World Autism Acceptance Day (WAAD), also known as World Autism Awareness Day, can provide not only a useful mechanism through which to reconsider our priorities in the field of autism education, but motivate us to highlight aspects of our work which we hope are helping to improve the educational opportunities and longer term outcomes for autistic children.
A primary school classroom in Greece
In Italy, members of the TAE team are participating in a two-day event on the 2nd and 3rd of April entitled ‘Autism: Strategies for Well-Being’. Consisting of talks, workshops and culminating in an autism-friendly film-screening, team members will also emphasise the ways in which the TAE project has sharpened the understanding and skills of different practitioners. One of the speakers at the event is ‘Simone Knowing Simon S.’, a well-known autistic advocate, trainer and consultant who is also a specialist advisor to the Italian TAE team. He will talk about how teachers can facilitate the inclusion of autistic children in the classroom.
Participants at the Italian piloting sessions of the TAE training materials
In Greece, some of the TAE team are marking WAAD a little later in the month on 10th April at the Café Myrtillo, the first café in Greece to employ only autistic adults and those with other special educational needs and disabilities. The main speaker at this event will be Dr Damian Milton, who plays an important advisory role on the TAE project. His talk is entitled: ‘Creating autism-friendly societies’ and will be followed by a presentation on the TAE project itself by the Greek team lead, Katerina Laskaridou, leading to an open discussion. The event organisers have made this event open to the public, but have purposefully invited autistic adults and teenagers in order to emphasise the vital nature of their participation and input.
Poster advertising the event at the café Myrtillo
Visiting local schools in the host country has formed an important part of the transnational meetings which take place every six months on the Transforming Autism Education (TAE) project. Most of the partners involved with the TAE have direct experience working with autistic children, and so going to different educational environments and talking to staff can provide valuable insights and ideas which feed into the planning of the teacher training materials.
This week, the UK is marking Schools Awareness Week. This consciousness-raising campaign is run by the National Autistic Society and hopes to promote better understanding in mainstream schools of how to support and engage with autistic pupils. This worthy scheme mirrors some of the key ambitions of the TAE project which aims, amongst other things, to foster greater acceptance of autistic children as individuals with their own particular qualities and strengths, as well as needs.
The teacher training materials being developed by the teams in Greece and Italy are based on those provided by our partners, the Autism Education Trust (AET). In the AET National Standards (a resource developed in collaboration with the Autism Centre for Education and Research at the University of Birmingham) for example, autism is conceived of as ‘four areas of difference’, rather than a set of impairments. In the TAE, we hope that by engaging directly with school staff, learning from them and exchanging ideas, we can promote greater understanding and inclusion of autistic children in mainstream schools.
Last week the Italian team hosted the tri-national set of meetings, visits and discussions which take place on the TAE project approximately every six months. Based in Monza, near Milan, and spread over five days, this event provides an important opportunity for team members and associated professionals to discuss progress and plan the next phases of the scheme.
Dr Karen Guldberg in discussion with Dr Damian Milton in Monza, Italy.
As you can imagine, with groups from Greece, Italy and the UK, there were many interesting issues aired in relation to autism education, with cultural and socio-linguistic differences at times providing key talking points. Naturally, our Greek and Italian partners were much more proficient in English than most members of the UK team in either of their languages (Dr Lila Kossyvaki from the UK team is, fortunately, a native Greek speaker). What is clear, however, is that all three teams are moving ahead constructively with the development of the teacher training programmes and that working in such a European partnership is very fruitful.
Next stop: Birmingham in October 2016!
At the ‘multiplier event’ in Italy, where there was at times three-way translation from Greek, to English, to Italian.
There have been exciting developments for both the Greek and Italian teams over recent weeks. The Greek team, led by Katerina Laskaridou, has been in talks with the new director of Special Educational Needs (SEN) at the Ministry of Education in Greece, with a view to potentially rolling out the autism staff training programme across the whole of the country. This is very early days, of course, but extremely encouraging for the Piraeus-based team as well as the broader TAE project members.
Dr Paola Molteni (Italian team), Dr Lila Kossyvaki (UK team) & Katerina Laskaridou (Greek team Lead) in Birmingham in 2015.
The Italian team, meanwhile, are moving on swiftly with the piloting of Level 2 of the training materials with teachers from a number of local primary schools. They are also finalising plans for the next transnational meeting in Italy which is only a few weeks away. As well as discussions, presentations and the all-important ‘multiplier’ event (which involves many international participants), plans include visits to local schools and meetings with the whole team and sub-teams. We are all looking forward to it!
As we get into our stride with the new year, plans are continuing for the next stages of the project. Both the Greek and the Italian teams are busy piloting their training materials and the initial feedback from practitioners has been very encouraging. Meanwhile, arrangements are being finalised for the next transnational meeting in Italy in February 2016, an important event which enables team members from the UK, Italy and Greece to get together, to share and disseminate ideas and lay the foundations for the next steps of the scheme.
Professor Luigi d’Alonzo, Italian team lead, and Dr Karen Guldberg, Principal Investigator, at the transnational meeting in the UK in February, 2015.
Our focus is also on preparing proposals for two key conferences in the academic calendar: the European Conference on Educational Research in Dublin in August and the Autism Europe International Congress in Edinburgh in September. These will provide essential opportunities for the initial findings of the project to be both tested and shared, as well as to engage with other educational researchers and the broader autism community. Not only this, but worthwhile reasons to visit two wonderful cities!
The ‘multiplier’ event in Greece in June 2015, part of the transnational meeting.