Mike Stanton Speaks

13 May

The following is taken from a piece from Secondary Education.

A leading expert on autism has said that mainstream schools should re-evaluate how they respond to children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

According to Mike Stanton, a teacher at the George Hastwell School in Cumbria, which caters for children with severe learning difficulties, many schools often treat autism as a behavioural problem rather than a communication problem.

Instead of viewing difficult students’ actions as “challenging behaviour”, he encourages teachers to take a different attitude and consider what lies behind the situation.

By trying to understand why the pupil is reacting in a certain way, Mr Stanton thinks that the problem of strained relationships between teachers and autistic children – sometimes caused when the child is asked to do something they do not want to – could be avoided.

“There’s a thin line between fight and flight in autistic children,” he said.

Mr Stanton told us this “fine balance” can be more sensitively addressed in the classroom by looking at two principal ASD issues: time and space.

Unstructured time and social interaction are difficult for autistic children, he says, but strategies can be implemented to make these easier. For example, providing respite from the hustle and bustle of the school in the form of a quiet room, or structured, quiet activities such as playing chess.

Beth Reid, policy manager for the National Autistic Society, agrees that there are basic things that can be done, such as changing the ways in which autistic children are spoken to.

For example, as people with ASD can often take things literally, teachers can avoid using complicated, metaphorical language. She told us: “We can be more aware of the environment that they are sensitive to.”

However, Mr Stanton feels that beyond the school gates, services and provisions should be put in place to more effectively tackle barriers such as a lack of teacher training, and the examination system.

He said: “Mainstream schools operate under the burden of Ofsted inspections and exams. To change this, schools should be able test competencies, instead of having to implement stressful exams.”

Mr Stanton believes that the government should do more to reward schools that take on less-able children. He continues: “It is wrong that a school which takes children no one wants can be classed as a ‘failing school’.”

Furthermore, Mr Stanton claims that much of the research done into teaching autistic children is not getting through to educational establishments because the researchers themselves are using the wrong tactics.

“Teachers are bombarded by new initiatives and people telling them to change their approach,” he told us. “If the people doing the research could go into schools and find out what they need help with and what they can change, then that might work.”

Despite this, Mr Stanton says that things are gradually changing for the better, referring specifically to the Restorative Practices programme. Although not autism-specific, the programme’s approach has been found to be highly effective. Instead of attributing blame, it focuses on repairing relationships. By asking children questions like “what happened?” and “how did you feel?” a more co-operative response is elicited than if they feel accused.

Training for the programme is currently taking place in special needs schools across the country, and in some mainstream schools. However, a significant lack of awareness still exists about ASD.

Ms Reid continued: “I know of schools that are doing excellent work but I still hear of establishments that don’t think autism exists and perceive it as naughtiness.”

Mr Stanton added: “There is still a huge amount of ignorance surrounding ASD and people often don’t take it seriously.

“There is not enough respite provided for autistic children, and not enough trained staff. Also, those who are trained are overworked.”

4 Responses to “Mike Stanton Speaks”

  1. Adelaide May 14, 2010 at 01:58 #

    What is wrong with the researchers’ tactics?

    There are a lot of schools who already test competencies, as well as in the third sector (further/higher education).

    Kudos also to restorative justice.

    It is so good to be listened to and to listen.

  2. Mike Stanton May 18, 2010 at 23:40 #

    I got the print copy today and I am on the front page!

    It is strange reading those few paragraphs and thinking about everything else I said during a thirty minute telephone interview. I think the journalist got it about right except for two points.

    I would never describe myself as an autism expert, leading or otherwise. I am a parent, an actvist and an experienced practitioner. That is all. Lorna Wing is a leading autism expert. I am not in her league.

    Regarding exams and competencies, two points were ran together here. Some autistic students (and many others) do suffer badly under exam conditions and benefit from tests of competency, practical versus theoretical. But I think there is a bigger problem with the pressure that league tables of exam results put on schools who, in turn, pressurize students. Autistic students often react badly to this pressure. We could keep the exam system if it was not made the be all and end all of our education system and schools were also valued and rewarded for the flexibility they showed in relation to students with special needs.

  3. Patrick May 18, 2010 at 23:56 #

    Yay for Mike and Beth! They seem to have pretty good insight about trying to produce better outcomes by not making people feel guilty just by the way questions are phrased. (Though I know that is just one part of their efforts, too.)

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