Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

New programme tackles absenteeism among autistic pupils

A coalition of charitable foundations have launched a new programme designed to tackle challenges around mental health and absenteeism among autistic pupils.

Research shows that of the 70,000 autistic pupils attending state secondary schools, nearly 20,000 are persistently absent from school. These pupils are missing around 10% or more of school time every year.

Furthermore, around four in five autistic students experience mental health issues. Ambitious about Autism says poor mental health and a lack of support are major contributing factors to absenteeism.

Preventing autistic students from reaching crisis point

The ‘Autistic and OK’ programme, launched by Ambitious about Autism, Zurich and the Z Zurich Foundation, is a free educational toolkit that will be offered to every secondary school in the UK.

The programme is particularly targeted at 11-17-year-olds and pupils in years 10-13. It was successfully piloted in 19 schools and aims to prevent autistic pupils from reaching crisis point.

It enables teachers and other teaching staff to facilitate run peer-led sessions for younger autistic pupils. A teacher’s guide and information pack for parents and carers are also included.

Ambitious about Autism hope the toolkit will also encourage more acceptance of autism across the whole school community, including teachers, peers and parents.

Programme co-designed by autistic pupils

Autistic students helped to design the toolkit and the programme’s modules. They identified the topics that affect them most, such as anxiety, depression, OCD, and bullying.

Megan, aged 24, an autistic youth advisor who helped develop the programme, said: “Throughout secondary school, my anxiety stopped me wanting to go to school. I would sometimes even pretend to be ill, as I didn’t want to face an environment where the other pupils and teachers didn’t understand me. In sixth form I wasn’t allowed to do my exams as I was in a mental health crisis.

“I think the programme will help autistic pupils to look after their own mental health as well as promote more understanding and acceptance of autism in schools generally.”

Jolanta Lasota, Chief Executive of Ambitious about Autism, says she hopes this ‘pioneering’ programme will help to create real change in the school environment.

She said: “The enormous struggle that many autistic pupils face at school is well documented. A lack of understanding and support means they are often ostracised from the classroom and their peers. They grow up feeling rejected and misunderstood, which has an enormous impact on their mental wellbeing.

“Our groundbreaking programme, developed by autistic young people themselves, involves the whole school community – autistic pupils, their non-autistic peers, teachers and parents and carers. This pioneering approach creates an environment of acceptance and support that allows autistic pupils to be understood, respected and feel OK at school.”

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