Inclusive education is better for everyone

The right of students with disability to education and to develop to their full potential is established in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2006, and reinforced through legislation. There is also plenty of evidence that inclusive education supports positve outcomes not only for students with disability but all students.

But how is an inclusive education for autistic students realised in practice? Aspect’s Autism in Education Conference explored and unravelled this question over the last two days through more presentations than I could count.

A key theme was the importance of student voice and lived experience. The conference kicked off with a panel of autistic students who articulated what worked for them and what didn’t. This message remained with us throughout the conference, with presenters noted the value of co-design in making sure that interventions actually meet user need. Co-design begins with deep consideration of the problem, and brings people with lived experience into the process of prototyping, testing and refining solutions.

From the Conference sessions it’s clear that there is a lot of great practice going on—from building consideration of the needs of autistic students into Schoolwide Positive Behaviour Support, to strategies for creating the social hooks that enable learning, to videos and tools for building work systems and visual schedules. But sessions also raised challenges about differing levels of access to effective practice and the need for holistic approaches.

This was the impetus for a recent project with Amaze, the autism peak body in Victoria, in which we used a codesign approach and systems thinking to develop an Autism Education Strategy. It was a privilege to present on our approach and learnings at the Conference with Braedan Hogan from Amaze.

Because we were creating the strategy at a systems level, what we iterated in the codesign process was a holistic way of thinking about the challenges autistic students face and a framework for addressing these systemically.

We began by developing a root cause analysis. The aim in this exercise is to work back along each causal pathway toward the ‘root causes’ of the problem, so that each of these can be addressed.

In this process, we took care to clearly convey that the root causes of the negative educational and wellbeing outcomes autistic students experience are the barriers created by the attitudes, behaviours and environments that autistic students encounter, rather than the autism traits themselves. We had to avoid the kinds of issues that speakers raised at the conference: of students being expected to fit the system, behaviours not being recognised as a means of communication, and the deficits and disorders’ lens that has been used in the past.

We also took care to capture the range of perspectives about the system. We began with individual interviews with representatives of principals and the education union, autism organisations, autism schools and organisations building the capacity of parents and school staff – to map their views of the causal pathways. We also drew on student experiences identified in the research and the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into services for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Review of the Program for Students with Disabilities. In the next phase of the project, we will engage directly with students to gain further understanding of their experiences.

While there were overlapping concepts across the individual causal pathway maps, it was only when we combined them and brought stakeholders together through a series of workshops to iteratively refine the root cause analysis that we were able to produce a complete analysis.

This process built a shared understanding, which we were then able to use identify the necessary elements for a strategy that would holistically address the range of problems students face. From there, we worked together to develop an overarching logic for the strategy as well as a monitoring and evaluation framework to measure success.

I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation about inclusive education and exploring the trove of resources shared at the Conference.

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