Guest Post: Autism, Schools & Unconditional Positive Regard (The Perspective of an Educational Psychologist)

I’m delighted to be able to host this guest blog from an Educational Psychologist with whom I’ve been in contact, who wishes to share their observations and perspective about the experiences of some autistic children they encounter in their professional practice.

This is a much-needed, important perspective and I’m privileged to be able to share it.

(I am also very happy to consider hosting other guest-posts from people who have a view to share about autism or any of the other social and political themes that fit within the scope of my blog. If you want to share something and need a platform, please feel free to get in touch – either via this blog, or via Twitter @aspiewithqs)


There’s a well known psychological theory by Carl Rogers called Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR). It refers to accepting and valuing someone as a person no matter what they say or do. Everyone has their own inner resources with which to help themselves, given the right support and environment.

I’m reminded of Unconditional Positive Regard often in my role as an educational psychologist. This is because I don’t see enough of it in schools. I’m not blaming teachers. From the very top down, education in the UK has become far too conditional.

Ever increasing demands of government targets and decreasing resources have meant that children who don’t meet the conditions of “normality” are seen as peripheral, and it’s usually those with challenging behaviour who fare worst.

Autistic children require flexibility and adaptations in mainstream schools to ensure they are happy and able to learn. Without this support they experience sensory-overload and anxiety, which can be internalised, or externalised through expressed aggressive behaviour.

In my career in education I’ve noticed that school staff have become much better at recognising autism (albeit in boys) but in some cases less willing to support. In my view this isn’t just due to lack of resources. It can be attitudinal.

Too often I see rigid expectations that autistic children have to fit into. Rogerian ‘right support and environment’ is dismissed. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen lots of excellent practice, but also some bad, and this often occurs with the anxiety associated with a poor inspection. With the best of intentions of child-centred education, when there’s an emphasis on improving the overall results of a school at the cost of everything else, Unconditional Positive Regard disappears into the ether.

When I started teaching over two decades ago exclusions were extremely rare in primary schools. The shameful, unlawful practice of putting children on so-called part-time timetables was unheard of. Sadly, it has become seen as inevitable for some, disingenuously described as “support”. When asked what strategies are in place already it has been glibly reported “We’ve put him on a part-time timetable so he doesn’t fail”.

Sending a child home is NOT an intervention. It’s giving up on them. For an autistic child at their greatest time of need this is the worst thing that can happen. It gives a clear message; you don’t belong here and may only come back if you meet our conditions. The problem is, this is unachievable without the ‘right support and environment’.

A teacher who is prepared to be flexible, hold an autistic child in their thoughts and anticipate potential stressors can do a great deal for inclusion. When things go wrong for a child this should be seen as a learning opportunity, not just for the child but also school and teacher by reflecting on which unmet need the behaviour was communicating. I’ve always thought from my early days in training to be an EP that unconditional positive regard is bountiful in schools where this way of understanding behaviour is the norm. It’s a progression which enables a child to accepted and valued regardless of what they say or do. Full time Teaching Assistant support won’t help unless these values are espoused throughout a school from strong leadership.

Data are inconclusive because part-time timetables aren’t formally recorded, but research by charities suggests that there’s a high proportion of autistic children receiving exclusions in the UK. The tragedy here is that when schools actively listen to parents it’s not that difficult to understand triggers for behaviour. These can be anticipated during the school day and measures taken to minimise the likelihood of a child being exposed to them. Sometimes it can be something as simple as letting the child leave school five minutes early to avoid sensory-overload at home time, or allowing them to eat their lunch in a quiet room. These may appear trivial in the grand scheme of things in school, but parents report how much the little things can make a huge difference to their child’s emotional state at home.

I studied Carl Rogers as an undergraduate and it continues to inform my thinking in education. I was trained as a child-centred teacher. I taught in schools where, if a child was sent to a special school, teachers were disappointed and felt that they had failed that child. I do see this sentiment with teachers I work with now, but it varies enormously from school to school. For some, getting a child into special school is seen as a first resort and massively overdue, even if they are capable of achieving in a mainstream setting. Minimal efforts are made to help them remain, and I’m increasingly noticing this with autistic children. Unconditional Positive Regard, a given for all children when I started teaching, is now sometimes seen as a luxury.


2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Autism, Schools & Unconditional Positive Regard (The Perspective of an Educational Psychologist)

    • So glad that the EP’s blog has helped you. I find it so useful too when people give me a concept or phrase that I can work with, research around and use in my own (self and community) advocacy!

      Liked by 1 person

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