How to support your autistic child at school

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When any child starts school for the first time, it can be worrying for parents. This worry is normal and is usually quickly overcome as your child settles in and begins to make friends and enjoy going to school. Indeed, it is often the parents that take longer to adjust to the child starting school than the child themselves!

But when your child is autistic, your worries may be compounded. You know that they are different from other children, and while you may rightly celebrate and be proud of those differences, you may wonder whether the school will take proper account of them and understand your child as you do. Again, this is completely natural.

This resource is designed to provide help, advice and support in the process of choosing a school for your autistic child, working with the school you choose and finding other support if needed.

The difference between mainstream and special schools – what school is best for your child?  

Before choosing a school for your autistic child, you will first need to consider what sort of school you are looking for.

Mainstream schools

Many mainstream schools now have much more extensive provision for autistic children than may have been the case in the past, but you will need to determine exactly what specialised support would be available for your child in the mainstream schools you are considering.

In a mainstream school, an autistic child will meet and spend time with a wide variety of other children, many of whom will of course be neurotypical. This exposure can be useful preparation for later life when they will need to be able to live in a world still mostly designed for neurotypical people. It can also benefit the neurotypical children to be exposed to alternative ways of thinking and behaving at an early age. But it can also be a strain on an autistic child if they are conscious of being different to other children or find it difficult to socialise, as many autistic people do.

A mainstream school is likely to have less specialist provision for autistic children than a special school and classes may be larger, but what is available can vary widely from school to school and you need to assess whether the schools you are considering provide the right support and environment for your child.

Special schools

In a special school, your child is likely to be in a smaller class with other children who are autistic or who have other particular needs. This means that they will likely receive much more specialised support and education, and there may be more patience and empathy shown towards their differences.

The move from a special school to a mainstream school at a later age or to the wider world on finishing school may be much harder to manage than if an autistic child has always attended a mainstream school and mixed with a wider group of other children.

Other Factors to Consider

There are also a number of other issues you should take into account in choosing a school for your child:

 

  • Location and transport: How far from your home are the schools you are considering, and how would your child get to and from school every day?
  • Curriculum: What will your autistic child learn at the school – will they have access to the full curriculum, and what activities, trips and clubs are offered that may be of interest to your child?
  • Staff expertise and experience: Are the staff at the school trained and equipped to provide what your child needs?
  • Physical issues: Are the school building and atmosphere suitable for your child? Some children may thrive in a buzzing atmosphere, but a noise sensitive autistic child may struggle if there are no quiet spaces available.

This is a personal choice for every parent of an autistic child and will depend on the specific school choices available in your location and how the needs of your child match what is available at the schools you are considering.

How to get a place at a mainstream or special school

First, remember that choosing a school for your child and securing a place for them at your preferred school can be a difficult and stressful process for parents of all children.

To attend a special school, your child must have an Education, Health and Care plan (EHC) which will name the school they will attend. You can indicate the school you would like your child to attend as part of the process of drawing up the EHC, but your Local Authority can reject this request if they have clear reasons why the school chosen would be unsuitable for your child. A school named in an EHC must admit the child. You can learn more about EHCs here.

To attend a mainstream school, you need to use the normal admissions procedure administered by your local authority. There is more information on this process here.

Unfortunately, pressure on school places is such that you may not get a place for your child at the school of your choice. If this happens, there are appeals procedures you may wish to use. Whether you choose to appeal or not, do not despair. All schools are required to provide your child with a high standard of education and to offer support to children with particular needs, including autistic children.

What support does your child need?

Before discussing support for your child with their school, it is important to know yourself exactly what they need and what would not be helpful to them.

The aim of support is to help your child to do and achieve as much themselves as they ae able to do, not to have everything done for them. For example, a child that struggles to focus on reading unless they are in a quiet environment should be supported by provision of the surroundings they need rather then having everything read to them by somebody else. It can be hard watching your child struggle with things, particularly when they have special needs, but trying things until we get them right is how we all learn.

How to access support

The first step in accessing support for your child at school is to speak to the school. You may be able to do so even before your child starts at the school. Schools welcome positive and constructive involvement from parents and will be happy to speak to you about what they can offer and how best to support your child.

Most schools have special needs coordinators (SENCOs) who specialise in arranging and providing support for children who need it. What they can provide will vary by school, but could include extra teaching, different types of teaching to suit your child, or extra lessons where these can help. The school will recognise that every child is unique and will work with you to design a plan to meet the specific needs of your child as far as they are able to do so.

If your child is in a mainstream school and they need more support than the school is able to offer within its normal provision, they may need an education, health and care plan (EHC plan, or EHCP) from your local authority, as mentioned above. As well as being needed to secure a place at a special school, it can also help any school to secure extra funding to provide the support that your child needs.

 

How to monitor your child’s progress

Agreeing a support plan with the school is just a starting point. As your child develops and learns, the plan will need to be amended to meet their changing needs. So it is important that their progress is carefully monitored both by the school, which will have record keeping systems for tracking development, and by you.

Part of the plan agreed will be the progress that your child is expected to make as a result of the support being provided and when this will be reviewed. The school will share this plan with you, and you may find it helpful to keep notes over time in preparation for the review of the plan. If something really captured your child’s imagination and helped them to make a leap forward, let the school know, and similarly if something is repeatedly having a negative impact on your child. But remember that some things need to be practised and we all can think of example of things we found almost impossible or disliked initially and went on to be good at and enjoy.

 

How to work with your school

Regular open communication between school and home is essential to maximise your child’s progress. If there are circumstances at home that may be having an effect on your child, such as illness to a family member or an unavoidable change to the child’s routine, let the school know so that they can be aware of the possible causes of any additional stress or anxiety. Similarly, if you have concerns about something happening at school or your child’s progress, don’t be afraid to speak to the school about it (but remember that your child’s perception of what is happening is likely to be only one part of the full picture!).

When communicating with the school about your child’s progress as part of the ongoing review process, always try to be as positive and constructive as possible. Rather than saying that something did not work or was not suitable, suggest how it might be changed to better help your child to progress or propose an alternative that meets the same needs. Give methods and ideas that the school tries a proper chance to work – many of us resist all change at first, and this is particularly so of many autistic people, children included.

Try to back up what the school is teaching your child with activities at home when you can. Autistic children generally love their routines, so try to include educational activities to support the school in that routine. Just a few minutes at the same time every day reading a book or practicing numbers can make a huge difference over time. If time is tight, you could even practice saying the alphabet or counting aloud together on the journey to and from school!

Most of all, try to make learning fun and capture your child’s interest – you will know your child best and how best to do this. We all learn much better when we are having fun rather than being forced to do something that we hate!

Advice for further education

The factors to take into account when considering further education options for your autistic child are much the same as set out earlier in this resource for choosing a school – what does your child need and what can be provided by the institutions you are considering. Special needs support should still be available in sixth form and other colleges, and you should discuss what is available with the colleges themselves. Always remember that autism is not a barrier to success or achievement – it is a difference that can be accommodated like many others, and many autistic people are hugely successful both in education and in life. Do not let autism limit your dreams and ambitions for your child.

Inevitably a resource of this type can only give an overview of how to support an autistic child at school. Every child is different and will have different needs and different learning preferences. It is essential that every child is valued for who they are and allowed to be themselves through identifying the best places for them to be educated.