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Autism is a developmental condition that impacts how a person thinks, feels and interacts with others and the world around them. With a growing number of students on the autism spectrum entering classrooms, more attention is needed to bridge the autism knowledge gap – particularly through more training for teachers to support students on the autism spectrum to achieve their outcomes.

“We have an expanding cohort of students on the autism spectrum who often have different needs, so it’s important for teachers to be prepared to meet those needs,” says Dr Joanne Danker, Lecturer in Special Education in the School of EducationUNSW Arts, Design & Architecture. “However, through no fault of their own, they may not have the training and resources to fully support the well-being of students with developmental disabilities like autism.”

Language, for example, is essential when referring to people on the autism spectrum and shapes perceptions and attitudes. Some people on the autism spectrum may prefer identity-first language (e.g., “autistic”), while others may prefer person-first language (e.g., “person with autism” or “person on the autism spectrum”).

“Students on the autism spectrum deserve respect, dignity, and a high-quality education,” says Professor Iva Strnadová, a Professor in Special Education and Disability Studies at the School of Education. “High-quality education recognises students’ dignity, builds on students’ strengths, and is grounded in high expectations, self-determination development, and evidence-based practices.”

Prof. Strnadová and Dr Danker are leading a short course, Supporting Students on the Autism Spectrum. The course is designed to equip teachers with the knowledge and tools to implement adjustments and support for all students in their classroom, irrespective of their abilities.

“This short course aims to upskill teachers and school learning support officers (SLSOs) with the skills they need to provide a high-quality education to students on the autism spectrum in any educational setting,” says Prof. Strnadová. “It’s ideal for all educators working in mainstream classes as well as schools for specific purposes who support students on the autism spectrum and who might have little or no formal training in special and inclusive education.”

While most degrees do offer a course on inclusive and/or special education, it’s often not enough for teachers to fully grasp the needs of students on the autism spectrum.

“Pre-service teaching degrees don’t go into enough depth to adequately equip teachers with the knowledge they need to help students on the autism spectrum succeed,” says Dr Danker. “So, there’s a real gap and need for specialised courses like this, so teachers can better understand autism and how it presents in the classroom.”

The short course goes beyond theory, focusing on learning in action. It incorporates individualised expert guidance, lived experience accounts of people on the autism spectrum, accounts of their families, guest speakers, and collaborative work within a community of like-minded professionals.

“For students, the consequences of the autism knowledge gap can be life-changing,” says Dr Danker. “If we don’t cater to the needs of children on the autism spectrum, we’re letting them down, and it’s less likely they’re going to learn and succeed in school.

“This course will empower teachers so that their students on the autism spectrum have the opportunity to succeed in the classroom and reach their full potential.”

The Supporting Students on the Autism Spectrum short course commences on 5 April 2024. Register your place today!