The pressure

Every parent has an anxious decision to make about getting their child into the right school, whatever that means for your child. For the parent of an autistic child, the decision is ever more worrisome as the child’s needs may be very specific and beyond the normal expectations of academia and pastoral care. 

School options

Parents are faced with several options when choosing a school for their child. In addition to mainstream and special schools, some schools have bases or units specifically for autistic children and young people. Depending on their needs, it may also be appropriate to consider residential schools or home education for your child.

  • Mainstream schools*
  • Special schools*
  • Residential schools
  • Non-maintained schools
  • Independent schools
  • Homeschooling*
* In Northern Ireland, these are the only choices; some mainstream schools offer boarding facilities, but these are not specialist residential centres with facilities for complex special educational or medical needs.  

Mainstream schools: many children with autism attend mainstream primary and secondary schools. Those with an autism diagnosis and statement of special educational need may have extra support (such as an assigned classroom assistant / teaching assistant) in school for a specific number of hours a week, others will be part of a special needs unit within the school. 

Specialist schools: these are schools which cater for pupils with moderate to severe learning disabilities; often they support children who have complex medical needs also. Depending on the location in the UK, some special schools specialise in one area of need, such as autism. These schools tend to be based in and around the larger cities as the larger local population means they can attract more pupils so the school can secure appropriate funding.

Residential schools: these schools provide 24-hour support for pupils, so the children stay overnight. Some pupils go home at weekends or during holidays, others stay all year round. Due to the full-time nature of care, these schools are expensive to run so may be fully funded by the local authority / education authority, or partly funded by the local authority and partly paid for by parents. 

Non-maintained schools: these are essentially ‘private’ schools, as they are not funded by the local authority  / education authority BUT are operated on on a non-profit-making basis. Most non-maintained special schools are run by major charities or charitable trusts.

Independent schools: these are profit-making private schools. So, like the non-maintained schools, they are not maintained (eg funded) by the local authority or education authority, but they charge fees to parents. In some cases, parents may apply to the local authority for a placement at such a school and receive funding from the LA, but they would have to make a strong case that such a placement was necessary.

Decide what matters to you and your child

To help you decide whether a school will meet your child’s needs you may wish to think about the following factors.

(1) Environment

Assess to the environment, including the immediate surroundings and the school building. 

Think about your child and consider:

  • how they will react to the layout of the school. Is there bright lighting, excessive noise or other possible sensory triggers?
  • will your child be able to cope with the class and group sizes?
  • will your child have support in class and during unstructured times like break and lunchtime?
(2) Transport to and from school

Think about whether your child would manage the journey, either with or without support.  They may be eligible for free transport.

(3) The ethos of the school and how much they practice this or live up to it

Every school espouses some sort of mission or mantra along the lines of: “helping every child to achieve his or her potential”. Try to get a sense from your visit to the school, from parents of pupils at the school, from the school SENCO, senior management, any staff, governors, even external professionals who have interactions with the school, such as local authority Education and Welfare Officers (EWOs). Any stakeholder of the school that you can have a conversation with about the school will give you a sense of whether they think the school cares about the pupils. Every parent of every child will be interested in the obvious markers of school success, namely examination results and inspection reports. You will have academic and career aspirations for your child like everybody else does, although your attention will probably be more focused on the short term practical issues that will affect your child everyday: transport, social inclusion, routine, sensory challenges and solutions, and so on. There needs to be a sense that the school can bend with your child’s needs. 

  • Is there proper discussion about your child’s IEP? Does the school SENCO, management and individual teachers want to know about and suggest solutions to your child’s individual needs? 
  • Ask if your child will have access to either a full, reduced or modified curriculum. Will they have the opportunity to learn life skills, achieve qualifications or study subjects of interest? What opportunities will your child have for extracurricular activities, trips and events?
  • Peer groups:Consider the opportunities your child will have for socialising with children who have similar needs. Will they be able to also be able to mix with neurotypical children? Ask to see the school’s bullying policy and consider what prevention strategies they use.
  • Can they be flexible and maybe even innovative, such as creating visual cues / signs / posters to help ASD pupils with the structure of the school day? 
  • Are there potentially problematic classroom activities or lessons which can be adjusted for ASD kids? 
  • What about break times and lunchtimes: is there a quiet space for your child in case of sensory overwhelm? Are there structured activities for ASD kids at these times, such as chess club or music or similar? 
  • Does the school consider and review sensory issues for ASD kids: the lights in corridors and classrooms, the acoustics of the assembly hall, the smells from the canteen, the comfort of the chairs? 
  • Is there thought about transitions? Between activities (in lessons), between classes, and even from primary to post-primary school?

Of course asking all of these questions and maybe more may make you feel like an overbearing fusspot, but these are all relevant and reasonable issues for discussion and you should ask as many of these as you feel are relevant. If the response is defensive and somewhat cold, you should consider other schools. The school management and ethos may be too fixated on their role as examination-factory to compromise on their well-developed mechanisms for generating academic success for its most capable pupils. But if the response is warm and open and positive, with reference to specific challenges and how they have been overcome, this is encouraging and you should dig deeper. 

 (4) Staff experience and understanding

When visiting the school, try to meet with teachers and support staff to discuss your child’s needs. Through this you can gauge: 

  • the depth of the school staff’s knowledge of autism together with what resources and strategies they will use to help your child
  • what access there will be to other professionals, such as therapists
  • how they will meet any health and care needs of your child  
  • whether staff would be able to support any routines, special interests, anxieties, sensory or dietary needs your child may have.
  • It’s important to ask about communication between staff and how they work with parents.  What is their approach to home-school communication and collaboration?
Special school or mainstream?

As we are all aware, autism is a spectrum disorder with every child affected by it having a unique set of characteristics and needs, This can make it difficult for parents to decide whether mainstream education will suit their child or whether he or she would be better supported in a special school. It is understandable that many parents want to avoid the stigma of their child attending a special school, although that issue needs to be parked quickly and an open-minded assessment of what is best for the child should follow.

As well as a choice between mainstream and special school, some schools have specialist units for autistic children those affected by other learning learning disabilities. So there could be middle ground. 

There may also be some restrictions which take the choice out of the parents’ hands. There is a legal duty to ensure that all children are educated in a mainstream setting, except for the following circumstances:

  • a mainstream school would not meet the child’s needs
  • the education of the other children at the school would be affected
  • the placement would be too expensive.

If you live in England, Northern Ireland or Wales your child or young person will usually need a statement of special educational need / an EHC (education, health and care plan) to access a placement at a special school. 

Mainstream or special school: how do I decide?

In theory, as a parent of an autistic child, it feels like you have 2 stark choices when choosing a school:

  • 1. Full inclusion in mainstream (no SEN)
  • 2. Special school (only SEN)

In reality there are lots in between these 2 choices, as we have seen. 

In the excellent book “Overcoming Autism” by Koegel and LaZebnik, the authors (one of whom is the mother of an autistic boy, the other is a psychologist) strongly recommend that high-functioning autistic children are educated in mainstream school, albeit with support. 

Why should my autistic child go to a mainstream school?
  • Social and communication development: autistic children have social and communication issues which make them stand out from the neurotypical kids. If we want them to learn how to communicate and interact normally they do not need to be surrounded by other ASD children. 
  • Kids can be kind: we have all read the bullying horror stories online, but in reality mainstream children can be VERY kind. They can be great role models and helpers.
  • Better training for adult life: the behaviour required of mainstream kids is much more reflective of societal norms in adulthood than behaviour in SEN schools.
  • Qualifications: academic standards and quality assurance of teaching methods are much higher in mainstream.

So basically, Koegel and LaZebnik are saying: if you want your child to grow into an adult who functions well in regular society, the sooner he or she starts learning those norms the better. 

Challenges for ASD kids in mainstream schools

It really depends on the school ethos. Is it genuinely inclusive and willing to help every child achieve his or her potential? Or is it just playing lip service to that mission statement and cares only about public examination results?

  • Staff attitude: the senior management of the school, the teachers and the classroom assistants/teaching assistants have a huge role to play as you would expect. If they see your child as an individual human being who they want to help become the best version of themselves, you will see a caring and nurturing environment where your child’s needs are carefully considered and thoughtful strategies are used to help your child learn. It’s sad to admit, but some schools will be terrified of how your child will derail their examination factory production line. They may positively discourage you from sending your child to ‘their’ school.
  • Parental attitude: semi-neurotic parents of neurotypical children can be a big obstacle. Expect complaints and petitions, notably from parents whose children are not well-behaved. 
  • Hard to watch: you may feel pain when you compare your own child’s progress in school and compare it to that of the neurotypical classmates. Of course, you want to logically suppress those feelings, telling yourself things like “ every child is an individual”, “we all have strengths and weaknesses” and so on. But the truth is that it is your evolutionary instinct kicking in; your animal brain is telling you that your child needs to perform better if he or she is to improve his or her social status in the herd. Only then will they receive their share of the food and resources and find a mate to pass on your genes to the next generation. So don’t fight that nagging doubt; process the cortisol shot your brain is subjecting you to and accept that is just nature’s unsophisticated signal, then tell yourself: it’s ok.
The process: England and Wales
  • Step 1: if you can, get an EHC(education, health and care plan) from your local authority. Note that your child, especially if primary school age, may not have one before starting school but can get one once at school. 
  • Step 2: get a list of all schools which the LA feel match your child’s EHC. Note that this list may include all schools in the local area, or a selected list of schools which the LA deem appropriate for your child’s educational requirements.
  • Step 3: consider the options between mainstream and special school, maintained or non-maintained or even independent school.
  • Step 4: investigate the different schools, as outlined earlier 
  • Step 5: Make application to chosen school. 
The process: Scotland
  • Step 1: get an IEP (Individual Education Plan; same as EHC in England and Wales) from your local authority. In Scotland there is an extension to this called a CSP (Co-ordinated Support Plan) which goes beyond educational support for children with more complex needs such as medical issues or social work intervention. 
  • Step 2: research local schools and decide on the best option for your child; Scotland has a lot of bases/ units / LCRs (Language & Communication Resource) within mainstream schools. You also have the options of Special schools, Residential schools and Independent / Grant-aided schools, as in England. 
  • Step 3: submit a Placing Request (eg state the preferred school you want your child to attend) to your local authority 
The process: Northern Ireland
  • Step 1: get Statement of Special Educational Need (same as EHC in England) from the local Education Authority. As per earlier observation, your child may not have a Statement issued by EA at the time of applying for school, especially if applying for primary school. School can help with this process although formal assessment will usually come through GP referral to a child psychologist. 
  • Step 2: research local schools and decide on the best option for your child. In Northern Ireland, the process is much more binary than the rest of the UK: special school or mainstream? Many primary schools and some non-selective secondary schools have bases / units for SEN kids, but there are no residential schools and no completely independent schools; some schools charge fees to parents, but the vast majority of their funding comes from local government.
  • Step 3: Selective vs non-selective schools? 
  • Step 4: Submit preferences for schools to local branch of EA (Education Authority) via your child’s primary school.
Our experience

For both primary and post-primary school, we had no real problems with the application process. In our area, as with so many areas, most of the local primary schools are oversubscribed so any stress about getting in tends to be a more general issue rather than autism-related. Many primary schools in Northern Ireland contain units or bases for children with varying degree of learning difficulties so can accommodate most circumstances. However, many of these units are facing reduced budget allocation or are even being cut altogether, robbing the school of most valuable support and increasing class sizes. 

Our biggest challenge in terms of support at school has been getting adequate support in terms of classroom assistant / teaching assistant hours. If a child has a statement, generally ‘adult support’ will be provided in the form of funding for a CA. In those post-austerity times, exactly what constitutes ‘appropriate adult support’ is very vague and likely to be much less than what you hoped for. 

If you have an autistic child who has issues with sensory overwhelm, hates any change in routine and struggles to concentrate, then you would rightly hope that one-to-one support would be provided at school for the entire duration of the school week. In numbers that would look something like:

School day: 9.00am to 3.00pm = 6 hours, minus 45 minutes for lunch = 5.25 hours. Note that your child should be supervised at lunchtime, but it tends to be by someone other than the CA or TA so he or she can also have lunch. Ironically, unstructured time such as breaks and lunch can be very challenging for ASD kids. 

School week = 5 days 

5 days x 5.25 hours = 26.25 hours per week. 

So you would hope for CA / TA funding for 26 hours 15 minutes.

In reality, the funding is likely to be substantially less than this.

You might manage to get 20 hours, your child has one-to-one support for the morning session in school but not after lunch. 

Or you might only get 10 hours funding, so your child would have support for 2 hours each day per week. 

Or you might get no funding! 

Throughout the UK public services are facing ongoing budgetary cuts: emergency services, healthcare and social services are struggling to cope and unfortunately education is similarly affected.

If you feel that the support offered to your child is inadequate, you can appeal. But you need to be able to make a very strong and clear case for the extra hours eg your child is likely to be a risk to himself and others, such as likely to run away from the school campus if overwhelmed. Speak with the school SENCO, other parents whose children have CA/TA support and get advice from the National Autistic Society or the Children’s Law Society if necessary. 

NEXT: Put on your own oxygen mask