Recently, we are seeing more and more neurodivergent families being subject to child protection planning under the category of educational neglect because their young people are unable to attend mainstream schools.
The Department for Education (DfE) has stated, ‘persistent failure to send children to school is a clear sign of neglect’. The NSPCC has cited, ‘failure to ensure regular school attendance which prevents the child reaching their full potential academically’ as one of their six forms of neglect.
We know as parents and professionals that schools are often a source of trauma for young people, sadly not every professional does know this.
There is ample research to suggest that poor school attendance is an indicator of neglect or abuse (Baginsky. M., 2008), however, this is not specific to Autistic children. This does not mean that Autistic children are never victims of neglect or abuse, in fact the opposite is sadly true (McDonnell., et al. 2019), professionals must be armed with all the necessary knowledge and experience to make holistic assessments because in my opinion, when in relation to Autistic experience, a child not attending school may well be a protective factor instead of a risk. This is because there are many environmental aspects to consider in regards to Autistic children because outcomes for Autistic children are largely the sum of the child’s specific profile and their environment.
Autism + Environment = Outcome (Beardon. L, 2019).
Sensory differences also need to be considered and the impact that a school environment can have on an Autistic child and subsequently their ability to attend school. Sensory differences are part of the DSM-V, diagnostic criteria for Autism (APA,2013). An Autistic person may be hyper or hypo sensitive to sensory input, or a mixture of both, which can fluctuate dependent on environmental and other factors (O’Neill, M., & Jones, R. S.1997).
Sensory trauma may occur when Autistic students are continually exposed to input that overwhelms them, such as busy environments and participating in what would be considered day to day life for a child with the predominant neurotype. Some research posits that sensory trauma should be understood as an Adverse childhood Experience (ACE) and as such can affect self-concept, self-esteem, mental and physical health, family, friendships, education, relationships and life chances, notwithstanding toxic stress and a daily experience of fear that is induced by sensory trauma (Fulton et al., 2020).
Autistic masking is experienced by every Autistic person, it is the action of projecting what you feel is acceptable in a particular environment because you feel unsafe or anxious, prolonged masking is incredibly energy depleting and considered a contributing factor to Autistic burnout (Raymaker., et al. 2020). Masking is not always something an autistic person can choose to do or not do. Masking can also be responsible for what is characterised as low-level disruption/class clown behaviour as the person will have assessed their surroundings, what is expected of them, know they cannot project this and opt for a different mask. The main driver of masking is thought to be rooted in social safety (Pearson, A., & Rose, K. 2021).
Autistic burnout is another factor that is not widely understood, likely because first research into Autistic burnout was only published in 2020 yet, anecdotally within my Autistic community that I have been a member of for over eight years, it is a well-established concept and common experience for Autistic people. Autistic burnout is characterised as a debilitating presentation that impacts on a person’s ability to attend to day to day living and can lead to poor mental health outcomes, even suicidality. It has been suggested that autistic burnout is a product of prolonged masking and living in an unaccommodating environment that is designed for those with a predominant neurotype (Raymaker et al. 2021) which could also include experiencing the above-mentioned sensory trauma.
Autistic students with a less understood, pathological demand avoidant (PDA) profile face even further difficulties accessing the school environment than Autistic children without a PDA profile. The PDA Society reported that 70% of children with a PDA profile struggle to attend school regularly, there are many reasons Autistic students struggle in education but, for children with a PDA profile they face all of the same difficulties as Autistic children but also are resistant to any demand or perceived demand, this means structured school life, where they are unable to follow their intrinsic motivations in line with theory of monotropism (Murray, D., Lesser, M., & Lawson, W. 2005) are further impounded by an anxiety response to any demand imposed on them even if it self-created.
This is just a brief outline of some of the many reasons autistic children may not be able to access a school environment, none of which are caused by parental abuse or potential parental abuse. All of the above barriers to education can be significantly reduced or even eliminated by making the necessary adjustments to the autistic persons environment. Professionals should be examining the environment.
Within the field Autism in the western, white, European world there are two dominant yet opposing models of disability at play. The medical model of disability asserts that a disabled person is impaired and must be fixed, treated or cured. The social model of disability states a person is not disabled until they encounter an environment or attitude that disables them (Marks. D., 1997). If we apply the social model of disability and look at environmental factors to regarding school attendance difficulties this would not only resolve child protection concerns and avoid parental blame but also ensure autistic children are accessing education suitable to their needs. However, bullying via child protection planning is significantly cheaper than providing school places to meet the needs of all children with SEND which is a local authority statutory duty.
One potential avenue is to broaden the understanding of the assessing professional to include the social model of disability would be focussing on workforce development to support autistic children and families. However, issues regarding budget, training and knowledge means that this is unlikely to be established any time soon without significant investment in services. The government has pledged £74.88 million as part of their policy named “The national strategy for autistic children, young people and adults: 2021 to 2026” (Department for Health and Social Care & Department for Education, 2021), while this may sound like a sizeable investment, based on the most recent figures available there are over 962,000 people working full time, in state schools in England (Office for National Statistics, 2022), this is not including Local Authority employees that work directly with children and young people or NHS staff, even if this entire budget was invested in training alone the per head figure, in my opinion wouldn’t be enough to reach the depth of knowledge and training needed to resolve the current issues.
What we are left with instead is more parent blame, unnecessary child protection planning, trauma and bullying.
This is the issue with law, policy and guidance. This should not be happening, we have the EHCP process to stop these things happening, but parents are consistently faced with barriers to accessing these processes which is then reinforced by a complete lack of accountability.
The fight continues, do services really want to help autistic people or are they paying lip service to save face while secretly sticking to a well-trodden path of victim blame and victimisation because resources are more important than lives?
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
Baginsky, M. (2008). Safeguarding children and schools. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Beardon, L. (2019). Autism, masking, social anxiety and the classroom. Teacher education and autism: A research-based practical handbook.
Department for Health and Social Care & Department for Education, 2021. National strategy for autistic children, young people and adults: 2021 to 2026. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-strategy-for-autistic-children-young-people-and-adults-2021-to-2026
Fulton, R., Reardon, E., Kate, R., & Jones, R. (2020). Sensory Trauma: Autism, Sensory Difference and the Daily Experience of Fear. Autism Wellbeing CIC.
Marks, D. (1997). Models of disability. Disability and rehabilitation, 19(3), 85-91.
McDonnell, C. G., Boan, A. D., Bradley, C. C., Seay, K. D., Charles, J. M., & Carpenter, L. A. (2019). Child maltreatment in autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability: Results from a population‐based sample. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 60(5), 576-584.
Murray, D., Lesser, M., & Lawson, W. (2005). Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism. Autism, 9(2), 139-156.
Office for National Statistics. (2022) School Workforce in England https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/school-workforce-in-england
O’Neill, M., & Jones, R. S. (1997). Sensory-perceptual abnormalities in autism: a case for more research?. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 27(3), 283-293.
Raymaker, D. M., Teo, A. R., Steckler, N. A., Lentz, B., Scharer, M., Delos Santos, A., … & Nicolaidis, C. (2020). “Having all of your internal resources exhausted beyond measure and being left with no clean-up crew”: Defining autistic burnout. Autism in adulthood, 2(2), 132-143.