Autism at school: seven questions for parents

There are seven simple questions parents can ask to manage autism at school. Shutterstock

Many children with autism find aspects of everyday life difficult, and school is no exception. School is a complex environment at the best of times, but even more so if you struggle with social situations, understanding other people, demands to perform academic tasks, constant changes to routines, and noise, crowding, and other sensory issues. At school children with autism can develop academic and social skills, if they get the right support.

Most children with autism require a tailored approach which involves educational interventions designed to address their specific needs. For parents, the challenge lies in working out which interventions will work best for their child. The best way to figure this out is by asking questions of educators. The following seven questions are based on a scientific model of evidence built up over time.

1) What are the needs of my child and my family at this time?

Start by thinking about what is problematic for your child at the moment, or what positive skills you want to build up. You should try to include your child in this thinking. What do they want to achieve? It is very important that you can be clear with schools about what you and your child need.

2) How will the intervention suggested address these needs?

Look for a match between what you and your child want to achieve, and the intervention recommended or described by the school. How is the intervention going to directly address your priorities? It is okay if you are convinced to re-think your priorities, however don’t be diverted from your and your child’s needs that must be addressed by the intervention. Any intervention should not simply suit the school or educators, it has to suit you.

3) How is the intervention meant to work?

This is about “theory” - meaning there needs to be a clear explanation about the rationale for the intervention. What are the core problems or strengths of children with autism and how does this intervention build on or address those? The theory can also come from what we know more generally about child development, or how children learn, but there needs to be a strong logic to any intervention. If someone cannot convincingly describe this logic to you, be suspicious.

4) Has the intervention been fully described and written down?

Any school should be able to give you lots of detailed information about the intervention they propose to use. This may include what is involved, for how long, what resources are needed, how people are trained to deliver the intervention, what processes are in place to ensure the intervention is being properly delivered, and how people delivering the intervention are supervised. If this information is not available, alarm bells should be ringing. Underlying this question is the need to know when a particular intervention is and is not being delivered. Unless you can monitor this as a parent, educators could be doing anything with your child and passing this off as good intervention.

5) Is there evidence the intervention is effective?

Talking about evidence is often where conversations about interventions begin. Evidence is important but there are at least four other questions that need to be answered first, as we have seen. What should you as a parent be looking out for when it comes to evidence? The answer cannot be that the school has simply decided to use the intervention approach because they “know it works”. Instead, there should be scientific studies testing the outcomes of the intervention. Ideally, these studies will have compared the intervention to something else. The intervention might be compared with regular schooling practices, or another intervention that aims to do something similar. Studies ask whether the learning outcomes for children in a test intervention are better than in the comparison. This is often done using what is a called a Randomised Controlled Trial where children are randomly allocated into a test study group or comparison group.

6) Is there any evidence the intervention is effective in the real world?

It isn’t enough to show that interventions can be effective under ideal scientific testing conditions, we need to know what outcomes might be obtained in the real world. Very few educational interventions for children with autism have been tested in typical mainstream or special schools. It is important to understand there is a risk the intervention will not work for your child at all, or that it might work less well than is suggested by the scientific evidence.

7) Will the school be able to show you whether the intervention is working for your child?

It is important to continuously check if a child is benefiting from any intervention approach. A school should be able to show you that what they are doing for your child is working. This means measuring their learning, and the outcomes being achieved for your child. Two additional issues are very important to have in mind: first, checking how your child is doing needs to be frequent. Enquiring once a year is not enough, you and your child need to know much sooner than this if something isn’t working. Second, the outcomes being measured for your child should include the priorities you identified with Question 1. So, the seven questions have to come full circle.