Autism Acceptance Week blog

28th Mar 2023

By Dr Jo Fitzsimons and Alex Stainton 

Whitefield Academy Trust Professional Development and Outreach Services 

This week is World Autism Acceptance Week, a week when, across the globe, we shine a spotlight on autism – what it is and what it means for autistic people’s lives.

In recent years, we have made great progress in raising awareness of autism. Whilst it has been almost 50 years since people first heard of autism, now it is well-known. The fantastic work of academics and educationalists as well as autistic people themselves and their families has allowed us to get to a point where autism is widely spoken about and better understood. This progress is reflected in the change of the week’s name from Autism Awareness Week to Autism Acceptance Week, which signals a hugely encouraging step forward.  This is fantastic – but there is still lots to do.

With awareness raised, what we need now is acceptance. Simply knowing what autism is and that autistic people exist is not enough; it is vital to have greater understanding and support for the autistic community so that they do not just feel seen, but truly accepted by and included within a society which is attentive to their needs.

This mission – of acceptance and inclusion – is one we feel strongly about at Whitefield Academy Trust.  Both in our schools and through our outreach work, we are committed to ensuring that autistic children are fully supported in their learning and can lead happy, meaningful lives. We pride ourselves on being advocates for autistic pupils – speaking up for them so that they get the provision that will benefit them most in the classroom.

Empowering autistic people and amplifying their voices is also important to us.  As part of our training for teachers in mainstream schools, we always seek to bring autistic trainers to our SEND conferences so that we can learn from them and their lived experience. During these sessions, participants are encouraged to try to put themselves in an autistic person’s shoes.  Through this, they can better understand the challenges autistic people may face and develop a more empathetic teaching practice.

Shifting from awareness to acceptance, and beyond that to support and inclusion, means making changes to our own approach. A key part of the work we do is giving teachers and school staff the tools to be able to understand autistic pupils’ needs. This requires us to think and act in different ways which can make a huge difference to an autistic child’s wellbeing and ability to learn. For example, for autistic children who are sensitive to bright light, we suggest adjusting the lighting in the classroom. Other small behavioural changes we often encourage staff to adopt include not demanding eye contact from a child who struggles to listen and look at the same time or giving a child a movement break in a lesson if that is what they need to focus better.

We also want to see strategies for supporting autistic pupils higher up a school’s agenda; we work with some incredible SENCos across Waltham Forest who are imaginative, compassionate and hard-working but the responsibility for looking after these pupils cannot fall on their shoulders only – it needs to sit with Senior Leaders. This is why we were so encouraged recently when, at one of the schools we work with, the Head Teacher made the time to meet with us to understand what more they as a school can be doing to support autistic pupils.  

It is only by putting these actions into practice and including everyone – from classroom staff to Senior Leaders – in the conversation about how to ensure we are actively responding to autistic pupils’ needs that we are going to see real change. From our own outreach work, we are finding that children who have been referred to us are making much better progress since adjustments have been put in place to support them, and that their well-being has improved too. Autistic pupils have a right to have their voices heard and their needs met as much as any other child. This is why, in a few years’ time, we want to be seeing all schools and businesses systematically making the right changes for autistic people.

Leading the way in this is Waltham Forest Council. We are very fortunate to work in the borough, which is determined to become autism-friendly through the implementation of its All-Age Autism Strategy.  This sets out a clear vision on what changes can be made to improve the lives of autistic people. It is our hope that both our place on the Strategy Board and our outreach work in schools will accelerate progress, securing better outcomes for the autism community.

Ultimately, the transition from awareness to acceptance is really about a move from passivity to action – from not just acknowledging the presence of autistic people but making changes and adapting our own behaviour to allow them to thrive. With the right support, autistic people have so much to contribute, and it is our duty to help create a society which fully accepts, understands and celebrates them.