When a child has any form of special needs, in particular when they have autism, the first priority needs to be whether the school can support your child’s needs.
Safety and happiness first
Academics must come second, because if your child does not feel safe and happy in the school, they will learn nothing, no matter how bright they are. ‘A bunch of GCSE results are useless for anyone who can’t leave their bedroom,’ adds Kiran Hingorani, CEO of Swalcliffe Park School, a residential school for autistic boys.
Our SEN consultancy service frequently works with parents who are making the difficult decision between mainstream, specialist and special schools for a child with autism. When the child is academically able, parents are often strongly inclined to keep him or her in mainstream education, believing that a special school will quash their ability.
In fact quite the reverse can be true. You may have an 11-year-old who understands quantum physics, but whose social and sensory difficulties mean a mainstream classroom is nothing short of torture. Too often we’ve seen children in this situation spending their time instead cowering in the toilets or fleeing school, and later becoming a school refuser, or being excluded because their fear-related behaviour is treated as a disciplinary matter.
A specialist or special school can be an all-round happier experience for a child with autism. The environment is set up with much smaller class groups, better staff to student ratios, teachers are trained in ASD and associated behaviours and are able to differentiate the teaching to the individual, for example enabling a child to learn through his special interests.
On one school visit we saw a boy who was intensely motivated by anything to do with flight but would not engage with regular lessons. Staff adapted his teaching so that he learned geography through plotting flight paths, literacy through writing pilot’s logs, etc. In addition, timetables are designed with attention breaks and sensory needs in mind.
High functioning autism
A growing number of special schools now cater for high functioning autism where children can sit a full set of GCSEs or alternatively take other qualifications such as BTECs if they are likely to crumple in the all-or-nothing nature of a final GCSE exam.
Further and higher education
They may also support a child with autism in transitioning to FE colleges. It may come as a surprise to learn that children who attend special schools can and do go on to university. We know of one boy who went to Cambridge from a special school, and an increasing number of SEN students overall are taking up University places, some of which are offering preparation courses for students with autism during the holidays.
That is not to say that special schools are always the best option. Some mainstream schools can cater well for children with autism, especially those schools which house a resource base in social communication issues but places at these are scarce and you will need to research those on offer in your area.
In some cases, a child with autism will have other learning needs like dyslexia, and may be able to apply to a school for specific learning difficulties (dyslexia, dyspraxia, etc.) which will support the autism, as a secondary need.
You need to be sure that key personnel at the school have a good deal of professional knowledge about autism, a track record in successfully catering for autistic pupils and clear plans about how they will manage your child’s individual needs.
If you need help with finding a suitable school for a child with autism, talk to our specialist consultants.