Ben Ballin comments on a recent report from a research project that he was involved in at a Special School in Birmingham where he worked with teacher-researchers to try to understand the contribution of global learning to the wellbeing and mental health of young people aged 11–19 with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

Our headline finding is that, over a single term, the pupils we tracked showed a modest but measurable average improvement in their mental health and wellbeing.  Conversely, a group that was not engaged in the work showed a comparable decline over the same period.  We think that the results are encouraging.  We have since worked with Tide~ global learning on a project with a wider group of SEND pupils in the city, and initial evaluations suggest that they too have benefited in comparable ways.  We wonder how widely transferable such benefits might be?

The four approaches we looked at were:

  • in the humanities, looking at ‘success stories’ in development and human rights (such as improvements to marine environments);
  • in PSHE, discussing issues in the news;
  • in Forest Schools, involving group work preparing food from different cultures in the outdoors;
  • and in land-based studies, linking horse riding and non-verbal communications to a study of Native American culture.

Interestingly, the improvement for pupils was broadly consistent for all four of these teaching approaches.  We noted, too, that there was a slightly higher trend towards positive mental health and wellbeing among black and minority ethnic (BME) pupils.

Young people with ASD typically experience difficulties with communication, relating to others and in how they experience the world.  They also at high risk of experiencing mental health problems, including anxiety and depression.  The work seems to have had benefits for all of these things.

Eight cross-cutting themes emerged as being potentially beneficial:

  1. Global learning can offer opportunities and contexts for learning outside the classroom, and thus for positive experiential encounters with the wider world. (The wellbeing benefits of this are already well-documented and will be familiar to many readers of this blog. This includes documented  benefits for people with ASD.
  2. It can enable participation and a sense of agency, as global citizens, self-directed learners, and through the experience of group work.
  3. Global learning work offers an opportunity to engage with self, identity and culture, for example through validating achievements and supporting a positive self-image.
  4. The work can offer an opportunity for young people to explore their relationships with ‘otherness’ – a key element for young people who have already been ‘othered’ as ‘special’ and in helping them develop crucial competencies in relating to others.
  5. It can help build confidence and self-esteem, in part because it encourages open exploration and a space away from those aspects of school life that can promote a fear of failure.
  6. It boosts communication of all kinds, especially verbal communication: global learning’s strong emphasis on dialogue and questioning thereby supporting another crucial competency.
  7. It can help reduce anxiety and address misapprehensions about the world, for example: through its emphasis on critical thinking, examining evidence, promoting debate and offering counter-stereotypical narratives; and through an emphasis on ‘success stories’ rather than ‘doom and gloom’.
  8. It engages and motivates through affective learning, which in itself appears to have had beneficial impacts – ‘we want to keep that fun thing going on’.

We noted that simply asking the question about impacts on mental health and wellbeing made a difference, making teachers mindful of the possible consequences of different approaches for their pupils. The project raised a wide range of questions about how individual teachers and schools approach work of this kind and about the need for further and perhaps larger-scale research in the field.  In particular, it raised questions for us about how far the education community is prepared to take on radically learner-centred and inclusive practice, including valuing autistic perceptions of the world as a challenge to the norms of an allistic (non-autistic) majority.


Ben Ballin is a NAEE Fellow and chairs the West Midlands Sustainable Schools Network.  This blog is written in a personal capacity. The research was supported by the Global Learning Programme – England.  Ben can be contacted at: @wmsussch

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