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Choosing a School for your autistic child

Choosing a School

Somebody once said to me that finding the right school is a bit like finding the right house. It's quite a good analogy. Every child has individual needs that may be addressed in one school but not another. It's very important to go and visit several different schools before deciding which school will suit your child best.

The Local Authority should give you a list of suitable schools that are close to you. They might provide you with a complete list of mainstream and specialist provision with guidance on the right places to look at for your child, or they may select a list of schools that they feel are right your child. You can always asked for a more comprehensive list if you need more information.

The National Autistic Society has details of schools specifically for children and young people with autism. You can find this comprehensive list by clicking here.

Different types of school

The following types of schools are available in the UK, although they may not all be available in your local area.

Mainstream Schools

Mnny children with autism are educated in mainstream primary and secondary schools. If your child has an EHCP they may have extra one-to-one support for a set number of hours per week.

A base or unit in a mainstream school: some mainstream primary and secondary schools have a unit or ARP for children with ASD. The children access mainstream school when appropriate and are educated in the unit for the rest of the time.

Special Schools

These schools are specifically for children with special educational needs. Many cater for a wide range of needs. Some schools are just for children with ASD while others have a mixture of needs from moderate to severe learning difficulties and pupils with physical difficulties.

Residential Schools

These schools are for children with specific needs. Pupils stay overnight and have 24-hour a day support. Some residential schools offer a 52-week placement others follow the normal school term and children go home at weekends and during holidays.

Non-Maintained Schools

These schools can be mainstream, special or residential but none of them are maintained by the Local Authority. Most non-maintained special schools are run by charities or charitable trusts.

Independent Schools

Some independent special schools have been approved to cater for children and young people with EHC plans. Approved independent schools are known as ‘section 41’ schools. Parents can choose to place a child at their own expense or can make a representation to the Local Authority for placement at an independent school which is not a ‘section 41’ school.

Choosing a school to suit my child

First of all think about what you want from your child's education. Is it high academic standards you're looking for or a place where your child will feel secure and happy? What kind of support does your child need? What are their strengths? Are you looking for a specialist or inclusive setting?

Before a visit:

When you visit the school go with your gut reaction, if your instinct tells you this is not the right place, trust that instinct. You know your child better than anyone and you know if your child will thrive in that setting.

Many parents tell us that it is helpful to have a checklist of what to look out for when visiting a school. Visit the school with your partner or a friend and you could split the list.

Things to look out for:

Size and layout of the school and classrooms. If your child has a lot of sensory issues, look for a school building that is easy to find your way around, narrow and busy staircases/corridors can be frightening for a child with autism. Open plan classrooms are also not the best environment for a child with autism. Acoustics, lighting and ventilation could be important considerations for you too.

Ethos and atmosphere of the school. Is the school friendly and welcoming? Are they interested in your child? It's people not buildings that make a school caring and understanding. These understanding attitudes really count the meeting the need of your child. Look at how the children and staff get along and think about whether your child will fit in here.

Structure of the school day. Look around the classroom, is there a visual timetable on display? Do the pupils know what they're doing, why they're doing it and how long for? Do the children know what's happening next? Are they expected to follow lots of verbal instructions or is there evidence of visual support. Ask about what happens if there is a change to the timetable.

Daily help. Sometimes children with autism need more help in coping with the school environment. Ask if there is someone your child can go to if he/she has a problem. Is there a safe place to retreat to if it all becomes too much in the playground? Can an anxious child request ‘timeout’ from the classroom to calm down and refocus? Is there space for your child to have an independent workstation away from classroom distractions some of the time? What arrangements are made during assessment or exam time?

Questions to ask:

A comprehensive list of questions to ask the school can be found here:

Pick out several of the most relevant questions to ask. You may not have time to ask all of them.

Compared the facilities and ethos of each school you visit. Take your time in making a decision. Talk to other parents, what's right for their child may not be right for yours but it helps to talk things through with others.

After the visit it helps to write notes about the questions you asked and list of all the positive things about the school whilst it is fresh in your mind. When you have visited a few schools, they can all seem similar and it’s difficult to remember details about each one.

For Parents: