Dr Knox highlights the critical role of inclusive practice and early intervention in ensuring that autistic and anxious young people have the best opportunities for further education.
Importance of further education (FE)
Further education serves as a pivotal opportunity for young individuals, offering autonomy and diverse learning models. For those who have faced challenges in traditional schooling, with the right support, FE can be a game-changer, providing a chance for personal growth, identity expression and increased independence in adulthood.
FE represents a fantastic opportunity for autistic young people; joining an FE establishment is often the first time they experience real choice and autonomy in their education. This shift towards adult learning models can open up more opportunities, supporting independence in adulthood. The social opportunities in FE are invaluable, and young people often reach a stage in their development where they can express their identity and meet other young people they can relate to.
Challenges in accessing further education
Unfortunately, school non-attendance at an earlier stage can pose significant barriers to further education. Young individuals who miss out on early education are less likely to acquire the necessary qualifications, hindering their access to desired courses.
The implications of this are vast – a child or young person out of education at an early stage is more likely to face challenges catching up academically. For instance, they may have to revisit English and maths courses to qualify for their chosen field, despite possessing other skills and the ability to access these courses. This can be discouraging and reduce their enthusiasm for further education.
Even before reaching this point, individuals who have experienced this may have lost trust in the education system altogether. What’s more, due to lower levels of engagement in activity outside of the home, they may have missed opportunities to develop skills that would support them to do this with confidence, for example, navigating public transport or planning their day.
Impact on wider life and experiences
In addition to educational setbacks, school non-attendance can contribute to poorer socio-economic outcomes and may contribute to long-term mental health issues. The missed experiences of social interaction and personal growth during school years can have lasting consequences.
Children and young people who cannot attend school may miss out on critical experiences that can shape their socio-economic trajectory. In some cases, the absence of these formative experiences can result in long-term mental health challenges and hinder their ability to navigate societal expectations.
Challenges for neurodivergent individuals
Concerningly, higher numbers of neurodivergent children and young people are communicating that the traditional school environment is emotionally triggering, leading to prolonged periods of distress and ‘burnout’. The post-pandemic era has witnessed a surge in non-attendance due to anxiety, particularly among autistic individuals. Many parents and children say that the structure and demands of school are too inflexible to accommodate the unique needs of this group and express that there is inadequate outreach support once young people get to a point where they are unable to attend school.
In my opinion, the resulting non-attendance is a symptom of the system’s inability to provide inclusive education and flexible support.
Improving educational environments
To create inclusive educational environments, schools, SEN (special educational needs) providers organisations, mental health services and local authorities must commit to cultural practices that consider the needs of neurodivergent populations and be prepared to work in different ways. Inclusive practices should permeate values, policies, staff training, infrastructure and curriculum design.
Best practice involves listening to voices from these communities and collaborating with professionals who can support the implementation of evidence-based inclusive practices at various levels.
The ability to be creative and flexible to meet the needs of individual pupils, with good relational and trauma-informed practice is vital. Staff and systems need to accept that differences exist and celebrate and accommodate everyone, ensuring that each child receives the tailored support necessary for their success. This comprehensive approach involves aligning school values, policies, staff training, building and classroom design, uniform ‘rules’, curriculum design and transitions and routines with a focus on prioritising well-being. It also means considering different types of education.
Early intervention strategies
In situations where children and young people are experiencing school-related anxiety, it’s important to spot the signs and intervene early.
In my practice, I’ve observed that children and young people’s anxious responses to the school environment can sometimes be hidden while they’re in school, with parents and caregivers often the first to raise concerns.
Indicators that a child or young person is at risk of emotionally-based school non-attendance include psychosomatic symptoms, an increase in ‘fight or flight’ behaviours before the start of term or end of the weekend, reluctance to get out of bed, separation anxiety from parents/caregivers, negative comments about school and high levels of distress when presented with homework.
At school, indicators may include work avoidance, lateness, internal truancy from lessons, isolation during unstructured times and difficulties in relationships with staff and peers.
The key is for schools to notice and respond as soon as possible, involving the child or young person in the conversation in whatever way is comfortable to them, as well as collaborating with the family to identify issues and create person-centred plans. Very positively, many local authorities now provide ‘emotionally-based school avoidance’ guidance to help with this process.
My core message to readers would be that inclusive practice and early intervention can support young individuals to progress into further education. By fostering inclusive environments, acknowledging diverse needs and listening to what our children and young people are telling us, we can better ensure that every child, regardless of their background, has the best opportunity to thrive in their educational journey and beyond. Some of this change requires society-wide shifts and an examination of our education and SEN systems.
By Dr Louise Knox – Senior Child and Educational Psychologist at bMindful Psychology
Additional information and statistics on this subject can be found here:
Lived experience perspective:
What the autistic community are talking about about trauma created by fitting into the neurotypical world:
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