Opinion – Do we need Autism Specific Schools? Yes we do

This week I read an article on the Academies Week website by Jacqui Ashton Smith who is the executive director of education at the National Autistic Society (NAS). The article was entitled, Do we need autism-specific schools?

The article firstly addresses the issue that  mainstream schools are not always the right environment for our children who are on the spectrum, and I totally agree with this. Autistic Spectrum Condition is just that, a spectrum, so some children will benefit from a mainstream environment while others will need more specialist support and services. What it all comes down to is the individual child and their needs. The question really should be, what provision is needed for my child who is on the spectrum for them to achieve the best that they possibly can? This could be an ASD specific school, an ASD unit attached to a mainstream school or support put in place for a child who is in a mainstream classroom. Every child is different with differing needs and this is what needs to be taken into consideration across all education services.

The author of this article states:

“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.”

childrenI applaud Jacqui Ashton Smith for talking absolute sense. My youngest son who has ASD, tried mainstream school with a specialist TA on a one to basis. For him the environment and the sheer number of children in his class, over 30 children, was not suitable for his needs. We accepted this, as did the school, and he was eventually placed (long story) in an ASD specific school where he is thriving. He has one teacher and three TA’s and is taught alongside six other boys .Therefore the class size is drastically smaller and all of the staff are trained in autism as well as the environment suiting the needs of these children. Tom has a sensory diet, can access an interactive room, a sensory room and the use of PECS and social stories, plus reward tokens are key learning tools. The staff and environment, plus all of the resources, are geared towards the children and their specific and individual needs.

Jacqui Ashton Smith also reiterates this:

“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.”

We have seen so much progress since he started at the school in January 2013, aged 4 years. His difficulties within the mainstream setting did lead to challenging behaviour and he was only accessing two hours in school per day. Now he is in full time school and thriving to the best of his abilities. His sensory needs are being addressed as well as his educational needs. He has had input from an occupational therapist who has worked closely with his team of teachers to incorporate a sensory diet into his daily routine to assist his learning. My son also has Sensory Modulation Disorder.

All that any parent wants for their child is for them to achieve to the best of their ability and to be happy in school. However  the correct level of provision, across all education sectors, needs to be put in place, and I know from having spoken to other parents of children with autism, that this is not always true.

What this article also highlights are statistics from the NAS that state 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.’ This was highlighted in the survey carried out by the UK charity, Ambitious about Autism who found that in a survey of 500 families, 4 in 10 children had been formally and temporarily excluded from school. Our report can be read here.

I also want to make the point as well that there is a serious lack of Autism Specific Schools across the country. My son attends a school where there are only 70 students and this is for an entire county. My concern then is, where do the children who need to go to such a school go? Do they struggle on in a special school or a mainstream school? If my son had not gained his placement at his current school, he would have been placed in a special school , but not with children his own age. Instead he would have been placed with children aged 13 – 14 years, as he was not deemed safe to be with younger children, due to his challenging behaviour at the time. My other concern is that students who are on the higher end of the spectrum are often struggling within the mainstream education system but are not deemed ‘severe’ enough for an autism specific school, I know this to be true. Anna Kennedy OBE had to set up her own ASD specific school in order to meet the needs of her two sons, her eldest whom has Asperger’s syndrome.

Better provision is needed all around, there needs to be more ASD specific schools, more training for teachers about autism and for it to be taught as part of their student teaching curriculum and better provision made within the mainstream setting, so more specialist TA’s and ASD units attached to schools. Our children are not second class citizens, they too should have the same standard of care and level of education as every other child in this country.

I will leave you with these wise words from Jacqui Ashton Smith:

“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.”

The National Autistic Society website can be found by clicking here

Source: Jacqui Ashton Smith  on the Academies Week website: Do we need autism-specific schools?

Source: Jo Worgan on the Autism Daily Newscast website: UK Charity Ambitious about Autism – 4 in 10 children with autism are illegally excluded from school

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