Jim Taylor is an independent consultant in autism for nearly 40 years

WORLD Autism Awareness Week has just begun and it will have a particular resonance in Scotland, where teaching children with the condition has again become a hot political issue.

Cutbacks in staff and a national focus on attainment for all have exercised parents and professionals and the issue gained traction last month following a throwaway comment by Sylvia Haughney, a Glasgow teacher, while giving evidence to a committee of MSPs.

Her assertion, that a colleague teaching children with Asperger’s Syndrome was urged to watch the TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory in lieu of any specialist training, was meat and drink to the media.

While such isolated incidents can never claim to tell the full story, there is a questioning in some quarters of the Scottish Government’s commitment to its stated policy of teaching pupils with special educational needs (SEN) in mainstream classes.

It’s all very well promoting such an inclusive policy, goes the argument, but it has to be backed up with the right amount of training and resources. Professor Tony Attwood, a world authority on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), who is headlining a conference in Glasgow in May, made the point that teaching children with autism alongside neuro-typical peers can only be effective if properly funded. The alternative is to teach such pupils in specialist units within mainstream schools or in separate schools dedicated to the teaching of children with SEN.

For several years I have advised independent specialist schools across the UK on teaching children with autism and I know from experience the tremendous outcomes that such schools can achieve for their pupils.

While there is a place for teaching children with autism in all settings, placement must be predicated on an assessment of needs and learning styles. Every setting should be one in which full access to greater learning opportunities is prioritised. Scotland rightly operates a “presumption to mainstream” but this brings with it a responsibility to match placement with assessment agreed by all concerned.

What concerns me about the present debate is that it focuses the argument away from the bigger picture: that, whatever placement we settle on, we should strive to increase access to broad and relevant learning opportunities that enable pupils to experience and contribute to the community and society. Some people believe we should create a world that compensates children for their autism rather than presents it to them as it exists. There are “autism-friendly” products and services – everything from special cinema performances where sound and light is muted to autism friendly toothpaste with no taste or foam – which may be important but they should be a means to an end, not an end in themselves

Creating an artificial environment for children with ASD does them no favours in the longer term, which is why teaching those who can benefit most in mainstream classes is so important. The vast majority of children with autism receive an excellent education from ordinary classroom teachers.

It’s wrong to suggest that they require to be taught exclusively by dedicated teachers with a high degree of specialist training.

A point made repeatedly by Professor Attwood is that the best teachers are often those with a general training who have an intuitive understanding of the way in which autistic pupils process information. World Autism Awareness Week is a positive forum around which issues like these can be discussed in an informed and dispassionate way. It’s a sign of how important Scotland views autism that an authority of the stature of Professor Attwood has been invited to share his expertise. I am especially looking forward to seeing the positive impact his presentation will have on frontline staff and parents in the months to come.

The most important thing is for teachers to learn about the specific way in which a child with autism learns and to take account of their autism. A teacher with a particular understanding and a determination to succeed can have a huge impact. He or she doesn’t need necessarily to be a “specialist”; just a good teacher.

Tony Talks Autism 2017 will take place from 9.30am-4.20pm on Monday, May 15, 2017 at The Glasgow Royal Concert hall, Buchanan Galleries, 2 Sauchiehall St, Glasgow. The conference will focus on addressing the diagnosis, educational, social and behavioural issues relating to ASD among other areas and will provide strategies to support professionals and parents. For more information or to book a place visit www.medicacpd.com