Gesher School, Mishcon de Reya and The Autism Research Trust team up to fund a unique research project into autistic children’s outcomes

The Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge, directed by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, is setting up a novel research project to test if autistic children in mainstream and special schools are more vulnerable to ending up in what the UK Government calls NEET (Not in Education, Employment, and Training).

This research is supported by Gesher School, which provides a specialist learning environment for autistic children and those with related special needs, and is funded by law firm Mishcon de Reya and the Autism Research Trust.

The research team will use a valuable resource called the National Pupil Database that records if a child has one of a set of recognised Special Educational Needs (SEN), including autism, and records a range of other data on thousands of children across the UK, including whether they end up in NEET.

They will compare different categories of SEN, such as children with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Conduct Disorder, and Dyslexia, to see whether SEN in general is a risk factor for ending up in NEET, and whether autism entails an elevated risk for ending up in NEET. The team will also use online surveys and focus groups to capture parents’ experiences, and will produce policy guidelines based on their findings.

Social communication difficulties make children on the autistic spectrum particularly vulnerable to negative life experiences, both at home and at school. Many report being bullied, excluded, exploited, and feeling marginalized.

An increased vulnerability to negative life experiences, in combination with inadequate support, may partially explain why the Cambridge team’s earlier study found that two thirds of autistic adults experience anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts and feelings. Alarmingly one third have planned or attempted suicide – a rate significantly higher than is seen in other groups in the population. The team now wish to see if leaving school and ending up in NEET is another risk factor for this worrying outcome.

Mariann Kovacs, who is analysing the data as part of a PhD in Cambridge, said “We hope that this project will provide families, carers and schools with more insight into how life experiences impact an autistic child’s emotional state and learning, and what long-term interventions are needed to support these vulnerable children, so that they can fulfil their potential”.

Dr Sarah Griffiths, who is co-supervising the PhD, said “It is vital that research of this kind is funded and undertaken so we know where the problems are and can use evidence to advise policy-makers and educators how to best help autistic children and adolescents”.

Dr Carrie Allison, Director of Strategy at the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge, and an advisor to the project, said “We are very grateful to this team of funders for enabling real-world autism research to take place, and which will have rapid impact on autistic children’s lives”.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen added “Thankfully we are now shining a light on mental health, its causes, risk factors, and protective factors. Understanding a child’s journey into NEET and if autistic children are more at risk of this outcome is of huge importance if we are to improve mental health in young people. I am pleased that mental health is becoming less stigmatised and is getting more attention, and these funders are contributing to improving our understanding of good and poor mental health in autistic people.”

Sarah Sultman and Ali Durban, co-founders of Gesher School, commented “Collaborations between funders like these help bring about social change on many levels. Early intervention is critical for autistic children and this research will give an insight into how schools can best help”.

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