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COVID-19 narrows schooling options even more for autistic pupils in Europe

The measures introduced amid the COVID-19 spread have had a major impact on the schooling options for autistic pupils across Europe. Autistic learners and their families often need individualised planning and support taking into account their context as well as developmental and academic levels.

Autism-Europe gathered examples from some of its member organisations regarding how the return to school is developing across different European countries and regions, and what are the main challenges and specific measures that governments are adopting in relation to inclusive education. This panorama highlights the fact that it is imperative that resources allocated to support autistic children are not diverted to COVID-19 preventive measures, and that the educational needs of autistic learners are adequately addressed during this public health crisis, whatever their type of schooling. Indeed, until now their schooling has been deeply affected.

Ireland: autistic children will need more support upon returning to school

Parents of autistic children due to return to school in September have serious concerns about whether there will be sufficient support available to them, according to a survey of 1,186 parents conducted by AsIAm. Parents surveyed reported that many young people had found managing stress levels and engaging in learning very difficult since schools closed in March.

“When they return to school they will need the support of Special needs assistants, and in some cases additional teaching hours and special autism classes”, according to Adam Harris, the founder and CEO of AsIAm. “Many autistic children will have their needs increase by new safety regulations, and with resources under unprecedented pressure, it is vital that the Department of Education recognises this.”

France: The struggle continues

The health crisis has revealed many pre-existing dysfunctions and injustices towards pupils with disabilities in France. For the second year Unapei together Autisme France, Sésame Autisme and other organisations are campaigning to highlight the on-going failure to enforce the right to education for children with disabilities in France. They call on all families concerned to testify on the website of the campaign “#Jaipasecole” to share the difficulties they face in accessing education. They propose four areas of concrete action in order to; make school more accessible to all, support families without discontinuity and optimise relations between the national education system and professionals from the entire medico-social community.

“Last July, the Ministry of Education conducted a survey of teachers, families and students, which draws a positive assessment of the educational continuity implemented during the period of confinement. It’s a pity that families with children with disabilities were not consulted because for them the health crisis has aggravated already difficult schooling conditions leading to loss of opportunities, fatigue, isolation, weariness… their struggle continues” says President of Unapei Luc Gateau.

Scotland: Calling for transition plans

The lockdown has been extremely challenging for many families with autistic children across Europe. The huge change to routine and daily life together with strict restrictions resulting from the lockdown has led to distress for many autistic children and put families under immense pressure, often with very limited support.

Before starting the new academic year, the National Autistic Society Scotland is calling on schools to provide all autistic children with a personalised transition plan to help with their return to school in August.

According to the Scottish Government there are 6,500 autistic children across Scotland. A third of autistic children also have a learning disability and, in many cases, also mental health difficulties.

Nick Ward, Director of NAS Scotland says: “Many autistic children will have been out of school for over 4 months by the time the new term begins. Some have coped very well. Others however, have struggled under the strict restrictions and huge change to routine and we’ve heard from families under severe pressure with profound impacts on mental health and wellbeing”.

Other resources from the UK

NAS- Coronavirus: education and school

COVID-19 Information Centre- Autism Education Trust

COVID 19 – supporting autistic learners return to education- Autism Toolbox

Northen Ireland Goverment- Latest Department of Education updates in relation to COVID-19

Welsh Government- Education and childcare: coronavirus

Spain: Important organizational and methodological deficiencies

Like other EU countries, Spain is governed by a decentralized state model in which education is the responsibility of each individual autonomous community. Therefore, issues across the country may vary.

For example, in Navarre, there are two types of educational models: regular and special education. The Autism Association of Navarre is worried about the lack of guidelines on how to homeschool children. During the lockdown period families did not have access to the teaching aids that their children typically use and schools sent out their Individualised Education Plans without any guidelines and without taking into account the difficulties they pose for parents (who presumably are not teachers). Furthermore, it exposed the digital divide among families.

In the case that a hybrid model of on-site and online education is implemented, it will be imperative to guarantee the use of technological devices. A system should be created to lend material to students to ensure accessibility of the different channels, materials and methods of evaluation; to promote online leisure activities that boost the interaction between neurotypical and autistic students, and to fight against the loneliness and isolation that are exacerbated by the physical distance.

In the case of the Basque Country, Gautena informs that schools will reopen on September 7th and will follow the “pod” system (called “bubbles” in Spain), according to which, there should not be interaction between different classes or groups. Despite the fact that this is not specifically expressed in the practice, this “pod” system would prevent pupils in our special classes to take part in integration activities.

In the South, Andalusia has four types of schooling, ordinary school, ordinary school with support in some subjects, special classrooms in ordinary school and special school only for people with disabilities. Autismo Andalucia claims having no news about the model after the summer break, so they will continue schooling as usual. There is a lot of uncertainty, due to the COVID-19 crisis, about the number of pupils by class in ordinary schools. Teachers are concerned about overcrowding in classrooms, but at this date there is no further information.

Italy: Reasonable accommodation at risk

In Italy, inclusive education is the only schooling option. During the lockdown, support teachers were supposed to provide support at home for autistic pupils with difficulties for following online lessons but, in practice, it was far from the norm.

Italy is getting ready to reopen schools on September 15 by prepping larger classrooms, distancing school desks and/or transferring classes into other buildings to spread out the number of people in a building at once. Families of autistic students fear that there will be fewer resources available to them and that, in turn, reasonable accommodation such as access to support teachers will be impacted, hindering their full inclusion.

Autism-Europe’s member in the Emilia Romana region A.P.R.I. has provided some directives from the regional school office of the Emilia-Romagna region, including references to pupils with disabilities and specific learning disabilities.

Germany: Mask wearing exemption demands in school

In Germany, both mainstream and special education schools are back in full swing after the summer break. One important issue that remains is the use of masks in schools. After making mask wearing in class optional in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia almost 2 weeks after the start of the new year, Bavaria will make mask wearing in class obligatory in all secondary schools.

The survey conducted by AsIam mentioned above reveals that up to 40% of the students are not able to wear a mask at all, and 45% are able to wear one but it causes them discomfort. In this regard, Autismus Deutschland urges relatives and professionals to inform people on the autism spectrum about the fines in Germany for not wearing masks as it could lead to unnecessary precarious situations for autistic people and their relatives.

Norway: The need to protect resources needed for inclusion

Norway does not have a specific legislation for the schooling of autistic children, but rather a general disability legislation. The underlying idea is that everybody should be in mainstream schools regardless of disability. To that end, there are by definition no special schools in Norway.

Since it is obvious that not everybody will benefit from large classroom education, the system is based on “reinforced” units meaning strengthened pedagogic resources. If a child has special needs, the schools are required by law to draft an Individual education plan which has to be approved by their parents.

Autism-Europe’s President Harald Neerland, based in Norway, shares his experience: “As an example, my daughter participated with her mainstream class during music, PE and class excursions, with smaller classes when deemed an opportunity that she could benefit from, and the rest with one-on-one support.  This system has essentially not been affected by the lockdown and the re-opening is progressing as normal. Obviously for some children with special needs the segregation from their class has to be enforced due to the child being in a high risk group. The risk we see is that some school officials will use this as an excuse to reduce the need for extra resources”.