Primary schools have introduced new measures to prevent autistic pupils from becoming “segregated from and alienated by” classmates, in a pioneering move that promises to help the UK’s 70,000 students with the condition to cope better in mainstream education.
Year Three, Four and Six pupils are currently learning about what life is like for those on the autistic spectrum as part of their weekly timetable.
The pupils, aged seven to ten, are being taught about common symptoms and given practical tips about how to build better relationships with their autistic classmates.
Students will also be encouraged to “develop a meaningful understanding” of how autistic pupils may feel in a variety of potentially challenging social situations.
It is hoped that the voluntary initiative will enable youngsters to become generally more inclusive and empathetic to others’ needs.
The initiative is based on the publication of a specially-written new book about a boy with Asperger Syndrome.
Children will read from the book, entitled ‘Arty Tardy’, in lessons each week and talk about the “emotional wellbeing” of the main character as a class.
An accompanying lesson guide provides teachers and teaching assistants with a series of key points to discuss.
The scheme is currently on trial at three primary schools in London. As many as 20 others from across the UK are expected to follow suit in coming months.
If the six-week pilots at Kensington Primary School in Newham, Godwin Primary School in Dagenham and Ad-Deen Primary School in Redbridge are successful, the book will be added to their long-term curriculum and become compulsory reading in future years.
The initiative was yesterday welcomed by the National Autistic Society, which has previously criticised local authorities for “continually underestimating” the educational impact of autism.
It also follows a 30 per cent annual rise in the number of appeals lodged at special educational needs and disability tribunals by parents with autism.
The schools’ headteachers yesterday said the scheme has the potential of reducing bullying whilst safeguarding those with autism from being forced out of mainstream education and into specialist schools.
Julie Phillips, of Godwin Primary, said: “We provide for a number of SEN pupils and aspire to create an effective learning community for all children, whatever their special educational needs.
“We actively encourage inclusivity among our pupils and this book offers a new and exciting way to celebrate diversity with our key stage 2 classes.
“Through shared reading based around Arty Tardy, we will help children to understand and appreciate things from the perspective of someone with autism.
“Inclusivity in the classroom benefits all pupils in their education and personal development, and by schools adding regular inclusivity lessons into the curriculum there is the real potential of reducing incidences of bullying and exclusion.”
The new scheme, which is voluntary and is free to join, aims to raise awareness of the difficulties that children with autism and Special Educational Needs (SEN) face on a daily basis – often in secret.
Participating schools are provided with copies of Arty Tardy, a specially-produced book about a boy nicknamed Tardy as he struggles to understand life in and adapt to mainstream education. Told through Tardy’s eyes, it details the complexities and challenges that he – and most other children with SEN and autism – face.
Author and inclusiveness campaigner Kitty Clairmont, a trainee teacher at Ad-Deen Primary School, said the book sets out to break down the stigma surrounding autism and the way in which it is dealt with in mainstream schools.
The mum-of-three from Newham, who has worked with SEN children for five years, believes schools must do more to facilitate the inclusion of all pupils.
“No children, with and without SEN, are ‘mainstream’ at all. All children need the support, empathy and friendship of their peers and teaching staff to thrive,” she said.
Judith Brown, Head of Autism Knowledge and Expertise, at the National Autistic Society (NAS) said: “At the NAS, we know that the majority of children with autism are in mainstream education and they can feel misunderstood by their classmates and teachers. It’s vitally important that teachers are equipped with greater knowledge and understanding about autism and a range of approaches. To help meet this need, the NAS are providing teachers and other mainstream school staff throughout the UK with free autism-specific information and resources as part of the My World campaign, http://www.autism.org.uk/myworld.
“Arty Tardy provides another useful resource for mainstream schools. Bullying often occurs when children don’t understand why people behave differently, and Arty Tardy invites both children and adults to step into the shoes of Tardy, the main character who has autism. Written through a fun narrative, the book explores sensitive issues and key features of autism, such as inflexibility, sensory differences and social misinterpretation.
“This pilot has the potential to explain autism to primary school children in a novel way, by using Arty Tardy to support creative elements of the school curriculum. It will also provide an opportunity to trial the teaching resources, particularly to ensure they are used sensitively with children in the class who have autism, as well as to develop a greater understanding and empathy amongst their peers.”
The scheme has also won the support of Elizabeth Kangethe, the Mayor of Barking and Dagenham.
She added: “Kitty is a passionate campaigner for inclusivity and her Arty Tardy scheme has a lot to offer schools, not only in Barking and Dagenham but across London.
“Godwin Primary is to be commended for being involved in the pilot and its forward-thinking approach to inclusivity is sure to catch on in the education system.”