Inclusion: what does it mean?

For a term so frequently used, there can be a surprising lack of consensus or even thought about what ‘inclusion’ actually means in the context of autism education. Much of the debate within the UK continues to centre around the basic issue of placement: should a child be educated within a mainstream or a ‘special’ school, or in a mainstream setting with an autism ‘resource’ attached? Moreover, while in Italy, all parents have the right to request a mainstream placement for their child, the situation in Greece, rather like the UK in some respects, is rather more diffuse, where children are placed in different settings, and some experiencing a high degree of educational segregation.

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Members of the Italian, Greek and UK teams at a transnational meeting in Birmingham

 

The difficulty with such a conceptualisation of educational inclusion – one that focusses simply on what sort of school the child attends – is that the responsibility for achieving such integration remains essentially with the child, and whether or not s/he can cope with the environment, or ‘fit in’. However, on the TAE project, the teams from Greece, Italy and the UK are aiming for a more holistic and evolved understanding of inclusion. In the Schools Autism Competency Framework (which is a core document in the development of the TAE teacher training materials) created by the Autism Education Trust, for example, Christine Breakey is cited as follows:

“Any understanding of autism should not be approached from a position of ‘deficit’, but rather from a position of ‘difference’. Autistic people are not neuro-typical people with something missing or something extra added on. They are different. If we are serious about equality and inclusion within any area, then we must first of all understand that difference.” (p.8)

While the concept of ‘difference’ is in itself quite complex and multi-layered (and indeed, can be problematic), this principle makes it clear that the onus is on the school staff to understand the child in order to take that first step towards educational inclusion.

Similarly, when students at the Autism Centre for Education and Research (ACER) were asked about how to facilitate inclusion for autistic children, teaching assistant Katie Hobson referred to the importance of learning about autism as a core part of teacher training, in order to enable educators ‘to plan and implement activities based around the children’s strengths and promote difference being seen as something important, to be cherished.’ Lisa Corbett, another teaching assistant, took this idea a step further, by suggesting, for example, that ‘social skills should be taught to ALL children, not just those with ASC.’ This viewpoint reinforces the notion that the autistic child is placed on the same educational footing as all other children, and is not deemed to need any more ‘social skills’ teaching as anyone else, for example.

Professor Gary Thomas, in a recent interview on the ACER blog, defined educational inclusion as follows:

For me, inclusion is about much more than disability or special needs. It’s about a mindset of acceptance of everyone for who they are.”

These perspectives represent quite a different idea of inclusion than simply thinking about what sort of school the child attends. For the various partners of the TAE project, considering the issues around inclusion from a much broader and progressive standpoint not only adds value to the scheme itself, but permits a fruitful coalition between three countries, despite the different approaches to educational placement represented in our respective nations.

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A tri-national partnership: Dr Lila Kossyvaki, Dr Paola Molteni and Katerina Laskaridou from the UK, Italian and Greek teams.

 

Lisa Corbett is a completing a BPhil in Inclusion and Special Educational Needs

Katie Hobson is studying for an Advanced Certificate in Autism (Adults)

Gary Thomas is Professor of Inclusion and Diversity in the School of Education at the University of Birmingham.

Reference:

Breakey, Christine (2006) The Autism Spectrum: A Guide to Good Practice. London: Jessica Kingsley

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Simone Knowing Simon S.

SimoneSimone Knowing Simon S. is the Specialist Adviser for the Italian team of the TAE project. He describes himself as “a 34 year old citizen of the world” and has been working in schools for 17 years, specialising in education and training, communication and learning methods. Simon holds two degrees in the Sciences and Technologies of Information and Communication from the University of Milan and he is studying for his third degree in Human and Social Sciences (Psychology). Simon is very involved in autism research and is always seeking new solutions on how to learn, understand and communicate about it.

 

  1. Tell us a little more about your work.

Principally, I’m a teacher and an educator: I work with some children with specific learning disabilities, especially dyslexia, and autism. I try to find good practice and ideas to develop teaching solutions suitable for all children who are entrusted to me. I’m also a consultant for some companies in problem solving, automatic communication, communication design and musical production in which my sensitive hearing is much appreciated.

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On World Autism Acceptance Day 2016, Simon gave a presentation called ‘Not Once-A-Year People’. To his right are seated TAE Italian team members Dr Paola Molteni and Dr Roberta Sala.

 

  1. What are your memories of school when you were between the ages of five and ten?

I have a really powerful long-term memory, so I remember a lot of things from my childhood. From primary school, I remember everything about the places, colours, smells and events. I recollect very little instead of the children who were with me, and even then only for some unpleasant episodes or details. For example, I remember the 27 Gig Tiger Electronic Games of A., the glitter pencils of M., the collapsible plastic lenses of P., or the label with my name on all common items such as bath soap or toothpaste, and things like that. In my mind, I can go back in time whenever I want and hear the sounds, the smells, the sensations of each event that I remember. This includes recreation, holidays, classroom laboratories and all the end of year school performances, which I recall with great precision: I remember all the music, lights, colours and the materials and positions on stage of the scenery etc.

‘I have a really powerful long-term memory (…). From primary school, I remember everything about the places, colours, smells and events.’

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‘Supermarket’ by Simon, reflects the sensory onslaught that can be experienced by autistic individuals.

 

3. What, in your opinion, do young children need if they are to thrive in mainstream schools?

Children need three things to thrive in mainstream schools: kindness, respect (from other children but principally from adults) and teachers who are not afraid to learn new things. Above all, perhaps the most important things is that teachers are not frightened when they hear the word “autism.” They must not be afraid of this word.

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Simon’s book ‘Paolo’ is written from the point of view of a 6 year-old autistic boy.

4. What do you hope to bring to the TAE project?

I’m very honoured to take part in the TAE project, and I wish to bring my perspective in the hope that this will add to the understanding of the Autism spectrum. I have dedicated my entire life to education and teaching, and I have seen and I have experienced many situations of being on the outside. Very often, I couldn’t do anything (or very little): when you’re a Mac in a Windows’ world, you end up alone, because between you and other people, it creates a wall of incomprehension that, combined with rigidity of thought, does not allow you to communicate your thoughts functionally. But this can’t be an excuse: any person can improve him or herself (perhaps not necessarily with the same tools as everyone else), and the purpose of people is to improve the future for those who come after them (as Darwin says…). I have tried to improve myself and I want to change things and bring my small contribution to building new pieces of society.

‘…when you’re a Mac in a Windows’ world, you end up alone, because between you and other people, it creates a wall of incomprehension…’

When some people are excluded, they are very aware of it, and that feeling is, I think, one of the worst feelings that you can experience. I want to grow old and to think that in my life I had been useful for someone: Today’s children? My future children? The future children of other people? It makes no difference.

 Thank you for the interview Simon and we look forward to your work with the TAE team in the future.

It will be a great honour. Thank you too. Best regards from Italy, and smiles. Simon.

Simon’s book ‘Paolo’ is also available in French.

European Connections

As World Autism Acceptance Month draws to an end, it can be useful to think about what we might have learned – if anything – from the whole exercise. This year, the media attention paid to WAAD (World Autism Acceptance/Awareness Day) seemed greater than ever, but it can be difficult to measure what difference this might have made to the lives of autistic individuals and their families. Not only this, but the actual nature of what we are increasing awareness of, or asking others to accept, is not always clear, a point explored in this piece in Perspectives magazine, by the TAE Project Manager, Becky Wood.

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Dr Paola Molteni talks about the TAE on WAAD, in Milan, Italy

An important aspect of WAAD which is often lost is that autism is not limited by national boundaries, and that to understand autistic people, we need to think beyond the cultural references of our own countries. In a small, but we hope significant way, we hope that by working across three countries of Greece, Italy and the UK, we can learn from each other in order to improve the practice of teachers in schools, and so further the inclusion of autistic children of primary school age.

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Ryan Bradley

 

Ryan Bradley, who works on the TAE and is leading the development of the project website (which will be the source of teacher resources), expressed the issue in the following way:

‘The project has developed a methodology for collaborative working that is significant in attempting to establish a unified language and understanding of autism and inclusion across three European countries.’

As the project moves forward and the training materials are further developed and refined for Greece and Italy, we know that they can only be enriched by collaboration across borders. While it can be difficult to quantify the impact and achievements of WAAD, we hope that by informing and empowering teachers, autistic school children will have better educational experiences and outcomes.

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Katerina Laskaridou, pictured here with Dr Damian Milton, talks about the TAE during a WAAD event which included many autistic adolescents and their families

World Autism Acceptance Day 2016

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.

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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.

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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.

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Poster advertising the event at the café Myrtillo

Visiting schools

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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.

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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.

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Addio Milano

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.

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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!

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At the ‘multiplier event’ in Italy, where there was at times three-way translation from Greek, to English, to Italian.

Moving forward apace

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.

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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!