All children and young people deserve an inclusive and fulfilling education. But mainstream schools are not always the answer for those with autism who must have access to a range of provision

Autism is a spectrum condition so, while all children and young people with the lifelong disability share certain difficulties around social communication and interaction, it affects them in different ways.

Their wide spectrum of needs requires a range of educational provision, from mainstream to specialist schools. Every child with autism is different, so a one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t work.

Schools have a crucial role to play in preparing children with autism for adulthood, by giving them the confidence and skills they need to live as independently as possible in their local community and to go on to further education, work or supported living.

Where possible, we hope that they can be educated at mainstream schools where they can learn and develop alongside their peers. But some children with autism experience such high anxiety that they are unable to leave their family home, let alone attend school. Others with social anxieties and sensory difficulties find it hard to learn in the busy and unpredictable environment of mainstream schools, even if they have the necessary academic ability. In these cases, when their needs are not being met or they are unable to express their feelings, children with autism can display challenging behaviour that can be disruptive and lead to exclusions.

All children and young people deserve an inclusive and fulfilling education but recent National Autistic Society (NAS) statistics show that 17 per cent of children with autism have been suspended from school and 4 per cent have been expelled from one or more schools.

However, our experience shows that expulsions and suspensions are generally avoidable, if children are given the right support. Therefore, if the needs of children with autism cannot be met full-time in mainstream school, they must be able to access specialist support such as autism-specific schools.

A one-size- fits-all approach simply doesn’t work

As recognition of autism has increased in recent years, and more children and young people have been diagnosed as a result, local authorities have experienced greater demand for different forms of provision and have been looking to address gaps in their services. This demand has outstripped the ability of the NAS and other providers to supply it, and we see the government’s free school strategy as an opportunity to work with local authorities and parents to develop additional autism-specific provision, in response to local need.

The NAS has more than 50 years of experience educating people with autism and currently supports more than 500 children and young people between the ages of 4 and 19 at seven autism-specific schools, including one free school. We are also developing two more schools, one in Cheshire East (opening in January) and another in Lambeth, south London (opening next autumn).

Children at autism-specific schools such as ours benefit from smaller classes taught by teachers who understand autism and are better able to meet their needs. Autism-specific schools are also able to offer a modified national curriculum that provides greater freedom to balance academic learning with developing social and life skills designed to prepare pupils to be as independent as possible in adulthood.

The appropriate inclusion or integration of pupils into general society is an important stepping stone towards people with autism being fully included in their local community. We therefore put significant emphasis on community-based learning and shared activities with partner schools so that our students can feel part of their community and develop life skills.

Unfortunately, far too many children with autism aren’t getting the education they deserve because of misunderstandings surrounding the condition and inadequate education provision. Local authorities must ensure that a range of provision is available that meets the needs of local children. Autism-specific schools can make a huge difference to some students, but they are only part of the solution and need to operate alongside a range of other options that fit local need.


Jacqui Ashton Smith is Executive Director of Education at the National Autistic Society

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  1. Fatou FOFANA

    I completely agree with the author of the article. As a mother of an autistic boy, he did not cope at all during nursery in his former mainstream school. He was getting very anxious and responded with physical violence towards his former peers mainly because of the noise. The staff was really understanding but they unfortunately did not have the proper education my son desperately needed.
    Almost 2 years later, thanks to his autism-specific school, he’s happier than ever! Always smiling and enthusiastic to go over there and spend the day with his friends. It is far from perfect but it changed our lives for the better.
    We need more schools all over the UK. Our children can’t be neglected because of a “disability”. Autistic children are unique and they deserve to have the proper education.

  2. Hey Jacqui – Nice article – I’ll be 70 years old next March and have had a bizarre but wonderful life so far due to my being on the spectrum. I was born six months before the end of the Second World War to parents who due to their being on the spectrum also, were conscientious objectors to us being at war.

    Consequently they had to work long hours in heavy industries trying to help keep the nation free of Nazism which meant I spent my waking hours six days a week with my mother’s deaf, dumb, autistic, near feral and shamanic maternal grandfather, Grampa, who taught me to read and write, so it’s him I have to thank for my successful professional career and this fabulous retirement.

    I’ve written and published five Amazon Bestsellers and also two Smashwords novellas and have a Smashwords novel in the pipeline resulting from competing in the NaNoWriMo competition and being a 2014 winner. And I write on the New York based Huffington Post as a featured author, thanks to Arianna Huffington the Editor in Chief offering me a ‘voice’ on that publication.

    And I coach and counsel other people of the spectrum to help them escape from our propensity to suicide ideate when we lose hope because things go wrong in our lives.

    I was first diagnosed as a savant at Nursery School, but the only treatment that got me was being locked in a storeroom all day, every day, with only my children’s encyclopaedia for company. The same happened in my first year at Infants School. In the summer between the first and second year I was found to have Childhood Autism, but the only benefit I got from that was they let me take a series of books about the Bible to my lockup to study as a change from the children’s encyclopaedia. But I was happy, so, hey, I was doing my own thing my way and that’s all I wanted of the state education system.

    All hell broke lose when I started at Junior School however, as the Head of School, in the first Morning Assembly of the new term, told the rest of the pupils and teachers that I was suffering from Witchcraft, and that the Bible says, Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Live. So they tried to kill me, four times a day, every day for the first week of term, and I ran away from home on the Friday evening after school and tried to kill myself four times – and ended up in a 48 hour near death coma locked in an industrial cold store at the local Coop dairy of the village where we then lived, at 30 degrees below freezing. I was so hated that the local police refused pointblank to join in the search for me and the local doctors refused to attend to me when found.

    I was frozen solid. My fingernails, thumbnails and toenails dropped off, and I came back to life as my mother was stripping me off and washing me down for the undertaker to come and collect me. Obviously, my parents withheld me from the state education system when I told them why I had suicide ideated, and so I had no state education at all, but was pre-schooled by my Grampa, then self taught for four years, then had private tutors for the next eight years, then qualified professionally, rather than academically, at fifteen and a half.

    But my being withdrawn from the state education system did not satisfy that Head of School and my peers at that school – they continued trying to kill me at every opportunity that presented – every morning from eleven and a half to twelve and a half as I had to catch the same bus as them to go to the Grammar School for my articled pupillages, and on my way home from that School on the day that I qualified. They cracked my head open and slashed my brain on that last occasion, so I lost my memory and identity for the next 35 years of my life, until hypno-regression therapy diagnosed and treated me for Asperger’s Syndrome.

    That diagnosis and treatment turned me into a super human and my performance at work rocketed so much I was asked to start coaching and counselling other auties and aspies to help them cope better with their condition, so I’ve been doing that ever since, by using the internet, in my time and at my expense.

    It has been a very fulfilling cause and I have saved literally thousands of lives as I have focused on the suicide ideation issue. And I have won awards in Yahoo Answers and in Linked In for my contributions. My books and blogs include lots about that work, as it is my aspie ‘special interest’ so I love writing about it. It is what has given my life meaning and purpose.

    So as one autie and aspie educator to another, I thank you for loving us so much and giving up so much of your personal life for our sakes.

    • In reply to David’s comment that autistic people have a:

      ‘propensity to suicide ideate when we lose hope because things go wrong in our lives’

      I would just like to clarify that ‘suicide ideation’ is not a trait of autism; it is a trait of depression.

      Autistic people who find themselves socially excluded are more likely to be at risk of depression and suicidal thoughts – in exactly the same way a non-autistic person who found themselves socially excluded would.

      Equally autistic people who are able to socially integrate are less likely to be depressed and the above view wouldn’t apply to them.

      I am commenting as an autistic adult who is able to ‘socially integrate’ when required and who knows other autistic adults who have socially integrated as they are working and have colleagues and/or partners who are supportive and therefore have not found themselves depressed.

      This is not to detract from David’s valid point that autistic people with depression need support – they do.

      It’s just important that autism and depression are classed separately – they are not one and the same.

  3. Great article. Absolutely on the money. As parents what this could mean that we will have to learn how to secure funding to build a school for our child as Kingston upon Thames along with many other local authorities will not have the wherewithal to carryout such a job.

  4. C.Cramsie

    My son is in an independant specialist school that has an autism unit. This is infinitely better than mainstream where he was refusing due to sensory issues. However, it is still not ideal, imo there are definite training needs,they are not NAS accredited (which personally I don’t think they should be allowed to do, sell themselves as an asd school without accreditation). I have complained about numerous issues to the LEA, they have just said the school has an outstanding ofstead.

  5. My ASD son attends a fantastic special school, combined with an autism friendly home, he really is a happy little boy, my poor aspie daughter on the otherhand, so intelligent, unable to cope with mainstream, yet not suited for a special school. I wish there was something for these girls.