Are Autistic Children Failed By the Education System?

Children's books in a school library.
Image by Hermann Kollinger from Pixabay

This question does not have an easy answer.

It is clear that the education system does not fail all autistic children. Many manage to get through the system to get good results in their school exams, go on to get a good degree and then a job. But even those autistic people who get well paid, full time jobs can experience difficulties at some point in their career. Sometimes this is straight away or early on in their career; in other cases problems occur later. When things go wrong when someone is in their 50s or older, they are often managed towards early retirement.

We have plenty of examples of autistic people getting good degrees and then struggling to get and keep a job. For example, a vet will spend many years qualifying to be a vet. But will then struggle with the realities of working in a veterinary surgery. Or someone may be extremely good at programming computers and very valuable to their boss, but colleagues struggle to relate to them, leaving the manager with a dilemma.

We regularly come across examples like these.

A discussion as to whether education should do more to prepare students for work is outside the scope of this blog post. Suffice to say that in some instances, education does provide the same opportunities for autistic children as for non autistic children. Autistic children can get through the education system (sometimes with support) and get the same qualifications as non autistic children.

5 key areas where the school system has failed autistic children

But there are also many examples where autistic children have been failed by the education system because it turns out to be inaccessible to them for some reason. There are many reasons why this could be the case.

1. School Environment

The school environment does not suit the sensory profile of the child. This will cause the child a lot of stress which will make it harder for them to learn - even if they are bright and otherwise able to get through the material. We recently did an autism profile for a young boy with synesthesia which caused a great deal of struggle for him at school. After we were able to get to the root of his issues, we were able to come to the conclusion that mainstream schooling wasn’t suitable for him, as they did not have the knowledge or resources to meet his needs.

2. Processing issues

If a child struggles to follow what the teacher is saying during class, they will struggle to progress in their work. If this is not picked up on, a child may be considered to be less intelligent than they are, thus potentially removing them from the chance to meet their potential. Note that processing issues are picked up on in an IQ test and have the effect of lowering IQ. If decisions and expectations are based on measured IQ, this will prevent the child from meeting their potential.

3. Interests and Focus

It helps to be interested in the subject in order to learn it. Few people, autistic or otherwise, manage to do well in subjects that they don’t find interesting. But some autistic children are unable to learn things they are not interested in. This is because they have barriers to learning which are overcome only when there is a strong interest in the subject. However, passing both English and Maths is often essential to progress in your education.

Related to interests is focus and paying attention. If an autistic child is easily distracted because of oversensitive hearing, for example, they will find it harder to pay attention in class and this barrier will be overcome only for subjects they are interested in. Children who have ADHD, which often comes with autism, find it hard to concentrate on anything for a long period of time. In some cases, such children can hyper-focus on things they find interesting.

4. How the child thinks can have an impact on their learning

Many people can adapt their thinking for different subjects but this can be harder for autistic children, depending on their particular autism. An example is some people think very logically which is good for subjects like Science and Maths but not for English. Having strengths in all areas of cognition is key for an High IQ but an uneven ability profile will give strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others - resulting in a lower measured IQ. This is why important decisions should never be made based on measured IQ.

5. Difficulty with reading

Children who struggle with reading will be impacted in every class, the skill of reading is required from books, worksheets, computers, the board and this is not only needed for English but includes Science, Maths, etc. Children who are behind their peers in reading can suffer with low self esteem due to feeling inadequate and struggling in this area. While software is available to help in many situations, the child can feel that there is a stigma in using it.

The above difficulties can result in frustration and low self-esteem, or in some cases, boredom. Sometimes this is expressed by being disruptive.

It should be noted that there are an infinite number of ways of being autistic. Different autistic children face very different challenges in getting through the education system. Unfortunately, support is often on a one size fits all basis, under the false assumption that autistic children all need the same support. Often support is misguided because of a lack of true understanding of autism. Sometimes the support provided does more harm than good.

Actually, many children who are not autistic are also failed by the education system and often for the same kinds of reasons. The problem is that the education system is a one size fits all system that makes a number of false assumptions.

  1. Someone who has high intelligence is good at all subjects studied at school - they have an even ability profile. Success at school is often seen as a proxy for your overall level of intelligence.

  2. Everyone can be expected to learn at the same rate. In fact the speed at which you are expected to learn material increases as you progress through the education system. Speed of learning is also often seen as a proxy for overall level of intelligence. Indeed, processing speed is measured during intelligence tests and forms a part of the overall result. If your processing speed is low, your intelligence will be lower according to these tests.

  3. Everyone thinks and learns in more or less the same kind of way. Study skills materials do not cater for different ways of thinking - they assume that everyone will benefit from the same study skills.

These assumptions lead to the expectation that all children should work towards the same curriculum at the same pace. This does not suit many children and leads to many children being failed by the education system and led to believe that they are stupid. In fact there is an assumption that if the education system does not suit you then you are stupid, which in turn leads to low self esteem and low aspirations. There are stories of those who struggled at school, doing well later in their working life. They overcame their bad experiences at school. These people are clearly intelligent. How many more people could do this if education was adapted to them?

If each child was treated as an individual, regardless of if they have a neurodiverse condition or not, and had their unique strengths, weaknesses and ways of thinking catered for, this would go a long way to improving the school experience for all students. This would pave a path making it easier for children with autism and other neurodiverse conditions to access any additional accommodations they may need in order to thrive in the school environment. We recently recorded an informational video titled ‘Nobody is Neurotypical’, which goes into more detail in how and why we thing treating all people as individuals with different neurotypes is essential to creating a truly inclusive work environment, which also applies to the school environment.

Essentially, education does not cater to individuals and does not give all individuals a chance to meet their potential. In fact, it destroys the potential of many individuals.

If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, get in touch.