Choosing a school for your child is an important decision and will depend on what’s right for your individual child. The decision can be even more complicated and difficult when children have additional needs, such as a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
There has been a large rise in the diagnosis of autism over the past 20 years. Children with ASD currently make up nearly a quarter of the pupils with Special Educational Needs in schools. Several factors have contributed to this rise, including an increased awareness of the disorder and of the impact it can have on children’s learning and communication skills.
This rise in numbers, along with an increasing awareness of the diverse learning needs of children with ASD, has led to greater demand for special schools for autism. Alongside local authority provision, there are also a broad range of private schools which offer specialised provision for children with autism and associated communication difficulties.
What facilities do schools for autism offer?
As autism is a spectrum disorder, children can have a wide variety of abilities and needs. Many children on the autistic spectrum thrive in mainstream schools with the right support. There has been a huge increase in the understanding of children’s different learning needs in mainstream education and this has benefited all children. Many schools welcome pupils with autistic spectrum disorder and go out of their way to accommodate their particular needs. Some schools also have specialist units where children can get individualised support whilst remaining part of the larger school.
However, for some children, special schools for autism will be better suited to meeting their individual needs. These schools can provide a variety of specialised facilities and services to support the unique needs of individuals with autism spectrum disorder and help them to achieve their full potential. These might include:
- Small class sizes - These allow for more individualised attention and support, which can be particularly beneficial to children with autism.
- Trained and specialist staff - Staff will all have been trained in working with children with autism. There may also be specialist staff including speech therapists, occupational therapists, play therapists and behaviour specialists.
- A structured environment - Special schools often provide a structured and predictable environment, which can be beneficial for individuals with autism.
- Sensory rooms - Sensory integration is an essential aspect of supporting individuals with autism. Schools may have dedicated sensory rooms equipped with sensory-friendly items like swings, tactile materials, and calming lights.
- Communication support - Many children with autism have communication challenges. Special schools will usually offer speech and language therapy, focus on developing children’s communication skills and use other methods and technology to support communication development.
- Social skills training - Social interactions can be challenging for individuals with autism so schools often provide targeted training to help students navigate social situations, manage their behaviour and build relationships.
- Transition planning - Special schools may assist in transition planning for students, helping them move from one educational level to another or prepare for life after school. This can be invaluable in helping children with autism manage different life stages.
- Residential care - Some schools offer residential care to their pupils. This allows children to access schools further away from home. It also means schools can help children learn life skills and help to prepare them to live independently.
How do schools adapt the curriculum for children with autism?
As well as trained, specialised staff and additional facilities, one of the most important things that private schools for autism can offer is a curriculum specifically tailored to the needs of the children in the school. Schools can decide on the educational content and the teaching methods that best suit their students. They can also select the most appropriate qualifications for students to work towards. This degree of flexibility can be transformative in ensuring that students learn the skills that they need in a way that suits them best. It also allows schools to play to the strengths of the children they teach. The respected Jigsaw school in Surrey sums up this approach by describing itself as being ‘inspired by autism’.
Some of the many ways that schools adapt the curriculum are by:
- Using a wide range of visual supports to enhance communication and understanding. This may include visual schedules, charts, diagrams, and other visual aids to reinforce concepts and routines.
- Addressing the sensory considerations that affect many children with autism. Schools might adapt the learning environment by providing sensory breaks, incorporating sensory-friendly materials, and minimising distractions to create a more comfortable setting.
- Using technology to adapt the curriculum to better suit learners with autism. Educational apps, interactive software, and assistive technology devices can help reinforce concepts and engage students in the learning process.
- Modifying assignments and assessments to better match students abilities and strengths. This could involve breaking tasks into smaller steps, providing additional support, adjusting the format of assessments or the type of qualifications studied for.
- Incorporating student’s special interests into the curriculum. This can enhance motivation and engagement and enable teachers to connect better with students and make learning more meaningful.
What types of private schools for autism are there?
There are a huge variety of independent special schools that cater for a broad range of additional needs that students might have. According to the Independent Schools Council, there are more than fifty private schools that cater wholly or mainly for children with Special Educational Needs and these include schools specialising in autism and communication difficulties.
One example is the LVS Hassocks School in Sussex, which was recently awarded the prestigious Special Educational Needs School of the Year Award. It caters for children with high functioning autism and offers a specialist curriculum and lots of extracurricular activities. Its students gain GCSEs, BTECs, entry level qualifications and functional skills. The school works closely with the local community to prepare its students for independent living and the world of work.
As well as a wide range of stand alone schools there are also schools run by national organisations specialising in autism. These include:
- The National Autistic Society which operates four specialist schools across England. They provide a broad, relevant and purposeful curriculum using the most up to date teaching methods for autism. The Society works to develop best practice in the field and offers training courses and support. Through their Cullen centres they also work to support children in mainstream schools.
- Options Autism which provides educational, care and residential services for children and young people with autism. They run more than thirty schools and colleges across England and Scotland. Their Pathway to Independence Program works to give students ongoing support into adult life.
- The Aurora Group which runs day and residential schools, mainly for children with high functioning autism. They specialise in smaller schools and work closely with the local community to provide work related learning for their students. Many of their students study for BTECs and other vocational qualifications in a broad range of subjects, including horticulture, car mechanics, IT and animal care.
In cases where there isn’t a Local Authority school that can cater for a child’s needs, the Local Authority is obliged to provide funding for a place at an independent special school that can.
Choosing a private school for your child with autism
As with any school choice, there are lots of factors to consider and much will depend on the particular needs of your child and on you and your child’s preferences.
Some important factors you might want to consider are:
- How does the school cater for children’s physical, social, emotional, creative and academic needs?
- Are there links with other mainstream schools in the area and with the local community?
- Does the school offer particular musical, creative or sporting activities that your child enjoys or might enjoy?
- How much training and experience have staff had in working with children with similar needs to your child?
- What is the curriculum offered by the school? Which qualifications do children at the school achieve?
- What support does the school give to help children transition to independent living and employment after school?
- Are there any specialist staff, e.g. speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists or play therapists, who work at the school or visit the school regularly?
Most schools will have open days to give parents and children the opportunity to visit the school and chat to students, staff and the head teacher. If possible it’s also helpful to visit on a normal school day, to get a feel how happy and engaged the children seem and to see the type of learning taking place.
You and your child’s first impressions of the school are very important. They can tell you a lot about whether a school is a good fit for your child. Hopefully your child will seem comfortable in the environment and be excited by some of the opportunities on offer.
The National Autistic Society
Autism Educational Trust
School Guide Information Leaflet on Choosing a Special School by Dr Linda Mallory