Frameworks for connecting neuroscience to education

‘engagement’, RDoC, and barriers to inclusion

Based on a presentation to the Cambridge Neuroscience Journal Club in January 2021

What does neuroscience tell us about the experience of autism?

There is a wealth of research and findings from the field of autism neuroscience, indicating differences associated with autism in a wide range of aspects of experience and thinking.  When we combine these findings with a consideration of the school environment, we get a picture of multiple ways in which the interactions between the school environment and the features of autism have the potential to generate barriers to inclusion for autistic pupils.

What do autistic pupils tell us are the urgent questions and issues?

We know from National Autistic Society data, that there are over 85,000 autistic pupils in UK primary and secondary schools as well as over 30,000 in special schools (National Autistic Society, 2017). The recent report on the experiences of autistic children missing school, ‘Not included, not engaged, not involved’ from Scottish Autism highlighted the broad nature of difficulties faced by some autistic pupils for whom “school does not seem to be a place they feel welcomed, included or safe …”.

So, the urgent questions are wide-ranging as there are many areas of school that need to change to support pupils in feeling welcome, included and safe.  These are questions about social interactions, about bullying, about meeting the learning needs as well as the physical needs of pupils and about creating comfortable sensory environments in which autistic pupils can focus on their learning.

How can we use the evidence from neuroscience to ask these questions most effectively?

We need to do everything we can to bring evidence from neuroscience to work in answering some key questions about barriers to inclusion for autistic pupils. However, the conditions in which neuroscience research is carried out, and the language used to talk about and define behaviours and experience, can be very different from an educational context.

In our paper exploring the quantitative literature on autistic pupils’ experience of barriers to inclusion in mainstream schools (Bailey & Baker, 2020), Dr Sara Baker and I asked three key questions:

  1. What existing evidence addresses the extent of barriers to school inclusion?
  2. Does existing evidence cover the aspects where autistic pupils might experience difference or difficulty?
  3. Does the existing evidence draw directly on the experience of autistic pupils, including the frequency of difficulties?

To be able to make the best use of the available evidence we need to more precisely define what we mean by ‘aspects’ so that we are clear what we mean and so that we can bring together evidence from different fields which may be using different language for similar behaviours and experiences.

What framework can we use to give us the most accurate sense of what we do and don’t know?

When looking for a framework to use, we wanted something that covered the whole range of relevant experience and behaviours and used language that worked across education, psychology and neuroscience. The Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) framework (National Institute of Mental Health, 2017) gives us this framework. Originally developed for use in the study of mental health conditions, it gives a structure for connecting areas of behaviour and experience in domains and constructs across multiple scales, from the gene or cell to the level of behavioural differences between individuals.  This works well for connecting neuroscience and cognitive psychology to the educational experience of the individual, and has been previously suggested as a useful framework for autism research (Mandy, 2018).

The domains are:

  • Negative Valence Systems
  • Positive Valence Systems
  • Cognitive Systems
  • Systems for Social Processes
  • Arousal/Regulatory Systems
  • Sensorimotor Systems

and you can find out more about how these map against the barriers to inclusion for autistic pupils in mainstream schools in our recent paper (Bailey & Baker, 2020); broadly we found that all domains contained relevant constructs. This framework works both ways – it gives us an idea of how the findings from neuroscience apply to the complex context of education, and which areas of everyday school experience could be generating specific questions that neuroscience might be able to answer.

Where does engagement fit into this framework?

The RDoC framework gives us separate domains, but in doing so it reminds us that there are important connections between these areas of behaviour and experience. The explicitly general term ‘engagement’ helps us to preserve this sense of interconnectedness in the questions we ask and the conclusions we draw. Barriers to inclusion for autistic pupils and students will not be removed by considering one aspect of their school experience in isolation – we must keep the big picture in view if we are going to effectively remove these barriers and draw on evidence from every available source to develop inclusive educational practice that allows pupils to achieve.


Bailey, J., & Baker, S. T. (2020). A synthesis of the quantitative literature on autistic pupils’ experience of barriers to inclusion in mainstream schools. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs.

Mandy, W. (2018). The Research Domain Criteria: A new dawn for neurodiversity research? Autism, 22(6), 642–644.

National Autistic Society. (2017). Autism and education in England 2017: A report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism on how the education system in England works for children and young people on the autism spectrum.

National Institute of Mental Health. (2017). Research Domain Criteria (RDoC). Research Domain Criteria (RDoC).

Scottish Autism. (2018). Not included, not engaged, not involved: A report on the experiences of autistic children missing school.

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