism has not gone away, but he is part of the community, looked-after and cherished, living in his own house.

I was thinking, all these years on, , whether the general population, like those in Donald’s hometown, are more aware of autism – and its challenges.

There are numerous campaigns and callings to increase public and professional awareness of autism – but what does this really mean? Is this what the autism population needs? People with autism are often said to take language ‘literally’ – or, a fairer way might be to say ‘accurately’. It is, perhaps, ironic then that the Cambridge dictionary definition of ‘awareness’ seems rather ambiguous:

Awareness – knowledge that something ​exists, or ​understanding of a ​situation or ​subject at the ​present ​time ​based on ​information or ​experience.

From an autism perspective there is massive disparity between ‘knowledge that something exists’ and an ‘understanding of a situation or subject’.

Back in 1998 The National Autistic Society (NAS) produced a study identifying levels of awareness of autism in the UK (Beyond Rainman) – perhaps unsurprisingly the results make for somewhat depressing reading. More recent research, however, paints a very different picture; in 2015 the NAS statistics refer to a staggering 99 per cent of the population claiming to be ‘aware’ of autism.

As is so often the case, though, statistics may be misleading. Delving deeper into the issue, the NAS identify that of those proclaiming awareness, nearly one in five first heard about autism via a fictional TV show, film, book, or documentary. Only just over a quarter knew, or knew of, an individual on the spectrum. Most tellingly of all, however, in a separate survey, the NAS report that a huge 87 per cent of those with autism agreed or strongly agreed that the general public do not have a good understanding of autism. It would seem likely, then, that ‘awareness’ in this instance leans more towards knowledge of existence, rather than an understanding of the situation.

Being aware of something and having knowledge about that something should be seen in very different lights, certainly when relating to autism.

The dismay that can be caused by a teacher proclaiming to a parent – “I have a good understanding of autism because I taught an autistic child last year” is something that is still too prevalent in today’s education system. The concept that autism is some generic state that impacts on children and adults in the same way is false; indeed, one could not hope for a more individual set of people.

Logically, what might follow the erroneous conceptualisation of autism as an homogenous group, is a generic response as to how to support individuals; e.g. parents being offered general parenting classes clearly placing the ‘problem’ with the parents.

This response indicates that the issues relate to the individual and/or family, rather than provision and that very often there is a lack of individualised support available. National guidelines call for personalised plans, but the reality for some people is still far from this goal.

What is crucial in terms of understanding is very simple indeed: there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to any person on the autism spectrum. Each person will have their own identity, formed by their experiences, intellectual ability, personality, and of course the way in which autism impacts upon them.

Their needs may change from one environment to the next, and may even change from one day to the next. Therefore, it is vital that an in depth understanding of any given individual is sought prior to any kind of support being offered – what will be of huge benefit to one person may be dramatically detrimental to another.

In a sense the golden rule might be ‘no single rule applies’; autistic authors refer to seeing life ‘through the autism lens’, in other words understanding life from their perspective and adapting accordingly. I am lucky to see examples of how successful this can be in children and adult provision – it can, literally, be life changing. A depth of understanding can be attained by engaging with those on the spectrum, to learn from their experiences, to develop participatory research relationships, and identify how support needs might differ from one person to the next.

It is absolutely clear that services have improved hugely over the last decade, both in education and beyond. What can’t be done, though, is building a bright future without a good understanding.

It’s very heartwarming to see that, in Donald’s case, he was treated as an individual, and has prospered as a result.

 

Dr Luke Beardon

Luke is a Senior Lecturer in The Autism Centre at Sheffield Institute of Education.

‘Good’ behaviour at school – not so good at home?

 

Note – this is not applicable to all individuals with autism, nor all schools!!!

Regarding autism and whether it is possible for children to display different behaviours at home compared to school – this is something that over the years probably hundreds of parents have asked me about. So often the message is a similar (and familiar) one – that at school the child ‘behaves’ well, while at home things can get…well, kinda out of hand! This results in huge frustration for parents who cannot seem to get school to accept that behaviour at home is so different to that at school, with school insisting that ‘everything must be ok’ [NB I am not suggesting that all schools respond in this way, many will be highly supportive of the family).

It is very clearly documented (by parents and professionals, as well as organisations such as the NAS) that many children with autism (though not all) will display considerably different behaviours in different settings. This can be as a result of a wide range of reasons, from central coherence abilities, to environmental factors, to differing levels of stress in different situations. A reasonably common pattern in terms of school/home behaviour is that the child may appear to present with no problems at school, but at home there can be major issues in terms of behaviour. Often, the result is that either school simply do not believe that the child they see at school can be displaying the reported behaviours at home, or that school erroneously believe that because the behaviours are only seen at home then the causing factors for the behaviour must also be situated there. This is not always the case, and it is of imperative importance that all parties involved recognise the serious nature of high levels of distress, and recognise that all aspects of the individual’s life may be a contributory factor towards high arousal – which, in turn, may manifest in behavioural issues. This can lead well into adulthood – for example I know several people whose behaviour at work appears to demonstrate no problem at all, whereas the reality is that they are in high states of anxiety and stress, to the point of self injury at home, and, in some cases, anxiety and depression. This demonstrates just how important it is that all concerned recognise this reasonably common autism related pattern as early as possible, in order to support the child (or adult) well. Just because a child has the ability to ‘mask’ their autism at school does not mean that they are not greatly impacted by their autism on a daily basis. In fact, it is often this ‘masking’ behaviour (acting, or copying other children) that lead school to believe that there is no problem at school; however, it may be that the child is behaving in this way precisely because they are stressed and have discovered that by copying others they can ‘hide’ their very real problems. When at home, all of the emotional distress may then be released in what is seen as a safe environment. The irony is that in some cases, it is the stress and anxiety experienced at school that subsequently lead to the copying behaviour and subsequent meltdowns at home!

Dr Luke Beardon

Luke is a Senior Lecturer in The Autism Centre at Sheffield Institute of Education. This post is taken from Luke’s own blog “Perspectives on Autism”