Autism and inclusion: the saturation model explained
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One of the most important, challenging and controversial aspects of autism education is improving experiences and outcomes of autistic learners.
This process is far from straightforward. Autistic students share as many differences as they do similarities and to expect a single approach or intervention to meet the needs of all is naïve.
As I am often asked more in-depth questions about the whole-school saturation model, I hope this article supports a deeper understanding of how the model can be implemented in schools to support our autistic students.
The whole-school saturation model (Morewood, Humphrey, & Symes, 2011) was originally developed to illustrate the principles of effective inclusion of autistic learners in a secondary mainstream school, however it is equally applicable to all educational phases and contexts.
The word ‘saturation’ is deliberately used to emphasise the need for autism-friendly principles and practices to permeate every aspect of school life. Prominence is also given to the integration and co-ordination of strategies, with the hope of avoiding a fragmented, ‘programme for every problem’ approach that is neither cost-efficient nor sustainable (Domitrovich et al., 2010).
The model is consistent with two primary theoretical tools that informed the work.
- Aligned with Bronfenbrenner’s (2005) bioecosystemic theory, the model highlights the importance of micro and mesosystem inter-relationships (for example, the peer group and classroom), whilst also drawing on more distal exo-system influences, such as school systems and policy.
- The 'general differences' position, in particular flexible provision, direct support and intervention that takes account of both individual and group differences, is another key element of the theory that supported the development of this work. (Lewis & Norwich, 2015).
The central and starting point of the model is the ‘agent of change’. Typically, this would be the SENCO. There have been many debates as to the need for this role to also be a member of the school’s leadership team as a crucial factor in determining whether the proposed innovations ‘take hold’.
The agent of change pushes thinking and practice forward, often meeting with resistance. As such, energy, resilience, and good humour are useful traits.
The role played by peers in determining the educational experiences and outcomes of autistic learners is vital.
We can intervene, support and educate peers in a number of ways.
Provide students with information
Firstly, we can improve peer awareness (and subsequently attitudes and behaviours) by providing students with information about autism.
- Credible, likeable sources that are recognised as having authority are more persuasive: in a school context this may be a member of the SLT who has significant influence amongst students (Campbell & Barger, 2014).
- Teachers can highlight similarities between students with and without autism, using explanatory information to increase understanding and provide guidance on how students can interact with and support their autistic peers.
- Teachers can explore the achievements of individuals with autism (such as Stephen Wiltshire’s outstanding cityscapes) to highlight the strengths that autism can bring and contribute to a positive ethos.
- Focusing on amazing abilities, rather than disabilities, is an important message and incredibly powerful if highlighted by a peer.
Circle of friends
Given the inverse relationship between social support from peers and experience of victimisation and loneliness, peers can and should be used as a protective resource. An example of this is the circle of friends approach, in which a small group of typically developing peers form a support network around a focal child. This has to be a strategy agreed by both the focal child and family, and not something imposed.
Due to the preference (or need) for solitude expressed by some autistic children and young people, peer social support systems should be a resource to be drawn upon when needed rather than forced – an essential part of the personalised approach this model takes.
Sharing own voices
As part of the peer education strategy, young people and families are central to sharing their voices and supporting the work, ranging from direct sessions with other students (such as assemblies) and discussions with the agent of change to ensure autism-evidenced policy and practice is a core part of the model.
Direct individual or small group interventions are required alongside a systemic whole-school approach.
These will need to balance consideration of individual needs as well as the strengths and difficulties associated with autism more broadly, in addition to other important contextual factors such as the setting.
Following some initial training, school staff can effectively implement a range of interventions. This has obvious implications for both the cost-effectiveness and sustainability of such work.
Interventions may focus on:
- social skills
- challenging behaviour
- academic skills
- school readiness skills
- cognitive skills
- motor skills
- adaptive and self-help skills.
Direct support and intervention can also be an effective means through which to prevent or reduce victimisation of autistic children and young people, typically in the context of social skills interventions. This should be tailored to the needs of the individual student, but may:
- include content designed to improve understanding of social cues in order to prevent social vulnerability
- identify contexts in which the child is most vulnerable to bullying and develop appropriate strategies
- role play bullying situations to teach response strategies and offer generic prevention strategies.
Despite their sharing of common characteristics, no two autistic students are the same and provision therefore needs to reflect this diversity of need.
Children’s daily timetables need to be adaptable, so they may be withdrawn from lessons in which the cognitive and/or social demands are considered to be too high. These periods provide an excellent opportunity for specialist support and intervention of the kind noted above, or to pre-learn key concepts or language for future lessons.
Rules and routines
Being reasonably flexible with school rules and routines is also important. For example, some autistic learners experience disturbed sleep patterns and can arrive to school late. Such examples require staff to be prepared and understanding of the child’s needs, allowing them time to get settled in a designated area and providing them with the tools to express their readiness to join the class.
A visual indicator such as a traffic light system is a good example of this, with another key element being the support and training of all staff, particularly the receptionist who may be the first adult met upon late arrival at school.
In some cases, flexibility of provision may even extend to students having dual-roll placements through the development of formal partnerships between mainstream and specialist schools. The proportion of time spent in each setting can be reviewed periodically and adapted as necessary, with the flexibility allowing for that on a day-to-day and week-by-week basis.
Only 40% of teachers feel that they received adequate training to teach children with autism
This approach moves beyond polarised, simplistic debates about whether mainstream or special educational settings are ‘the most appropriate’ for students on the autism spectrum (e.g. Mesibov & Shea, 1996), recognising that a student’s needs, and how and where these are best met, are likely to change over time.
Of course, the feasibility of such an approach is highly dependent on local contextual factors, including:
- the availability of funding (although from experience these arrangements cost around a third of the cost of a full-time specialist placement)
- the existence of different forms of provision or placement
- the relationships between sites.
Building these kinds of systems and partnerships can have multiple, wide-ranging benefits, particularly with regard to the personalisation of provision and outcomes in preparation for adulthood.
Considering the environment is essential – not just the physical environment, but the emotional and social environment too.
Being explicit in communication, understanding emotional regulation in the context of whole-school approaches and supporting students during social times with planned and appropriate activities is crucial. These are core elements of the approach that must be embedded into whole-school policy and practice.
It is no good having an excellent provision in isolation, or whole-school policies that are at odds with individual plans.
My personal experiences indicate that teachers generally have positive attitudes towards autistic children, but struggle when dealing with the difficulties experienced in social and emotional understanding. These tensions can often influence the quality of their interactions with students, and potentially undermine the development of the positive relationships that underpin learning in the classroom.
Effective training and development in relation to autism is therefore crucial. Indeed, it has been identified by parents and carers as the single most important factor in improving the quality for provision.
Direct support and intervention can be an effective means through which to prevent or reduce victimisation of autistic children
Consistent with the general approach promoted in the model, this should be, ‘regular, on-going and part of a commitment of all staff . . . a one-off twilight session is never going to suffice’ (Morewood et al., 2011). This process should begin during initial teacher training, and where possible include placement in appropriate specialist settings.
It is also important for teachers to have a sense of personal responsibility for the learning of all students, particularly autistic learners, rather than this being seen as the domain of support staff or abdicating the responsibility to the school’s SEND specialist.
Only 40% of teachers feel that they received adequate training to teach children with autism during their initial teacher training. Significant change is required, perhaps as part of a general shift towards more explicit and detailed consideration of special educational needs during this critical developmental phase in teachers’ careers.
Difficulties experienced among autistic people arise not from individual ‘deficits’ in empathy and social cognition, but from a separation in the disposition and understanding of the non-autistic population (Milton, 2012).
How can we be more flexible in the way in which we organise educational provision for our autistic students? Rather than focusing on problems in imagination among autistic learners, should we not be more imaginative ourselves in thinking about approaches to teaching and learning? At their core, each of these questions requires us to more actively consider the perspectives of autistic students.
Whatever the specifics and personalised approach in adapting and implementing this model, one thing is certain: if we are not positive and solution-focused, who will be?
- Read more about these key themes as part of a whole-school approach on Gareth's website
- Autism, education and emotional regulation training