Should initial teacher training include specialist autism training?

Editor’s note: towards the end of last month, there was quite a bit of chat about whether or not initial teacher training should include specialist autism training. With that in mind, I approached Dr Sue Sheppard, our resident specialist educational psychologist, renowned autism expert and friend and colleague of the late Lorna Wing. With customary clarity, Sue sets out her thoughts on this important question.

A word from Dr Sue Sheppard

The complexity and broadening out of the autism spectrum has significantly increased the number of individuals diagnosed and this brings many challenges within increasingly inclusive education systems. This, coupled with a recognition that there are many females who have previously not been identified, means that the numbers of students that a teacher may encounter has risen in recent years. Many newly qualified teachers find themselves in a situation where they are having to cope with the demands of a student who requires more personalised approaches and adaptations than they expect.

It is for this reason that those completing initial teacher training require a basic level of awareness, which enhances their understanding of the autism spectrum and provides knowledge of some principles relating to appropriate intervention and management techniques. There has to be a balanced approach within initial teacher training as many domains need attention. Within a school there clearly need to be staff with specific responsibility and enhanced skills who can support and advise their colleagues and signpost them to the most suitable ways to manage students on the autism spectrum. However, within the current Code of Practice for SEN there is a strong emphasis on ‘all teachers being responsible for ensuring individual needs are embraced within their daily planning and practice’. This means that teacher training has to ensure that there is adequate preparation to begin this process; one that will evolve once a teaching career begins.

When teaching undergraduates who were following initial teacher training, I have always found high levels of motivation when I have presented lectures and workshops relating to autism. The main feedback has tended to focus on the fact they would like more training and opportunities to learn. They especially enjoy hearing the insider view and are interested in the sensory difficulties experienced and the high levels of anxiety which may present in school settings. Many teachers in training have been educated in inclusive schools and learnt alongside students with autism. Others have personal experience of family members with a diagnosis. This tends to mean that they bring their own insights, which can be shared as part of the learning process.

Maybe there is the scope to ensure that all teachers in training have a basic level of autism training, while recognising that others may be more strongly motivated to become autism ‘champions’ and ‘specialists’ and wish for something additional within their training. Perhaps, in recognition of this natural variation, a range of optional modules could be created that meets the teachers in training at the particular level that they need to enhance their career.

About Dr Sue Sheppard

Sue is a senior specialist educational psychologist who is a consultant to the Lorna Wing Centre for Autism (part of the National Autistic Society). She has been a specialist ASD advisor/EP for a number of London boroughs for over 20 years and has also worked as a specialist teacher. Sue has been instrumental in setting up provision for children and young people with ASD across early years, primary and secondary, and has an eclectic career portfolio covering lecturing, training, consultancy and diagnosis and assessment. She is a specialist speaker in autism for EPs in training at University College London and has worked in collaboration with other universities – her doctoral research focused on autism outreach services.

Sue has significant experience of supporting learners online and has been a module leader on a number of ‘special needs’ programmes for various universities. Sue works with Real Psychology to provide extensive specialist EP services across London. She is also the module leader for Real Training’s Autism Spectrum Conditions: Skills & Knowledge (S&K) and Application & Reflection (A&R) modules, which are part of Real Training’s MEd SEND Programme.

Find out more about our modules on Autism Spectrum Conditions.

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