National Autism Charity publishes evaluation of Autism-Friendly Schools Pilot Programme

Report finds that autism-friendly schools “benefit all students and all staff”

19th January 2022: AsIAm, Ireland’s National Autism Charity celebrated the organisations’ Autism-Friendly Schools Pilot Programme with a special launch this afternoon. Minister for Special Education and Inclusion, Josepha Madigan T.D. officially launched a report into the programme at the online event which was also attended by the research team* of Mary Immaculate College, Limerick and Thurles who produced the report.

The Autism-Friendly Schools Programme seeks to provide opportunities for participating primary and post-primary schools to reflect on their practises, identify challenges and solutions, create whole-school inclusive cultures and build an understanding of autism amongst whole school communities. Since the pilot of the programme commenced in 2019, over 200 school across Ireland have participated.

Speaking on the findings of the report, Dr Johanna Fitzgerald, the Principal Investigator of the research and Head of the Department of Educational Psychology, Inclusive and Special Education at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick said, “We are delighted to celebrate the work of AsIAm and the Autism Friendly Schools Initiative. It is an honour and a privilege for us to collaborate with AsIAm and to be involved in exploring the impact of the Autism Friendly Schools Initiative in schools. The launch of the report today conveys a good news story not only for AsIAm, but for participating school communities. The findings from this research spotlight the important role of the programme in supporting whole school improvement for inclusive education. Significantly, AsIAm has emerged as a leader, alongside other providers of professional learning, in the provision of sustainable and high-quality teacher professional learning in the field of autism.”

 

Key insights from the report into Autism-Friendly Schools Pilot Programme found:

• The majority agreed that the programme supported efforts to improve practice within their schools
• Prioritisation of the student voice – this served as a motivating factor for continual reflection on and refinement of approaches to supporting autistic students. Some described this as ‘exceptional learning’, or one which ‘really opened their minds to how best to support autistic students’
• Culture – The programme seeks to embed good practice in a sustainable way, by fostering an inclusive culture built on shared learning and a collaborative approach amongst school staff, parents and students
• The transferability of learning from the programme to learners with a range of needs
• Confidence – practitioners said ‘knowing AsIam are at the end of an email’ gives teachers assurance and confidence in engaging with colleagues. This in turn supports colleagues to continue to make inquiries, reveal their vulnerabilities and seek to find better ways of being a teacher
• Promoting effective and meaningful collaboration between parents and teachers, as illustrated by a teacher in one of the participating schools, who said, “‘This initiative pulls the parent, teacher, and student voice together.”

The initial funding for the programme was invested in the creation of a toolkit and training materials, the costs of running the programme are presently jointly funded by AsIAm and participating schools. Schools participating in the initiative come together three times during the academic year to share their progress, hear from leading experts within the field and access a programme of training delivered by AsIAm Education Officer, Hannah O’Dwyer and Principal and Education Consultant, Billy Redmond. It is hoped that the programme can grow and expand in the years ahead through support from the State.

Commenting on the publication of the report, Adam Harris, Founder-CEO of AsIAm said “We are extremely proud of the outcomes of the evaluation of our Autism-Friendly Schools pilot and are particularly pleased at the added value schools have been able to access by hearing directly from autistic people on their educational experiences, sharing and collaboration between schools and engagement across the school community to increase autism understanding and set and measure goals. Inclusion requires everyone within a school community, from students and parents to teachers and ancillary staff, to have the knowledge they need and a voice in creating supportive, environments for everyone. We hope the publication of this report will lead to more schools joining us on the journey in the years ahead and welcome formal recognition from key stakeholders on the value and impact of the programme.”

The programme for teacher professional learning, informed by the Middletown Framework for Inclusion and existing Department policy which was developed in collaboration with the Joint Managerial Body and the Irish Primary Principal’s Network through initial funding from the Keith Duffy Foundation

*Dr, Johanna Fitzgerald, Dr Laura Ambrose, Dr Finn O Murchu and Elaine O’Keeffe.

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