27th November 2018
Supporting international students with Autism in the UK
By Patricia Moores

A prevailing view, but one rarely spoken, is that in some cultures children with SEN (Special Educational Needs) are sent overseas to study to be ‘out of sight and out of mind’.

Schools anecdotally, but not on the record, report children arriving at their boarding schools with severe SEN that schools are unprepared to support. Even schools that have a focus on SEN delivery report struggling to meet the needs of international SEN pupils because they were not aware before the child arrived of the full extent of their needs.

So how can this issue be tackled?

While the onus would seem to fall on the parents to be more ‘honest’ about their children’s needs to help the school assess its capabilities to offer a relevant and appropriate education for their child and to then get suitable support in place from day one, there are other issues for schools to consider.

David Bara is a Senior Lecturer of SEN in Early Childhood Studies Cass School of Education and Communities, University of East London, and he takes a broader view of the challenge.

‘So often what is perceived as challenging behaviour is often a lack of cultural understanding’, he says. He feels very strongly that often schools are not asking parents the right questions in application forms and during Skype interviews with the family prior to the child arriving at a given school. In addition, questions aimed at assessing learning difficulties or challenging behaviour are written by UK educators for UK parents and do not take account of different cultural interpretations.

Pat Moores, Director of UK Education Guide
‘For example, in schools children are encouraged to use a knife and fork. However, for children from specific cultures, using a knife and fork is not how they eat at home, they use their fingers, so assessing their development and behaviour in this way is inappropriate and misleading,’ he adds.

A study by academics of 250 pre-school children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in five different countries sought to begin to explore cross-cultural comparisons of ASD and also reviewed previous research in this area.

The study* found that perceptions of behaviour related to socialization and communication were fairly consistent across cultures. However, there was more variation among those related to restricted, repetitive behaviours (RRBs). This may suggest that culture has a larger influence on how RRBs are perceived by parents than other symptoms related to ASD. Behaviours related to socialization and communication may be more universal, while interpretation of RRBs may be more culturally subjective. This has important implications for the international implementation of ASD screening and diagnostic measures, as cultural variations in perception and endorsement of RRBs may affect measure outcomes and the diagnostic process.

The study also reviewed other research in this area and found that parent reporting of child symptoms may be influenced by the aspects of development most valued within a culture. For example, results of research conducted in the United States suggest that American parents tend to be more concerned about language delays. In contrast, Indian parents have been found to tend to have early concerns about social difficulties and Latina mothers may tend to be concerned about temperament.

Culture may also influence how willing parents are to report certain symptoms. For instance, parents may be less likely to report symptoms that they view as socially undesirable, as they may associate this with social stigma. The degree to which socially undesirable symptoms lead to societal stigma may differ across cultures. This suggests that ethnically based cultural norms can influence perception of social undesirability of mental symptoms, and ultimately the endorsement of those symptoms.

In addition to cultural differences in terms of perception and ‘importance’ of symptoms, there is also the issue of trauma to consider.

Some young people travelling from areas where there is conflict may be diagnosed with autism or ADHD but are, in fact, suffering from PTSD. So, knowing the child’s exposure to traumas of this kind is vital for a school to accurately assess what support is needed and being able to ask the right questions is key to unlocking why children are behaving in a certain way.

This is where the role of the local agent is so important, as they can provide the ‘bridge’ between the family and the school. The Agent will understand cultural issues that may be misunderstood by schools and provide an invaluable local context. The face-to-face relationship between an agent and the family will also help identify any specific issues the child is facing that the family may feel more reluctant to share directly with a school that they don’t know.

So, while it is hard for schools to find the resources to review each child’s needs from both a cultural and experiential point of view, equally it is hard to see how young people will get the support they really need without this support? Cultural and awareness training for staff dealing with children from different cultures is really important so they can differentiate between culturally norm behaviours and those that are not, as this will definitely help with the assessment of the child. Also, asking agents to specifically comment on a child’s cultural or experiential issues they think the school should be aware of will also be extremely helpful.

One thing is certain, standardised testing as currently applied, is almost certainly inadequate. It also highlights the need for more research in this field to help schools give the appropriate guidance and support to international students who exhibit learning and behavioural challenges.