We are proud to have recently contributed a submission to the WA Education Inquiry into Support for Autistic Children and Young People in Schools, authored by our Co-CEOs, Dr Melanie Heyworth and Sharon Fraser.
In our submission, we outline the conditions we believe are required for the provision of inclusive, neuroaffirming education to Autistic children and young people, and highlight the barriers currently disabling and excluding our Autistic students.
Read the summary of our recommendations below, or find our submission in full with complete referencing on the WA Parliament website. The numbers below relate the to Inquiry’s terms of reference.
Differences in Autism prevalence across demographics are likely to result from:
(a) access (or lack thereof) to knowledgeable clinicians and services,
(b) a lack of understanding of cultural and linguistic factors: we do not fully understand how cultural and contextual factors impact various intersectional populations in obtaining Autism diagnoses, including linguistically diverse, remote and financially disadvantaged populations
(c) behavioural characteristics: whilst it remains true that more boys are diagnosed Autistic than girls, research suggests it is likely that this discrepancy is more related to behavioural characteristics rather than gender. It may also stem from a lack of research about or including Autistic females.
Our understanding is that WA schools often rely on Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) as their primary evidence-based framework. Whilst a focus on social-emotional learning, deep partnerships with parents, clear behavioural expectations, and individualised support can be integral to some PBS programs, so too is a reliance on award/reward systems to recognise and promote “positive behaviours”.
The risks of PBS to Autistic students are many, including that PBS assumes that some behaviours are “good” or acceptable (and should be positively reinforced), while others are “bad” or unacceptable. Many Autistic behaviours, which are authentic expressions of Autistic needs, are at risk being categorised as unacceptable or negative behaviours that need to be “managed”, for example, stimming, sensory differences and differences in processing and social communication.
When an Autistic child or young person can only be “rewarded” through their compliance with prescribed “positive” behaviours (that may undermine their authentic Autistic ways of processing and learning), there is a threat of withholding the reward for Autistic non-compliance.
Therefore, the effect of PBS for Autistic students is often that their basic needs are misinterpreted or unacknowledged, their internal realities and experiences are dismissed, and their internal motivation is decreased.
In practice, PBS can diminish the feelings of safety and trust upon which all genuine learning is dependent. When schools engage with models that promote suppressing Autistic ways of being, they run the risk of causing long-term mental harm. Masking natural Autistic behaviours is associated with higher prevalence of anxiety, exhaustion and burnout, depression and low mood, and (most concerningly) suicidality.
We advocate for WA schools to understand deeply the lifelong risks of masking before implementing any strategies such as PBS which – for Autistic children and young people – often result in increased masking behaviours.
We understand that the WA Department of Education has adopted the program, “The Zones of Regulation”, as their preferred approach to improving self-regulation in students. The Zones of Regulation program (and related strategies such as behaviour thermometers and feelings registers) are often linked with de-escalation strategies and are used in contexts in which there is an expectation that Autistic children should exercise connection, interaction and emotional regulation.
In our experience, and given feedback from Autistic people and their parents, the “Zones” program is often implemented poorly, and has been used by teachers in WA as a compliance-based model in which “being in the green zone” is rewarded.
Not only does this undermine the principle of the “Zones” program (which is not designed to prioritise one “zone” above others), but the program excludes many Autistic students.
Most concerningly, the “Zones” program rarely accounts for the many Autistic children who present with cooccurring alexithymia, with interoceptive differences, or with anxiety sensitivity, and may in fact contribute to the distress and exclusion of Autistic students who present with these.
We advocate for the removal of the Zones of Regulation program from schools, and for more respectful, inclusive, and universal approaches (as we outline below) to be instead adopted.
As voluntary signatories to the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD), we are legally bound to recognise “the right of persons with disabilities to education” and to “ensure an inclusive system at all levels” (CRPD, 24.1)
We believe General Comment Number 4 to Article 24 should inform all WA educational decisions.
We advocate that the approaches discussed below should underpin the education of all children and young people, but are especially necessary for Autistic students to thrive in educational contexts and for them to experience success, engagement, and connection in school environments.
Developing quality, individual, and deep relationships with Autistic students is vital to their feelings of belongingness in schools, and to their educational success.
The benefits of responsive and profound care in schools are well established, but we strongly advocate for teachers to commit to Noddings’ (1984) model of educational care. Autistic students report having better school experiences when they feel greater school connectedness and a sense of belonging, especially when fostered by deep connections with their teachers and other school staff, who celebrate each student’s unique differences and meet their needs with innovative, strengths-based approaches. Indeed, a mutually trusting student-teacher relationship is perceived to be the strongest predictor for educational re-engagement for a group of Autistic learners who had been repeatedly excluded from school.
This relational view of education is especially relevant for Autistic children, given its attention to fulfilling needs and to valuing autonomy, interdependence, community, equity and inclusion.
That such care is trauma-informed and attachment-aware builds on necessary factors of responsivity to the Autistic experience, given the prevalence of trauma in the Autistic population, including in Autistic children and young people.
It is clear to us that an overall philosophical framework shift to one that is trauma-informed and prioritises relational safety grounded in care and attachment (rather than compliance and reward) is vital to support the wellbeing and academic outcomes of Autistic students in WA.
However, such a shift can only be successful if there is robust investment in the resources and infrastructure to make sure this work is done properly, deeply, and with adequate support for new ways of operating.
Ideally, every WA school – both primary and secondary – would include specialist officers (who are themselves neurodivergent and are immersed and trained to support neurodivergent members of the school community) who would then provide consistent, trauma-informed, consultancy support for the staff and students, and could ensure that the implementation of programs is done properly and consistently.
The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Birpai, Awabakal, Wattamattagal, Whadjak, Amangu, Bunurong and Kaurna Yarta peoples.
We are committed to honouring the rich culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this Country, and the diversity and learning opportunities with which they provide us. We extend our gratitude and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to all Elders past, present, and emerging, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal.