Autism and Mainstreaming

The Presumption of Mainstreaming in Scottish Education

Ferrous, aka Oolong
8 min readMay 6, 2024

This was a talk recorded for the Autism Cross-Party Group (CPG) at the Scottish Parliament, meeting on the 22nd of April 2023, on “Accessing Education: Exclusions and ‘Presumption to Mainstreaming’”. Watch the recording here.

A video still of the author, a white person with light hair and glasses, pausing in mid-flow with a sceptical expression. Their room is full of books, art and musical instruments.
CPG Talk on Autism & Mainstreaming

I’m Fergus Murray, a science teacher, writer and autistic community organiser. I’m the Chair of AMASE, Autistic Mutual Aid Society Edinburgh, but I’m speaking here mainly as an autistic teacher.

The first thing I want to say is that I support the ideal of inclusive education. There are good reasons why disability rights activists have pushed for it over the decades, and why it is enshrined in Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The main alternative, segregated education for disabled and neurodivergent children, has rarely delivered equal access to education, and has too often fallen far short of this — although schools for the deaf and for the blind have had some notable successes. Unfortunately, truly inclusive education remains elusive. As UNICEF puts it, this would require “education environments that adapt the design and physical structures, teaching methods, and curriculum as well as the culture, policy and practice of education environments so that they are accessible to all students without discrimination.”

I do not believe that anyone, hand on heart, thinks that Scottish schools consistently achieve this. Based on what I know, I think it is rare — which is not to suggest that Scotland is doing unusually badly on this front, only that it is not doing well enough.

So I want to address what I think the main barriers are to realising this dream, for autistic and otherwise neurodivergent students; what truly inclusive education might look like; and what else might be needed, even if the mainstream school system became as inclusive as it could be.

First, I should say a bit about myself, because my perspective is obviously shaped by my specific experiences. I’ve been a science teacher in Scotland for around a decade now, but weirdly I have no direct experience of Scottish state education, having completed my own education in England, and worked only at independent schools in Scotland. That doesn’t mean that I have no relevant experience, though!

So I completed my initial teacher education at Goldsmiths, in London, before moving back up to Edinburgh, where I have spent most of my adult life. My PGCE was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it is no wonder that so many teachers drop out before they have even begun, or within a year or two of graduating — especially those with disabilities or caring responsibilities. There is simply too much to do and learn, crammed into far too little time. I mention this because the failure to accommodate those groups in the teaching profession makes it that much harder for schools to fully include disabled children, including neurodivergent kids — and because teacher education is not adequately preparing teachers to work with those kids, but I know how challenging it is to fit anything more in there, in the current system.

I was assessed as autistic a few years before training to become a teacher; up to that point, my education had been completed without the benefit of this key information about how my brain works. Not that I have any confidence that my school experiences, in the 80s and early 90s (or my universities, later) would have been improved by this knowledge; but we have come on a long way since then, and I like to think that most teachers have a much better idea now of what autism is, and how to accommodate it. Unfortunately, I think it is fair to say that many still have a long way to go.

My teaching career has been an unconventional one, which is the only way I have been able to stay in the profession for this long. I am uncomfortable with the fact that this has meant working in the private sector, but my PGCE experiences showed me that I would probably never be happy working with big classes of kids who mostly didn’t want to be there. That was also my experience of school as a learner, and it was largely miserable.

I have been very fortunate to find work in schools that have allowed me to teach small classes, mostly of kids who have actively chosen to learn what I am teaching, and to be flexible and autonomous in how I teach. And largely thanks to the promise of small classes and flexibility, those schools have attracted large numbers of children who have been failed by mainstream state schools (and often by one or more private schools, as well). Those kids, as you might imagine, are largely neurodivergent. Thankfully, I have seen many of them thrive once they are in the right environment, often after years of traumatic school experiences.

So what are mainstream schools doing wrong that for all their inclusive intentions, so many neurodivergent kids have to leave — sometimes to specialist provision; otherwise to private schools or home schooling, if the parents have the resources; or to worse situations, if they don’t? For that matter, why are many of those who do stay developing chronic anxiety and other mental health difficulties that will stay with them for years afterwards?

I don’t want to spend too long on what’s going wrong, because I think the problems are better-understood than the solutions, but we need to look at where the main barriers lie, in order to effectively address them.

The deepest problems have to do with the overall culture of education, embedded as it is within this neoliberal capitalist society. This breeds a focus on measurable achievement, over things like mental health and wellbeing which are far harder to quantify; it perpetuates inequality, by giving children with wealthy or educated parents multiple, systematic advantages; it pushes people towards studying subjects that are seen as beneficial for the economy, or reliable moneyspinners at an individual level; it promotes competition over cooperation; and it builds in the expectation that some fraction of learners will fail — or, as I would see it, will be failed.

I would argue that these factors affect most children negatively, but autistic and otherwise neurodivergent and disabled kids are often the worst hit. Schools, and education policies, certainly have their roles to play in fixing these, but they are huge, systemic issues, calling for much broader social and political change. We always ought to keep these in sight, but let us focus on things that we can change in the short to medium term.

There are three broad types of factor that lead to exclusion at the level of the school, besides staff to pupil ratios: the understandings and attitudes of teachers; the behaviour of other pupils; and the physical environment of the school.

If we want teachers to understand enough to include autistic learners effectively, they should all be receiving up-to-date training on autism and neurodiversity, designed and delivered by neurodivergent people. Outdated attitudes are still far too prevalent — which is hardly surprising, given the paradigm shift that neurodiversity demands, and the far-too-limited time available for teachers to learn new things. Teachers want to understand neurodivergent learners and what they need to access education, but for the most part, they simply don’t have the chance.

A few years ago I was involved in developing a set of autism resources for initial teacher education in Scotland, released under the title ‘We Were Expecting You’. This was a positive development, but much of my feedback on the draft materials was ignored, and we ended up with a much less useful set of resources than we could have had, with minimal input from the population being described. Even if this pack had been perfect, initial teacher education has little effect on established teachers, who are the ones most likely to have formed their ideas about these things a long time ago. Given how much our understanding of neurodiversity has come on in recent decades, it is imperative to ensure that every teacher is exposed to modern understandings of neurodevelopmental differences.

The attitudes of other students are just as important. Students who stand out as ‘different’ often have a hard time at school. I think they are much more likely to understand neurodivergence than they used to be, and series like Pablo and A Kind of Spark surely help with that. Still, understanding and acceptance are far from universal, and projects like LEANS — Learning About Neurodiversity at School — could go a long way towards filling that gap… if only they were more widely implemented.

Meanwhile, schools are still being built with bizarrely little regard for the sensory needs of neurodivergent students. Fluorescent lighting is still common, shared spaces are often overwhelmingly noisy… and horrifyingly, some schools are even going for “open plan” layouts, so that is not just the noises of one classroom causing disruption and overload, but all of the classrooms around.

Most of these issues could be fixed if it was compulsory for every school to employ autistic people to conduct sensory audits, and if the need for quiet spaces to retreat and recover was universally recognised.

Between all of these factors, mainstream Scottish schools as a whole are not yet ready to effectively include every autistic learner — or many of the other children identified as having ‘additional’ support needs. I have suggested various routes towards making them more inclusive, but in the meantime, we also need to consider what can be done to ensure access to alternatives. Lockdown showed us that some children who have a terrible time at school actually thrive with online learning at home. What can we do to ensure that home education is a viable option for more families, when school doesn’t work out?

And what can we do to ensure that every child has the chance to meet and learn from others with similar experiences of the world to themselves? One reason that schools for the Deaf remain popular with many in the Deaf community is that they give children the opportunity not to feel isolated, to connect with Deaf culture and learn how to be Deaf in a society that assumes hearing.

Many minority communities have Saturday schools, for broadly similar reasons. So far, we don’t have anything like that for Autistic communities. Autistic culture often goes unrecognised, and children have little support to understand and advocate for their needs. After all, the people around them in mainstream schools mostly don’t understand those needs either — or how important it is to learn how to advocate for them.

So truly inclusive education is a beautiful dream, but even if it is eventually realised, it won’t be enough on its own. People need the opportunity to meet others who are something like themselves, as well as people with very different experiences. And many of the barriers to equality in education come down to deeper cultural and political issues — things which will take many years to change.



Ferrous, aka Oolong

Monotropic science teacher. Lives in Edinburgh, writes about neurodiversity, science, politics and things.