Urban environments for vulnerable youth: is school a place where autism meets equal opportunity?

How are schools doing when it comes to welcoming children with autism into mainstream education? How successful is the 2014 Dutch Appropriate Education Act for pupils with autism? An estimated 16,000 school-age children do not attend school, with about 5,000 suspected of having autism. During the World Autism Awareness Week, our BOLD Cities research team on urban environments for vulnerable youth draws attention to this specific question.

Please note: This blog on equal access to education was written before the coronavirus outbreak, which forced the closure of all school buildings and a transition to online education only. Online education for all might benefit some children that were not going to school before the outbreak. However, most issues raised in this blog still remain, or will return when schools reopen. In addition, the fundamental problem of unequal opportunity will still arise when children with additional needs have to study online at home, without additional support.

You are 14 years old, with an average-or-above IQ. You want an education like everyone else, and want to do well on your homework and exams. Yet you stay home and are not registered as a pupil in a mainstream school.

Do you have autism? What if you also have a non-white or non-Western background, or parents without a university degree? These factors all increase your risk for being underestimated by your teachers, and for being made to feel unwelcome at school. They also increase your risk for being removed from mainstream schools and placed in special education, possibly at a level far below your capability. Was the Appropriate Education Act not for you?

According to the Dutch Autism Association (NVA), one third of all school refusers - more than 5,000 school-age children who are not taking part in education – have autism.

Duty of Care
Since the Appropriate Education Act of 2014, all children are to be included in mainstream education, where the school has a “duty of care”. That is, schools must make the necessary adjustments to ensure that every child can participate in mainstream education or offer alternatives.

Yet, the autistic pupil cannot always adapt to the rest of the class or to the classroom. Overstimulation or sudden changes in a routine can provoke unrest, loss of concentration, or even a "meltdown". Appropriate individual counseling entails huge financial costs. It may seem that the needs of the autistic pupil outstrip the school’s resources.

Schools must make the necessary adjustments to ensure that every child can participate in mainstream education or offer alternatives

Some schools take the radical step of removing the student. But is this the correct path to take? Maybe the child does not speak the Dutch language well enough, or the parents are less knowledgeable of the Dutch educational system and law. Do they know their rights? How can they object to this procedure? Is the school indeed unable to provide the autistic child with sufficient support, after extensive research into the student’s needs, as the removal procedure prescribes? Neither student nor parents have misbehaved, which are the other conditions for which the removal procedure was designed.

Under these circumstances, schools abuse the law by initiating the removal procedure, meaning they use the law in an unintended manner.

Support what?
Most teachers with an autistic child in the classroom focus on the child’s learning performance: "How do I present content?" "How do I help organize their tasks?" Conventionally, teachers are taught they must offer clear main and side issues, and extra time for exams. There will be a separate, quiet room in the event of overstimulation. But do these strategies address the real problem? Do children really go to school to learn, in the first place? Of course, education is compulsory. But if the pupil feels unsafe, disturbed, or unwelcome at school, they might come up with excuses to avoid school altogether.

At school you meet your friends. You grumble about your annoying parents. You whisper to your friend about the butterflies in your stomach when that special someone walks down the hall. You share the newest games together on your mobile, and share “Likes” on Instagram.

What is it like for the young autistic person, who has no clear friends in the classroom? – who is reluctant to take breaks because everyone seems to be chatting with each other – eating in groups together on the lawn – where he or she is never a part of that? How much energy does it take to pretend that everything is fine, or that you choose to be alone? Every day becomes an energy drain, not because the curriculum is too difficult, but because you feel lost, lonely, or even threatened in the school yard.

Do schools have a responsibility to go beyond offering a curriculum? Under the Appropriate Education Act, school is also about creating equal opportunities, starting with a climate of active social inclusion.

Dropping out
Sometimes talk of “equal opportunities” masks deep-seated inequalities in an institution: inequalities in attitudes, in resources, and in ideology. Inclusive education policy often lacks meaning and is merely an afterthought to existing policies.

According to the Dutch Inspectorate of Education, over the last four years the above factors have contributed to an increased number of students not attending school for an extended period (longer than three months). It has also placed a burden on parents and primary caregivers to locate the right learning environment for their child, when the aim of the Appropriate Education Act was to meet the learning needs of all children.

The responsibility for ending this inequality starts with awareness and recognition of the mechanisms that maintain unequal access

For parents, finding a school is increasingly difficult, in a highly fragmented system where customized programs make school comparisons harder. What are the potential differences between schools, and how would they meet the needs of their child? This makes specialized knowledge on the part of parents about the Dutch school system a requirement. The level of knowledge, in combination with negotiation skills and assertiveness, have been shown to influence the placement of children. As a result, appropriate education is not equally accessible to all children.

When children with additional needs fail to receive customized support at school, there is a risk for inequality. Unequal opportunity happens when children with equal cognitive capacities do not get the same opportunities in education, according to educational sociologist El Hadioui. These students often end up in less demanding classes, and their potential talent goes underutilized. The responsibility for ending this inequality lies primarily with schools and teachers. But it starts with awareness and recognition of the mechanisms that maintain unequal access, both in the classrooms and in the schoolyards.

This article is a contribution by our research team on urban environments for vulnerable youth, and was written by Carolien Rieffe, Sarah Giest and Pim Deul. It was originally published on the Leiden Psychology Blog.