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Developing inclusive school environments: Optimising staff training to support positive mental health in autistic young people.

Students in a group

Project title: Developing inclusive school environments: Optimising the provision of staff training to support positive mental health in autistic young people.

Duration: June 2022 – Dec 2023

Funder/s and or supporters: NIHR NENC ARC Mental Health Capacity and Capability Fund

Funding total: £24,662

Lead contact for the project: Dr Angela Wearn (angela.wearn@newcastle.ac.uk)

Project summary

This research is about autistic young people’s experience in mainstream secondary school and how to create a more inclusive educational environment. The team are particularly interested in training and information that teachers receive about autism, and the relevance of this to autistic young people’s mental health.

This project will be conducted in three stages:

  • Mapping work and interviews with training providers and schools to find out what autism-focused training and information currently exists across the region. We will also consider how, and to what extent, the autistic community were involved in the development and/or delivery of existing training.
  • Peer-led conversations with autistic young people exploring their experiences within school and the (positive or negative) impact this has on their mental health.
  • Peer-led workshops with autistic people and wider stakeholders to talk about the project’s early findings and think about areas that could be improved or changed. The first workshop will include autistic young people only as it is important to the project team to prioritise these views. The second workshop will include different groups. For example other young people, carers, charities and schools.

Background to the project

The ARC’s Young Person’s Advisory Network (YPAN) chose to do research on this topic because secondary school, and the experience of this, is an important part of a young person’s life. Members of the YPAN are co-leading this work.

We spoke to autistic young people, and connected with researchers that had similar interests, some of whom are also autistic, and found they shared similar experiences related to how understood and included they felt (or often did not feel) in mainstream school. We also felt that teaching staff, and the training they take part in, has the potential to have a big impact on autistic young people’s mental health. We wanted to find out more about this topic and how autistic young people could feel more supported in school.

Why is this project important?

Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disability which has high levels of co-occurrence with mental health conditions. For example, it is estimated around 80% of autistic people experience common mental health issues such as anxiety and depression throughout their lifetimes and are at higher risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviours than the general population. Past research has found that mental health often declines in adolescence and is linked with pressures and challenges experienced within secondary school.

It is important to understand how we can best prevent poor mental health and promote wellbeing for autistic pupils. As a lot of previous training and research around autism has been conducted and led by non-autistic people, it is also vitally important that any school-based policies and/or staff training packages centre the experience and perspectives of autistic young people themselves.

Lily, one of the project’s young co-investigators says, “I am a part of this project because autism research and mental health research are very close to my heart. I got involved because I want to give my views as a high school student. I thought that a lot of people who are a part of research were older and that people my age weren’t listened to by anyone really. I think it’s really important to involve young people if the research is about them.”

What does the project aim to achieve?

This project will result in co-developed recommendations that are of relevance to both training providers and schools, to create more inclusive environments in for autistic young people.  The team also hope to share examples of good practice in how to involve the autistic community and autistic young people in research.

Who is involved in delivering the project?:

Dr Angela Wearn, Newcastle University (Project Lead)

Dr Felicity Shenton, NENC ARC (Project Co-Lead)

Miss Zoe Collier, NENC ARC YPAN/Sunderland University

Kai, Katie, Lily, Niamh and Wiki – NENC ARC YPAN

Dr Catherine El-Zerbi, Newcastle University

Dr Amy Pearson, Sunderland University

Mr Liam Spencer, Newcastle University

For more information about this project please contact Dr Angela Wearn (angela.wearn@newcastle.ac.uk) or Dr Felicity Shenton (Felicity.shenton@cntw.nhs.uk).