Using spirituality in the curriculum to support the well-being of pupils with autism

In special schools the staff have, in many cases, become deeply concerned about the mental well-being of our learners, particularly those profoundly affected by autism who often experience high levels of stress and anxiety. Stress can have a long term detrimental effect on their mental health. Schools have an important role to play in overcoming anxiety as we seek to support learners to be aspirational, confident and independent. We can seek to achieve this through working to reduce anxiety and stress and promoting well-being in schools.

Research has shown that having a spiritual life may serve as a psychological and social resource for coping with stress (Koenig, 2010). Spirituality in this sense does not mean religious practice, although this does seem to help, but developing a sense of self. This provides coping strategies for difficult experiences (Minora, Grant, 2014) so protects well-being.

Hence it makes sense, and is a statutory obligation (Education Reform Act 1988, Chap.40, Section 1, Education Act 1944), for special schools, wanting to provide an education that meets their needs of their learners, to consider how to include a spiritual element into their curriculum.

However, little has been researched about what spirituality means for people with a learning disability (Swinton, 2002). Certainly, spirituality is a complex issue, for anyone, but particularly for people with a learning disability because of the different ways in which they communicate, engage and interact with the world, the environment and the people around them (Barber, 2013).

Flo Longhorn has written on developing spirituality through RE in special schools. She starts by explaining that we are all spiritual beings – we have a sense of self expressed through desires, feelings, beliefs and opinions which extend beyond our immediate impulses and shape our behaviour. This is true for people with ASC as much as for anyone else (Bogsdashina, 2013). Learners may develop their personalities, opinions and self-expression at a slow pace but this does not mean that their awareness of a deeper dimension to life is limited, indeed anecdotally, people with ASC have been reported to understand and apply spiritual ideas in a way that the mass of humanity struggles to do (Longhorn, 1993).

It is difficult to find consensus in defining spirituality (Van der Veer, 2009) but most definitions (for example from the National Curriculum Council 1993; School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 1995; the British Humanist Society), include ‘meaning and purpose’, ‘values’ and ‘relationships (Baker, 2012).

According to Flo Longhorn, guru of SEN teaching, schools should promote an awareness of spirituality by developing the ability to choose, interpret and understand (Longhorn, 1993, p1). Learners can be stretched by considering this area of learning as the development of their whole personalities.

When considering provision for learners with learning difficulties we must be careful to offer activities and information that is useful at their particular level of understanding and development. For example when considering the provision of religious education it may be that a learner is unable to comprehend the ten coins but they can learn to receive and say thank you, they may not understand the parable of The Good Samaritan but they can care for others.

Flo Longhorn suggests having discrete RE lessons using multi-sensory approaches, working through a curriculum that aims to teach the following 8 areas of prominence. These areas are recognising me, being aware of others, recognising my needs, recognising the needs of others, seeing the world around me, the numinous sense, celebrating life, reflecting on life. For more information on developing this sort of RE in the curriculum see her book, Religious Education for Very Special Children (1993).

However, since the academisation process many special schools have moved away from traditional curriculum with discrete subjects and are looking for more effective ways of promoting spiritual well-being in learners who struggle to access traditional teaching.

All that I have written on this blog so far leads to the ultimate question that we face as educators of people with ASC in special schools. What can we be doing in special schools that may be of benefit for the spiritual well-being of learners? What can we do to promote their abilities to choose, interpret, understand in a way that is unique to them – to develop their whole personalities?

Thanks to the Farmington Institue, Univeristy of Oxford, I have had the opportunity to begin identifying, researching, planning and introducing activities that help in reducing anxiety and developing the spiritual character of our learners. Please browse and use as much as you like from the others blogs on this site.

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