Interview with Prof. Karen Guldberg

12 Nov 2019

Interview with Prof. Karen Guldberg


Interview with Professor Karen Guldberg, Director of the Autism Centre for Education and Research (ACER) at the School of Education, University of Birmingham and lead author of the AET Good Autism Practice Guidance. First published on Nasen SEND Gateway.


Why is it important to talk about autism education? What is good autism practice?

Autistic children and young people are three times as likely to be excluded from school as children and young people who do not have special educational needs. Unfortunately, lack of autism knowledge in education staff can negatively impact on the school experiences of autistic children and their opportunities to succeed. Autism is complex and impacts daily functioning, so autistic children and young people require distinctive supports and assistance to be successful.

Good autism practice is about understanding the way the autistic child or young person processes and experiences the world, and then adapting learning environments and teaching methods to enable learners on the autism spectrum to participate and succeed in both academic and non-academic areas. Settings need to provide a flexible curriculum that promotes social inclusion and wellbeing.

What is the AET Good Autism Practice Guidance? Who can benefit from it?

The AET Good Autism Practice Guidance consists of two main resources, the Good Autism Practice: Full Report and the Good Autism Practice: Practitioners’ Guide. The guidance also includes 8 case studies supporting the content of the report and the guide. The resources present eight principles of good autism practice. These summarise the ethos, values and practice that needs to inform inclusive education for all children and young people whilst specifying the distinctive knowledge, teaching approaches and methods that are needed in the education of autistic children and young people. The eight principles are linked to the new Ofsted Framework, the SEND Code of Practice and the Teacher Standards. The Guide is designed to support staff in Early Years settings, Schools and Post 16 provisions so they can develop effective practices as they engage in the complexities of everyday classroom practices.

 Why is this resource important? What needs or challenges is it responding to?

There is a significant increase in the numbers of children and young people with autism. Autistic pupils have highlighted that having a teacher who understands autism is the main thing that would improve their experience of school, yet many staff do not feel confident about supporting autistic children and young people (APPGA, 2017). Despite recent developments in awareness and recognition of autism, there is still a long way to go in understanding how to best support autistic children and young people to meet their potential.

What challenges does the education sector face at the moment? Can the Guidance help respond to these challenges?

One of the key challenges the education sector faces is to ensure that all children have the opportunity to thrive and learn. Autistic children and young people have increased risk of exclusion, bullying and mental health problems than others. The guide supports staff to address the attainment, achievement and wellbeing of autistic children and young people, and to ensure that autistic pupils are effectively engaged in decision-making and in planning.

Could you tell us about the research process and the team involved? What is the most memorable highlight of the making of the Guidance?

The authors are Professor Karen Guldberg, Dr Ryan Bradley, Dr Kerstin Wittemeyer and Dr Glenys Jones from the Autism Centre for Education and research (ACER) at University of Birmingham. Jo Briscombe and Claire Phillips gathered case studies of good autism practice from different schools and provisions. The most memorable highlight for me was in bringing together the perspectives from the Autism Education Trust Young Persons Panel and other publications by autistic people, the current research evidence, and documents and papers emerging from policy and classroom practice.

What are the key messages of the Guidance?

The quality of teaching is the single most important driver for improving outcomes for autistic people. In order to enable autistic children and young people to flourish and succeed, staff need to develop their understanding of autism and make adjustments to teaching as well as to the physical, sensory and social environments. This requires a focus on strengths and talents rather than on difficulties, and seeing autism as a different way of being rather than a ‘disorder’.

The number of children diagnosed with autism is rising. Many education professionals want to support autistic children and young people but don’t know how. What is your recommendation?

I recommend that staff seek to increase their understanding of autism, engage in Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and that schools create time for staff to reflect on, discuss and evaluate their practice. There are many good training programmes available for staff. I highly recommend the Autism Education Trust (AET) continuous development programmes. One of the reasons these are so good is that they were developed and delivered by a partnership of autistic people, practitioners, education providers and universities. They are designed for staff in Early Years, schools and Post-16 provisions, are underpinned by research, and have been rigorously evaluated.

What is your message to the readers of NASEN Gateway and the Autism Education Trust Newsletter?

Together, we can make a difference but we all need access to good professional development opportunities, and possibilities to learn from and share good autism practice across the education workforce.

 The new AET Good Practice Guidance can be downloaded free of charge from www.autismeducationtrust.org.uk.


  1. Reference: (2017). Autism and Education in England 2017. Available at: https://www.autism.org.uk/get-involved/campaign/appga/highlights.aspx


Read more about the Good Autism Practice Guidance

Be the teacher who understands autism

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