We welcome the publication of today’s policy advice by the National Council for Special Education, we will be studying the advice in detail and issuing a detailed response and commentary in the coming day.
This advice has been long awaited by Autistic students and families who were deeply concerned by the early stages of the consultation process prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The policy advice confirms a commitment to the right of all students to be able to access an inclusive education system. In our submission to the consultation, AsIAm was clear that access to an inclusive education was not exclusively about the permission to enter or enroll in anyone building or setting. A truly accessible inclusive education system requires that system to adapt to needs of Autistic students, and all learners, not the other way around. We welcome therefore that the policy advice appears to recognise the need to continue to provide access to special class and school places whilst simultaneously working to create an inclusive education system, accessible in every school which includes appropriately trained school staff, supportive physical environments, accessible curriculums and neuroaffirmative policies and systems.
Critical to creating an inclusive system, and an accessible educational journey for every child, is trust. Too often, particularly in recent years, our families have had little cause to trust the system – whether this was to do with a shortage of suitable school places, a failure to implement or commence key policies or pieces of legislation concerning educational rights or a sense of being left behind during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is of critical importance that advocacy organisations and families are included in every step of the journey towards an inclusive system, including representation on the various steering and strategy groups proposed. Whilst we go on this journey together, the will and preference of each Autistic students, and the parent’s role as the primary educator must be respected.
We believe an important starting point on this journey is ensuring that Autistic children in special classes are provided with meaningful opportunities to integrate, are supported to access the curriculum in line with their interests and abilities and that school policies are reformed to ensure Autistic people have the same chance to learn and are not unfairly subjected to restraint, seclusion, reduced timetables, suspensions or expulsions. Additionally, we look forward to the forthcoming publication of the EPSEN Review which will provide the Department of Education with the opportunity to set out its vision for a system that is truly inclusive, and built on a model of person-centered, right based supports not charity or post code lotteries
Finally, we note the policy advice appears to recommend a move away from Autism-specific learning environments such as Autism classes. Linked to this, we are concerned at both the accuracy and tone of the discussion of the prevalence of Autism within the document – such commentary only serves to increase stigma and fails to recognise the very real barriers Autistic people face in our education system and broader society. We are particularly concerned by the suggestion that Autistic people have access to additional health or educational supports, when in fact Autistic people experience structural discrimination in both systems. We will be challenging this point through the appropriate channels