Autism Mainstream Schools SEN School Provision Specialist Provision

Finding the right school for learners with autism

Finding the right school for learners with autism is not always easy. Read about what your options are and how to find the best provision to meet your child’s needs

There are around 700,000 people in the UK with autism and of these 140,000 (1 in 100) are school children according to the National Autistic Society [1] .

An influential study “We’ve got great expectations: the chance of a lifetime for children with autism” by Reid, B. et al (2011) found that:

  • 63% of children on the autism spectrum were not in the kind of school their parents believe would best support them;
  • only 52% believed that their children were making sufficient progress in school;
  • 34% of children on the autism spectrum said that the worst thing about being at school was being picked on;
  • 17% of autistic children have been suspended from school of which 48% had been suspended three or more times; and
  • 4% had been expelled from one or more schools.

The National Autistic Society still quotes this important study on its website indicating that the problems remain. Anecdotal evidence from our client base also indicates that the challenges in finding the right school for learners with autism remain in addition to the general shortages in the education system particularly with regard to secondary education which we have highlighted earlier this year.

We have worked with many families with learners who have been identified with autism to help them find the right school setting and understand some of the challenges that can emerge as well as ways around these challenges.

What school options are there?

Mainstream Schools

According to Ambitious About Autism (April 2019) around 70% of children with autism are in mainstream schools although this figure may include those in mainstream school resource bases or units that offer additional provision.

Where we have seen mainstream schools be a successful type of provision for learners with autism this has been where the school is a supportive environment with a good understanding of autism. In addition, the learner has a relatively low level of needs associated with autism or higher needs that have required appropriately experienced dedicated support to be provided that have allowed the learner to access their education successfully.

A helpful factor for some has been that the school also has a specialist unit or resource base specialising in supporting students with autism. Out of the successful mainstream placements for learners with autism among our client network, nearly all students that we have worked with, and have significant needs for support in relation to being identified with autism, have also accessed additional support outside of school.

Where learners have needed one to one support to access their education in mainstream this has been most successful with full time one to one specialist support from an autism specialised tutor such as an ABA tutor. Less successful has been when learners have one to one support from a learning support assistant with a lower level of training in autism or this support has been part time where full time support is needed. With full time specialist support this is one way for learners with relatively high needs to access mainstream although it can feel to parents that the school is no more than a “host” and that the majority of education is delivered by the one to one support.

Nevertheless, the inclusion model and academic research indicates that there can be benefits for learners with additional needs being included in a mainstream environment (provided they are appropriately supported) from the perspective of this helping with higher performance (Peetsma et al, 2010, “Inclusion in education: Comparing pupils’ development in special and regular education”) . However, other studies such as “What does ‘inclusion’ mean for pupils on the autistic spectrum in mainstream secondary schools?” by Humphrey and Lewis (2008) indicate that for some students with autism their experience in secondary schools can be marked by social isolation, bullying and anxiety.

Sometimes we have seen parents chose mainstream education with full time support for primary school and prefer a specialist setting for secondary school so that their child can be more independent although others have continued this approach for secondary education.

In addition to being a supportive environment, other factors to consider within mainstream schooling are:

  • Whether class sizes and the environment will be appropriate from a sensory/noise perspective. If you have any doubts it would be helpful if you can seek professional advice on this from the team supporting your child or arrange for your child to visit the school;
  • The types of interventions or support a learner may need. Does the school have expertise with these and will they be available to your child?
  • Is the school able to put in place autism awareness training with the staff team and the pupils to increase support for learners with autism?
  • Is support needed for your child at break times and in the playground? How will this be organised? Will this be available from appropriately trained staff?
  • Does the learner need support in social skills and social learning and can this be available?
  • Is there a school counsellor with understanding of autism and will other therapeutic support that may be needed such as occupational therapy and speech and language therapy be available?
  • Can therapeutic targets be incorporated into the curriculum/ how much differentiation does the learner need and can it be put in place?

Mainstream schools – additionally resourced provision

These are also often called “units” and are attached to local authority mainstream schools. Some boroughs/local authorities have more of these than others. Some boroughs will also encourage parents to review the local offer provision in neighbouring boroughs. Sometimes the schools involved are not able to take learners from out of borough areas due to shortages of space though.

This type of provision can be ideal for learners within the mainstream range of cognitive/academic ability but who need more support to access their education than is typically provided in a mainstream setting. Generally these units require an EHCP that specifies the types of interventions and support that would be offered in the unit although some units offer assessment places such as for learners that seem suitable that are going through the EHCP process.

Typically, additionally resourced mainstream provision will involve learners accessing from say, 20% up to 70% or more of their learning in mainstream. The amount of mainstream time depends upon each unit and the profile of students.

Some may access 100% or nearly all of their learning within mainstream and sometimes units start off with lower mainstream access and build up. Within mainstream typically there might be 2 students in each class from the unit together and sometimes there is a learning support assistant to help these students in mainstream. This support varies from school to school so you need to check this.

It is important to note that in mainstream lessons students are following the mainstream curriculum so if your child needs help with social skills, speech and language, social communication or learning life skills this would need to be covered in the unit itself or through out of school support.

Within the unit, sometimes therapy is offered although many units now have visits from speech and language therapists to provide guidance on the programmes each student follows rather than direct therapy support. Some units may have occupational therapy support and others may not. Again, direct therapy may or may not be available. If the EHCP specifies that your child needs direct speech and language or occupational therapy this can be bought in by the local authority although parents may need to insist!

Whether this type of school setting is suitable will depend upon the nature of the individual education programme offered and whether this matches what your child needs in terms of therapy support and so on.

Some of our clients have found that while the additionally resourced provision is a great option for their child the number of places can be quite small so it can be difficult to access e.g. 10-30 spaces would be typical.

Likewise, another challenge can be the support offered is appropriate but units can take on the characteristics of the school around them. Sometimes our clients have been put off what could be relatively interesting provision through the shortcomings they have perceived in the mainstream school the provision is attached to. Like for mainstream settings the size, sensory profile and noise levels in the mainstream provision itself could be factors to consider given that learners typically mix at break times.

However, specially resourced mainstream provision can be a good option even if additional support is needed to be added after school if it means that the child is accessing a mainstream education and is working at the appropriate cognitive and academic level which is as important as receiving the right therapeutic and pastoral support. Another potential benefit of both mainstream options is that schools can be close by without the long journeys that are often required for more specialised provision.

Specialist settings

For our clients the key factor that leads to consideration of a specialist setting is that this can be the best way for their child to access the support they need and be able to be have greater potential for independent learning in a more suitable environment with more targeted educational interventions. In addition, some parents feel that a specialist setting will be helpful in protecting their child from unhelpful interventions by teachers or other school staff not trained in autism and from “standing out” and being at risk from bullying.

Specialist schools offer the potential for smaller classes, more suitable sensory environments in school and expertise with relevant interventions that a learner may need as well as curriculum designed to cover areas where learners may need dedicated support such as with regard to learning and social skills as well as language.

Another factor to consider is whether your child needs interventions and an environment specific to autism and designed primarily to support learners with autism or whether the support provided within a school that supports other learning needs is sufficient. For example, some schools that focus on speech and language needs may accept learners with autism where their needs are heavily focussed on speech and language especially social communication related. This is not the case for all schools or specialist units that support speech and language development as some do not consider that they have the expertise to support learners with autism.

Peer group

The peer group around your child in any educational setting is important and can influence their ability to learn. Even schools that appear suitable can have different types of groupings within the school that can change year by year so getting information about the group(s) your child will be in is important. Of course, there are children with different levels of ability in any school and it is important for all of us to be supportive of those with greater difficulties than we experience although we know from families that it can be demotivating for their learners to be in groups where they feel there are no others or not many others with similar abilities.

Many local authorities have mainstream schools that support learners with autism and these may often mix students with a variety of types of needs often including learners with moderate or severe learning difficulties. This can sometimes mean that learners with significant needs in relation to autism can be mixed with learners with materially different levels of cognitive and academic abilities. Where this has happened we have seen parents switch to other options as their child can find school work insufficiently challenging/interesting. As a generalisation, there are more specialised schools focussing on autism outside of the state sector.


The ambitions that you and your child have for the future and their education are important too and these are a key factor in assessing whether a specialist setting is right.

Some specialist settings offer a variety of pathways in school up to the age of 18/19 including A levels, GCSEs, vocational options and entry levels, ASDAN qualifications or functional skills. However, others are based around a single pathway.

Therefore, an autism focussed school providing a high level of support may not offer GCSE opportunities as it may be working more towards independent living goals and entry level or functional skills qualifications.

Some families we have supported have felt that their children need a significant level of pastoral support and interventions to address needs relating to autism but have cognitive and academic abilities that mean the pathways in many specialist schools are not appropriate. This is a genuine area of challenge, not just for learners with autism, and anecdotal experience from our client base is that the UK education system is less advanced than it ought to be in supporting students like this that might be identified in the US as being “twice exceptional”.

Home Education

A number of client families have elected to home educate their learners with autism. On occasion this has been forced due to school placements breaking down or proving to be unsuitable before another placement can be put in place. On other occasions this has been because families have not found an educational setting that works for them that is sufficiently close by to avoid a long journey. On occasions, learners have suffered trauma within a school setting and transferring to another school is made much more difficult.

We recommend parents choosing to home educate seek to have the home programme named as their educational setting in their child’s EHCP so that funding from the local authority is available. We are aware of families where the EHCP has named the home programme for their child with autism as well as other parents seeking to do this.

Parents have told us that they have chosen this route because while their child has significant needs and, in some cases, their child would have a one to one specialist tutor anyway, they feel that through home education they can still access the “mainstream world” through appropriate home education groups and can also offer a wider range of activities and learning in the community than could be offered in a typical specialist school.

In other cases, the availability of nearby school options that would offer, for example, ABA programmes has been such that to continue to follow such a programme that perhaps has been proved to be the best way for their child to learn means that only a home programme can provide this option without considering a residential placement.

Therefore, this route can offer a more bespoke learning programme tailored to meet a learner’s needs using interventions that work best for the learner. However, it is worth bearing in mind that local authorities may raise the concern that outside of a school environment there could be fewer opportunities for social communication practice, for example, that could be appropriate for learners with autism. However, an appropriately planned programme can address this concern and, as with all EHCPs, parents will need to establish evidence for the preferred setting and the learning interventions to be used through professional, therapeutic, and school/teacher reports.

Running a home programme, even with local authority funding, can be a significant amount of work for parents as often parents chose to put in place the team and therapy support with funding received from the local authority. There is work to be done in finding and managing tutors and therapy support as well as ensuring that annual reviews and relevant paperwork and liaison between professionals is undertaken. However, for some families this has been the best option given the availability of appropriate settings in their area.

What happens post 16?

A key differentiator for some specialist schools is whether they offer support post 16 and post 19 in the case of some. Employment among adults identified with autism is relatively low and so having the right support post 16 is key. Again, the pathways offered need to match your child’s abilities. Supported work placements and work experience are a positive factor in increasing employment opportunities.

Many schools signpost learners to local colleges ideally with good SEND pathways although the level of SEND provision post 19, in particular, was found to be poor by Ofsted in its 2017/2018 annual report which included the results of its second SEND provision survey. A number of schools are seeking to address this and we are aware of more post 16 and post 19 support coming from specialist school groups but there are gaps and we are concerned that learners are missing out on further learning because there is not enough support available.

In the meantime, we have made recommendations to families to access the best provision they can from existing colleges/organisations and to then seek to add on specialist tutoring, therapeutic support (such as speech and language therapy or occupational therapy) to provide an opportunity for the student to be supported by a professional/team that fully understands their needs to ensure that they can succeed post 19. EHCPs run to the age of 25 and so this additional support as well as any social care support in relation to independence skills can be sought to be included in the young person’s EHCP if they have one.

How to choose the right educational setting

  • Think about your child’s needs
  • We recommend that the first step is for parents to consider what support they think that their child reasonably needs. Is the support currently available to their child sufficient? Is there other support that is needed?
  • If you would like to access government funding for your school placement or to enter a local authority specialist school or unit or to have additional support in mainstream then you will need an EHCP and to ensure that this specifies the support that you need.
  • For example, if your child needs an environment specifically designed to support learners with autism then the EHCP needs to state this.
  • Find out what is available
  • Your local authority will publish a special educational needs “Local Offer” online.
  • We always recommend reviewing relevant schools in the local offer with visits or other research to identify whether the schools can be appropriate and to note which support they do or do not offer or why they are not suitable for your child so that you can explain your educational setting preference.
  • Through your network, and any directories for your area you can seek to identify which other schools may be available and what could work.
  • We provide a shortlist service to parents to identify these options as it is not always easy to gain access to an accurate list of relevant schools within the search radius you are looking in.
  • Work out which options are closest to what you need and get help if you need it
  • Warning: this part can be difficult!
  • As noted we advise visiting as many schools as possible and having detailed discussions with SENDCos and other professionals within each setting and finding out about the peer group(s) your child would be in, for example.
  • You may need to consider whether it is better to travel a longer distance to a school that does more of what your child needs or whether a local option that can enable you to supplement support if need be is better.
  • If you think that you cannot see your child in a particular setting trust your instincts and keep looking and/or address the concerns with the school.
  • Long journeys are an additional challenge many learners face and school transport can be a difficult area to arrange for families. You can look into whether you qualify for funding from your local authority. Your child may need an individual support worker to travel with them and not be comfortable being grouped with other children so this will need to managed carefully.
  • Get as much help as you can. We offer a placement service that can support you all the way through the process and we can also help with the managing the EHCP process to help ensure that it matches the provision that you need.
  • To find out more get in touch with or call 020 7193 8407.

[1], 22.4.2019