Tara Vassallo



This research explored the experience of thirty-two parents and teachers of autistic children, from nine schools in the southwest of England participating in a novel systemic attachment-based programme SAFE with Schools (SwiS). Designed as a competency-based framework with a non-blaming approach using established techniques and activities drawn from systemic family therapy, the SwiS programme was employed to engage parents and teachers experiencing autism-related difficulties. The aim was to explore their experience of SwiS and in turn how these caregivers made meaning of autism through the systemic attachment-focus of SwiS, what it revealed about the nature of the parent-teacher-child system, and whether strengthening parent-teacher relationships and providing techniques to support problem-solving might create a more cohesive system around the child and be experienced as helpful for all concerned. A blended interpretative methodological approach was employed to explore themes and meanings from data gathered from a variety of sources. These included interviews, reflective journals, focus groups and meetings, as well as observations during field work and researcher-participant interactions. In the initial phase parents revealed that they were living with fear, isolation, blame and distress related to autism. They also felt the need to abandon traditional parenting to meet the needs of their child. Teachers reported the need to maintain a professional façade, wanting to make a difference for autistic children, but also experiencing fear of judgement. Subsequently, their experience of SwiS revealed as central that positive changes in their relationships were triggered by the impact of the systemic aspects of the SwiS programme. Themes emerged that captured this impact. Time spent together was found to be helpful and there was an improved shared understanding alongside recognition of barriers including bureaucracy, lack of time and professional and domestic pressures. The systemic activities initiated positive change in understanding and collaboration between teachers and parents, and also understanding of the child. Reflection and the ability to slow down and consider challenges collaboratively improved and this allowed for more effective problem solving. Teachers varied in their engagement and meanings associated with autism and length of service was a factor suggesting that meanings and practices around autism were changing over time. In general, participants experienced systemic ideas and activities as a positive alternative approach to challenges, providing a framework to ‘loosen’ established patterns of thinking and relational responses to autism and autism-related problems. Key findings and recommendations suggest that considering autism systemically, using an attachment-based approach, may be supportive of parent-teacher relations and help improve problem-solving for caregivers of autistic children in mainstream education. This research highlights the need for new thinking in terms of responses to autism in the home/school context and offers a novel framework from which to move forward.

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