Strength and power: autistic pupils and their parents’ experiences of support in secondary school

dogbod2017, blog

by Elizabeth Graham

CRFR Associate PhD student Elizabeth Graham writes about her research exploring children with autism and their experiences of social and educational support in school.

In recent years there has been a significant driving force to teach and include autistic pupils in mainstream schools (Humphrey, 2008). Beardon (2017) asserts that it is autism and the environment that equates to the outcome. For example, surroundings can impact on the level of difficulties experienced. Therefore, the focus should be on adapting environments to better fit those with differences as opposed to encouraging autistic individuals to fit. What follows is a brief insight into autistic pupils and their parents’ experiences and expressions of strength and power when navigating an educational system that does not fit.

Strength can be defined as the emotional or mental qualities necessary in dealing with difficult or distressing situations. The young people in the study displayed great strength when dealing with distressing day to day experiences at school. Most described having no friends, being bullied and isolated, feeling anxious, unsupported, ‘horrible’, unwanted, ashamed and having their confidence knocked. Some also conveyed how they struggled with sensory issues such as noisy classrooms and how they felt claustrophobic in narrow busy corridors. Parents shared how their children would have to recover from the school day in various ways when home: crying, shutting down, and sitting under their covers to recharge. Despite this, some young people are still able to walk through the school doors most days and some even manage to uphold an excellent attendance record.

Parents also demonstrated much tenacity in fighting for their child’s experiences and intelligence to be understood and recognised, to take failing grades seriously, prompting for support to be put in place and some feeling like they have had to fight ‘every step of the way’. This includes requesting meetings with numerous people such as head teachers, deputy head teachers, pastoral heads, head of learning support. This is no mean feat when coupled with the impact of their child’s diagnosis, the level of care some provide at home, worrying about their child when at work, the heartache of hearing their children express suicidal thoughts and subsequent feelings of guilt and being a ‘failure as a parent’. They also have additional challenges of dealing with family members who don’t understand, feeling alone and unsure and sourcing external support for themselves and their children.

Power is usually thought of as the exercise of will of one social actor over others. The young people in this study exercised a degree of control by withholding information from their parents about some of their experiences at school (e.g. bullying) with the intention of stopping their parents intervening. They were also able to regulate their surroundings when home from school by shutting down and not interacting with their parents. In contrast, parents had the authority to make their children go to school, do homework, limit Xbox and Wi-Fi or reading time. Parents also had a limited ability to effect changes at school, for example, meetings, reversing changes that were implemented (e.g. having their child moved back to a seat they were comfortable with in a classroom) and ensuring their child sits exams that they know they are capable of. Whilst parents acknowledge the efforts of some teaching staff and that support for their children is restricted due to limited resources and budgets, they feel that in the education system as a whole, they and their children hold very little power.

About the Author

Elizabeth-Anne Graham is studying for her PhD at the Faculty of Social Science, University of Stirling.


Beardon, L. (2017) Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Adults, London: Sheldon Press.

Humphrey, N. (2008) ‘What Does ‘Inclusion’ Mean for Pupils on the Autistic Spectrum in Mainstream Schools?’ Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 12(1): 23-46.