It goes without saying that ensuring that the learning environment is inclusive for all students is as important in further education as it is at any other stage of education. We all, whether learners or teachers, need to feel included in our work spaces, and if measures can be taken to achieve that more effectively, they should undoubtedly be taken.
In particular, autistic students in further education can benefit significantly from some tweaks to provision to improve inclusion. Research at the University of Sussex in 2016 found that young people with autism face difficulties when they transition from school to college. A paper by Dr Jacqui Shepherd outlines the need for greater understanding of autism in the college setting and the need for attention to be given to personalising the transition process.
Barney Angliss, consultant in special educational needs and disability, concurs. He suggests that there are some key features of inclusive teaching in further education that we might usefully consider. He says that these include:
• Visually presenting timetables as well as using apps to provide reminders and directions for autistic students can be helpful. This might help to reduce social anxiety and therefore support autistic learners to attend and to value and punctuality.
• Adhere to timetables with consistency. There will be times when change is inevitable, but these times should be minimal.
• Explicit guidance should be brief, with teachers not relying too heavily on talk. Give time for learners to process the challenges and choices being given.
• Make sure that deadlines are staggered. Demands shouldn’t all fall within one week. Tasks need to be explained in good time, and support put in place so that learners know precisely what is expected in college.
• Pay close attention to when feedback is given. This should highlight where and how the work submitted meets the demands of the task while acknowledging work which, though somewhat off-topic, proved stimulating and motivating for the learner. Lecturers must learn to anticipate from this process which direction the autistic learner's curiosity may take next and sensitively support them to continue developing their understanding of 'what feels right' and 'what is expected'. Only the 'expected' work can be accredited but the 'right' work brings the autistic learner personal satisfaction and self-esteem.
• Group work can be extremely difficult for autistic learners at the beginning of a course (and beyond, for some) so it is worth being aware. Manage interactions sympathetically and review each discussion to highlight the skills of listening and conversation-repair. This will help to reduce anxiety felt by the student. It also supports the building of relationships.
The learning environment in further education is also worth your attention. If we view it through the lens of young learners it becomes clear that post-16 set ups are a new experience compared with what they have been used to at school. Angliss explains, “It is a communal space, often very busy and unpredictable with widely differing activities and designs. Colleges often present as 'edgy', 'buzzing', hectic places. Colour schemes are frequently bold or even garish; lighting can be harsh, huge glass facades can be overwhelming; furniture and structures are seldom formal, more often inventive and sculpted, mixing brutal concrete with steel, plastic and neon. Sadly, little thought is given in the design to the impact of noise on learners with additional needs. Autistic students in particular can find the level distressing and a barrier to learning.”
Angliss suggests that further education establishments can help autistic learners by offering planned opportunities to “experience the environment for the first time when it is quiet and then to visit when it's busier, gradually assessing and reacting to the sensory demands.” Learners may need support to feedback how this feels. Angliss cautions that learners may be concerned that complaining could cause offence or even jeopardise their place on the course; on the other hand, some autistic learners express themselves very directly and emphatically and their comments should be valued and their tone should not be judged by non-autistic social conventions.
Staff in inclusive settings will know that likes and dislikes tend to be strong, especially for learners with Asperger's Syndrome. Angliss suggests that these should be embraced and enjoyed, and that settings can offer meaningful responses through adjustment to the environment or, where that is not possible, alternative spaces and routines.
Angliss also explains that reasonable adjustments should be made in further education settings. The reasonable adjustments that should be made to support autistic students might include:
• Loan periods for books may need to be extended so the learner can manage stress and mitigate organisational difficulties; anxiety and procrastination may mean books are not returned on time so the situation needs to be handled with care. An ‘amnesty' can help, or some other sensitive organisational intervention. This should respect the autonomy of the learner and allows them agency without perpetuating a problem that may have become out of their control.
• Reserved seating can give autistic learners need the security and clarity they need. Aim to offer reserved places wherever possible.
• Mentoring can be beneficial, preferably by an autistic mentor, as well as study skills support.
• Field work may need additional preparation and support. Further education settings may need to involve parents/carers, so that stress is minimised.
• Assessment must be designed to accommodate autistic learning differences and sensory needs. The design may be slightly different for every autistic learner and should comply with the Equalities Act 2010 while observing exemption in the law for assessment objectives. Refer to the EHRC Technical Guide to the Equalities Act.
Above all else, any autistic learner needs effective communication. Discussing before a course begins what support works best for them will always be time well spent. Getting to know each learner is essential on the path to agreeing expectations and adjustments, and raising awareness of autism among the wider college population can contribute tremendously to helping all to thrive at this key stage of a learner’s life.
Find out more…
Autism West Midlands has produced a useful guide called Strategies to support students with autism in further education which can be downloaded here.
Barney Angliss can be contacted via email@example.com
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for eTeach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.