The Autism Show and What Mainstream Education Can Learn From It

Written by: Evangelos Koutanis

Images by: Christina Kelesidou


On Saturday 17/06/2018 we visited The Autism Show in London. The event was organized in association with the National Autistic society and was held at Excel London, but the event also took place in Birmingham and Manchester on 22-23/06/2018 and 29-30/06/2018 respectively.

Special Education and Self Help Books, Egon Publishers
Special Education and Self Help Books, Ergon Publishers

The event featured a variety of speakers who represented different professional fields related to autism, and several exhibitors that had the opportunity to display products and services related not only to autism, but the entire field of special educational needs, including dyslexia. While we left the event having gained valuable insights into the world of special education, I am certainly not qualified to analyze the knowledge we have received or discuss any methodologies and research and offer back any valuable conclusions. What I would like to write about is my own experience of the event, the reasons that sparked my interest in special education in the first place, and what the TESOL community can learn from it.

The very first exhibit that caught my attention in the show was at the booth of Acorn Care and Education Group, and it was a Dungeons and Dragons set. Dungeons and Dragons is a role-playing game that is not played on a computer but using rule books and direct communication among players who are required to behave as characters in a story that a person – called the game master – narrates. While I am a fan of the game and spent lots of hours playing it with my friends, I struggled to understand why it would be exhibited in an event that focuses on education. Ben Sawyer of Heath Farm School had to explain what should have been obvious to me in the first place: the game is used as a medium to meet a variety of educational targets, including the building of social skills which is specific to children with ASD. And it should have been obvious to me because I know from my experience that Dungeons and Dragons can be very educational: first and foremost, it is based on reading quite sizeable books and anything that can make a student read a book is a win for me personally; it is based on a mixture of medieval history, mythology and fiction which, even though not academically accurate, it can inspire a student to learn more; it forces the players to build and demonstrate lateral thinking and problem solving skills in order to proceed as characters in the game; these books can usually only be found in English.

Dungeons and Dragons Set, Ben Sawyer, Heath Farm School
Dungeons and Dragons Set, Ben Sawyer, Heath Farm School
Interactive Floor, Mike Eyres and OM Interactive
Interactive Floor, Mike Eyres and OM Interactive

I should have known better than to ask why these books were demonstrated as an educational tool, especially as I have witnessed my own friends, and other people, achieve high scores in English tests like IELTS – not to mention a deep understanding of the mechanics of the language – having had little or even no training by an ELT. There are also memories from some of my students form many years ago, whose passion for literature, movies and even video games helped them learn English more efficiently than others who limited their knowledge and studying to the grammar and vocabulary that I taught for their exams. Even though I believed that I have evolved throughout the years to understand how teaching works, I must admit that the idea of how a school is and how teaching works has remained deeply rooted in my brain, to the extent that I needed a teacher to explain to me how a game can be used as an educational resource.

As I consider this to be a problem for myself, and perhaps many other educators, I firmly believe that The Autism Show, as well as similar events, have a lot of answers that can help tackle it. Looking around the booths gives the visitor an idea of how education can be adapted to meet the needs of various kinds of learners: I was reminded how important three dimensions can be for visual learners when learning the alphabet, and that the important of auditory input. I was impressed by the number of sensory toys that exist and how they can be used in the classroom to assist students with focus and self-regulation. A visit to the sensory rooms is a testament to how important the way we experience the world through our senses is, which I believe to be largely ignored by teachers and not factored in education, let alone TESOL. But, perhaps the most eye-opening experience was the virtual reality booth in which I got to experience the world through the eyes of an autistic person: the demonstration was so intense that I had to remove the headset amidst the presentation as it felt like torture for me personally. Other visitors reported to experience it in various way, but the common element in our descriptions was anxiety and distress. The thought that this could be an inescapable reality for any of my students, makes me feel like a bad teacher if I am not at least educated about it.

TTS Group Limited – Special Direct, Special Direct Booth
TTS Group Limited – Special Direct, Special Direct Booth
Multitextured Panel, Mike Eyres and OM Interactive
Multitextured Panel, Mike Eyres and OM Interactive

You might be wondering how there can be a connection to neurotypical students that most mainstream teachers will ever have to educate. We often tend to view our teaching methodologies as a one-size-fits-all remedy that answers all the questions we will ever have in the classroom. Modern or alternative techniques and resources are often viewed and treated as prescribed solutions that we can adopt in order to remain updated regarding our professions. However, this is truly not the case. Special education proves that it is not about using techniques to entice students to follow a syllabus and meet the targets that are predetermined for every student; it is about adapting the education to the needs of the children by shaping the syllabus and teaching plan around the personalized targets that the teacher sets for each student individually. If it sounds like a difficult task for teachers to achieve, that is probably because it is a difficult task: Sir Ken Robinson talks about our current understanding of an educational model that is based on a production line, and how that creates a hard limit on the creativity that a teacher can demonstrate; nevertheless, this cannot be enforced in special education in which teachers are actually required to think outside the box and acknowledge that education can be achieved through the means that the student is able or willing to accept and follow. To explain that in simpler terms, I will paraphrase Janine Booth’s example while speaking about Autism, Equality and the Workplace: when educating a visually impaired student, it is not the student who has to learn how to read a book, but the book and any other media in which the knowledge is delivered must change. We tend to forget that a lot in mainstream education and TESOL and refuse to consider our students’ preferred learning styles.

Another crucial point that emerged from the talks though, gave me a clue on why we cannot escape that mentality and strive for incorporating more progressive methods in our teaching, such as Ben Sawyer’s use of unorthodox educational tools. As the audience of the show was a mixture of parents and teachers, the speakers independently emphasized the need for the parents to embrace meaningful change, and instead of perceiving it as a risk that they must avoid and be cautious against, assess and calculate this risk so that they can abstain from hindering their children’s progress. This comment by the speakers targeted the parental instinct of protection, but it also highlights the fact that change is indeed a risk for everybody involved. While we know as education professionals that it is not the means, but the targets that produce positive outcomes for learners, we also need to acknowledge that the means are usually the way in which our performance is reviewed. This can happen for a variety of reasons: it could be that the educational targets are not communicated clearly; maybe it is counter-intuitive for the non-professionals to see the connection between the means and the targets; or perhaps the true significance of the means cannot be viewed, as they are judged out of context. And, of course, we should not forget that, like everybody else, teachers are also susceptible to biases and misjudgment, so the means might sometimes be unsuitable for the purpose indeed.

Ball Maze, Mike Eyres and OM Interactive
Ball Maze, Mike Eyres and OM Interactive
Sensory Room, Mike Eyres and OM Interactive
Sensory Room, Mike Eyres and OM Interactive

To conclude, there are many factors that prevent us from stepping away from long established norms that we know to be inefficient. Nonetheless special education is certainly not irrelevant to mainstream education and TESOL; if anything, it demonstrates that our understanding of our profession and our creativity can often be limited by those norms and that it is not always a conservative society that we can conveniently blame for that: we, as teachers, are also trapped in this way of thinking, whether we want it or not. We all tend to be annoyed by the students that repeatedly click their pens, play with their pencils or chew gum in the lesson, but we do not offer them an alternative, such as an anti-stress ball, to relieve their feeling; we tend to judge the students who remain silent in the classroom, refuse to answer questions, or read a text aloud, but we do not take the time to wonder if they are actually learning, and if not, find out how we can help them learn; and more importantly, we think that there are only some kind of methods to teach and assess performance, ignoring that different people learn in different ways, at different times, at different paces. This article is not meant to be a judgement, because, as we all know, there are no proven and easy solutions when it comes to education. It is a combined effort by many people that are required to tackle problems and create solutions having very little information about the actual task. My overarching argument is that special education has very good insights to offer. Therefore, it is my firm belief that my personal interest or any teacher’s involvement in special education is the right step to take in the path to improving as teachers and educators. And The Autism Show or similar initiatives are a very good place to start.

We would like to thank the following for allowing us to take pictures from their booths:

Excelixis Education and the creators of this article are not sponsored or affiliated in any way with any of the companies or organizations mentioned above or anywhere in the article.