SEND

Where is the improvement plan for marginalised children with autism?

Outcomes for children with autism from marginalised groups are worse than their peers and the SEND improvement plan offers no answers, writes Prithvi Perepa

Outcomes for children with autism from marginalised groups are worse than their peers and the SEND improvement plan offers no answers, writes Prithvi Perepa

22 Apr 2023, 5:00

Recent data from the DfE shows that approximately 2.2 per cent of the school population have been recorded as having autism as their primary need and that this is increasing at an average of 9.5 per cent each year. With increasing numbers of children on the autism spectrum in schools, one would think that access to education for these children would be improving. Unfortunately, for many children from marginalised groups, this is not the case.

Recent research undertaken by the Autism Centre for Education and Research at the University of Birmingham has found that autistic children from marginalised groups – such as those from an ethnic group other than white British, those with English as an additional language (EAL), and those on free school meals and in care – face numerous and complex issues. We refer to these groups as marginalised because all too often their views are missing from discussions about autism and SEND provision. Sadly, this is also the case with the government’s recent SEND and AP improvement plan.

Our research found that while the overall rate of autism diagnosis is increasing, the likelihood of receiving a diagnosis varies on the basis of a child’s ethnicity, with children from communities such as white British and black African being over-represented in the school autism population, while children from Pakistani, Indian and other White backgrounds are under-represented. Similarly, children with EAL are less likely to get a diagnosis, while those on free school meals are more likely to.

While the government’s new SEND and AP plan recognises the need for diagnosis, it gives no consideration to how to address these differing prevalence rates, which indicate varying levels of awareness of autism in different communities as well as a lack of understanding among professionals about autism in children belonging to such marginalised groups.

Their views are missing from discussions about SEND provision

In previous research, we found a worrying increase in the numbers of autistic pupils being excluded from schools. We also found that the chance of exclusion increased again for children on free school meals, those from ethnic minority backgrounds, and boys. A number of these pupils end up being educated in AP settings or at home.

It is heartening in this context that the SEND and AP plan aims to create local partnerships for AP provision and will focus on evidence-based practices. However, it is important that careful planning is undertaken so that these settings do not end up being a parallel provision or a further means of marginalisation.

Parents and professionals involved in our project highlighted the issue of lack of representation in teacher populations as one of the underlying causes of the difficulties autistic children from marginalised communities face. For example, while 64 per cent of school pupils are white British, it’s around 90 per cent of teaching staff and 96 per cent of headteachers who are.

While the SEND and AP plan provides some intentions for developing a better-skilled workforce, it says nothing about working towards a more diverse and representative one, which would make engaging with schools less daunting for families.

Parents and carers also report difficulties in negotiating the SEND system, and lack of guidance for newly migrated families and families who need information in languages other than English. The aim to move towards digitisation of EHCPs may speed up the process of completing these plans, but it may not be accessible for these families. Similarly, the development of new special schools that are not necessarily managed by local authorities could make access to these more difficult for children and families from marginalised groups.

While the SEND and AP improvement plan sets out some useful long-term ambitions, it is incredibly disappointing to note that the families and children our research has focused on continue to be marginalised. Schools can break down barriers, stigma, and isolation for these children, but it’s much harder to achieve as long as they remain invisible to government and system leaders.

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