Why we need mandatory training for autism and learning disabilities

Autism and learning disabilities training is now mandatory for health and social care - and education should be next, writes Paula McGowan

Autism and learning disabilities training is now mandatory for health and social care - and education should be next, writes Paula McGowan

6 Jul 2023, 5:01

When my son Oliver died in intensive care in 2016, I was determined what happened to him should never happen to anyone else. Hospitalised earlier for seizures, he was given medication in hospital he (and we) had told staff he should not receive. It caused his brain to swell, and he never recovered from the effects. 

It has been a long battle, but last year mandatory training for health and care staff in how to work with people with autism and learning disabilities was passed into law with the health and care act (2022). Oliver McGowan Mandatory Training on Learning Disability and Autism is the standardised training that was developed for this purpose and is the government’s preferred and recommended training for health and social care staff. 

But our fight isn’t over. Last week, we launched a petition calling for a new law that would require all staff in educational settings from early years to universities also to be trained on learning disability and autism.  

Too many neurodivergent students have negative experiences of school. To many are excluded or unable to attend due to traumas suffered at school. These can lead to mental health issues, self-harm, suicidal ideation and PTSD. 

Students who have a learning disability or who are autistic deserve to be taught by staff who understand and can fully support their needs and who accept and value them for who they are rather than expecting them to conform to neurotypical standards. 

And teachers deserve better too, especially in a system that is so short of special school places and is placing more and more children with higher needs in mainstream schools. They deserve to be given skills to do the job that is required of them: to make reasonable adjustments, to adapt their communication and their environments, to understand sensory crisis, overload, anxiety, and masking, and to recognise and neutralise their own unconscious biases. 

The numbers speak for themselves.  A report by the National Autistic Society (NAS) shows that just 14 per cent of teachers have received autism training. This is shocking statistic considering that 73 per cent of the 180,000 autistic pupils in England are educated in mainstream schools. According to NAS, autistic children are twice as likely to be excluded from school when teachers do not receive appropriate training. 

7 in 10 say school would be better if more teachers understood autism

Indeed, 54 per cent of autistic students said having teachers who don’t understand them is the worst thing about school, and seven in 10 said school would be better if more teachers understood autism. 

The Oliver McGowan Mandatory Training for health and care – designed, evaluated and delivered by autistic people and those who have a learning disability – could easily be adapted for educational settings.  

It is crucial that we learn directly from these communities if we are to avoid unnecessary exclusions and improve the mental wellbeing of autistic and learning-disabled pupils. 

The SEND and AP review is a step forward towards improving the educational experience of these pupils. It proposes a review of initial teacher training and the new early career framework, and joint working between the departments of education and health and social care. 

But working with autistic children and those with learning disabilities should be a golden thread of professional development for all teachers and across the new national professional qualifications too. Improving this is to everyone’s benefit and achievable quickly.  

It gives me great pride that The Oliver McGowan Mandatory Training is already giving a voice to those who are so often not heard and improving practice in health and care. It is now time to secure those improvements for education too.  

I know that many teachers and school leaders are clamouring for that change too. They want to provide an education that fully embraces and enriches the learning of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities and make their environments more accepting and inclusive.  

So I hope that Schools Week readers will join us in asking for this training to be made compulsory, and I know they will welcome it when it is finally delivered. 

To access the petition, click here.

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