“Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can- there will always come a time when you will be grateful you did.” – Sarah Caldwell
Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps make a living; the other helps make a life.
Autistic children, teenagers and young people need additional help and support with education. Some will need highly-specialized education, others will follow a more mainstream path.
Why do some parents choose home education?
Home educating your child is a huge responsibility, but you do have the right to do this. Parents choose to educate their autistic child at home for various reasons, including:
- your child may have sensory sensitivities that make a school environment noisy, distracting or even painful to them. They may find it hard to concentrate or behave well, which may then stop them from reaching their full potential.
- you may feel your child’s needs are not being recognized or supported at school. Many autistic children do succeed in school and benefit from the support of dedicated staff, such as learning support assistants. But some find the school environment difficult, as it has an emphasis on social interaction and group learning.
- you may feel you can provide a more appropriate education for your child. This will depend on the educational options for autistic children and young people in your area.
Choosing between mainstream & special school
This can be one of the biggest decisions a parent may face when deciding on an appropriate education for their autistic child or young person.
Here, we talk about what options you may have and give information on what needs to be considered when making this decision. Your child’s individual needs should always be the starting point for identifying what type of school they should attend. Where will they be happy, secure and able to reach their full potential?
You know your child better than anyone and are best placed to make this decision. However, you may want to ask professionals that have previously been involved in your child’s education or care for their views. This could be an educational psychologist, speech and language therapist, occupational therapist, inclusion support worker, school special educational needs coordinator or support for learning principal or department head.
Options and restrictions
Parents are faced with several options when choosing a school for their child. In addition to mainstream and special schools, some schools have bases or units specifically for autistic children and young people. Depending on their needs, it may also be appropriate to consider residential schools or home school for your child. There may also be some restrictions. There is a legal duty to ensure that all children are educated in a mainstream setting, except for the following circumstances:
- a mainstream school would not meet the child’s needs
- the education of the other children at the school would be affected
- the placement would be too expensive.
Decide what matters to you and your child
To help you decide whether a school will meet your child’s needs you may wish to think about the following factors.
Assess the environment, including the immediate surroundings and the school building.
Think about your child and consider:
- how they will react to the layout of the school. Is there bright lighting, excessive noise or other possible sensory triggers
- will your child be able to cope with the class and group sizes
- will your child have support in class and during unstructured times like break and lunchtime.
Transport to and from school
Think about whether your child would manage the journey, either with or without support. They may be eligible for free transport.
Staff experience and understanding
When visiting the school, try to meet with teachers and support staff to discuss your child’s needs. Through this you can gauge:
- the depth of the school staff’s knowledge of autism together with what resources and strategies they will use to help your child
- what access there will be to other professionals, such as therapists
- how they will meet any health and care needs of your child
- whether staff would be able to support any routines, special interests, anxieties, sensory or dietary needs your child may have.
It’s important to ask about communication between staff and how they work with parents. What is their approach to home-school communication and collaboration?
Ask if your child will have access to either a full, reduced or modified curriculum. Will they have the opportunity to learn life skills, achieve qualifications or study subjects of interest? What opportunities will your child have for extracurricular activities, trips and events?
Consider the opportunities your child will have for socializing with children who have similar needs. Will they be able to also be able to mix with neuro-typical children? Ask to see the school’s bullying policy and consider what prevention strategies they use.
There are many more features of a school that will be important but specific to your child. Try asking family and friends to draw up a list of these. This may prove helpful, as people outside of your immediate family may see your child’s needs differently and you can compare this with your own thoughts.
Speak to other parents who have children at the schools you are considering. Inspection reports and any accreditation awards can also help you make a decision.
Keep accurate records and meet deadlines
Keep records of discussions, meetings and a diary of events, and a diary of your child’s difficulties. If appropriate, your child could also keep a diary. Make sure that any deadlines are met. For example, your child’s school, local authority or education library board may ask you to take action within a certain period of time.
Tips on writing letters
- Make sure that your letter contains full details of your child’s name, date of birth, the school your child attends, and any other key details.
- Quote any references, for example, a tribunal case number.
- Always date and keep a copy of any letters you send.
- Hand deliver or send letters by recorded delivery.
- Wherever possible, address letters personally, by using the name of the head teacher or education officer’s.
- If you are not sure who to write to at your local or education authority, address the letter to the Director of Education, or equivalent. Your local or education authority will be able to give you their name, or it will be on their website.
Manage your documents
Always keep the original versions of any documents you send to the school, local, or education authority – send photocopies. When you receive paperwork, check that all relevant documents are included and ask for any missing documents. Read through all documents and highlight things you agree or disagree with. It’s helpful to make a photocopy of documents so that you have a clean copy of paperwork to make notes on. Check any paperwork you receive about your child to make sure it gives correct information about them.
Prepare well for meetings
- Ask for copies of your child’s school record before the meeting.
- Read any reports that have been written about your child and highlight any areas that you would like clarified or that you have concerns about.
- Mark any relevant sections in the code of practice which relate to your views.
- Make a list of your views, concerns and any questions you want answered.
- Use this list during the meeting and tick off points as they are discussed.
- If there is someone else you think should attend the meeting, ask if they can be invited
- ask someone to go with you to the meeting, if possible, and let the school, local, or education authority know that this is happening.
- Make notes of what is said and, if someone has accompanied you, ask them to take notes as well.
- If anything is not clear, ask for it to be explained again.
- Don’t feel pressured to agree to anything in the meeting.
- Remember that the other parties must work in partnership with parents and give proper weight to parental views.
- Make sure that everything you wanted to discuss has been dealt with; discuss some points again if necessary.
- After the meeting, write a letter to the chairperson, with copies to all present, to confirm your understanding of what was discussed and any action agreed
Difficulties at lunch and break times
School can be challenging for your child or young person, with unstructured times being particularly difficult. Here, we look at reasons for this and ways in which parents and school can help. Autistic children and young people have difficulty with communication, social interaction, friendships and imaginative play. Because of this, the playground can be intimidating as they can’t read body language of others and find it difficult to understand ‘social rules’. They may have difficulty developing social skills and understanding jokes or idioms. Children and young people with autism like structure and routine because it helps them to cope in an unpredictable world. A school dining room or playground can be distressing for them as they can:
- have difficulty understanding other people’s behavior
- struggle to cope with unpredictability
- be sensitive to sound, lights or smells.
Wherever possible, it’s important to have an open and mutually supportive relationship with your child or young person’s school. Here are some ideas that you can try or suggest to school to help them feel more comfortable in the school environment.
A personal portfolio can also be called a personal passport. This can help others to better understand your child or young person’s difficulties and strategies that can be used with them.
Lunchtime clubs can be useful, especially if the activity is of a particular interest to your child or young person and you know that they can be actively involved. Be cautious of lunchtime activities that can be viewed as punishment or litter picking, it’s important to understand the difference between a structured activity and a directive one.
Good supervision during unstructured time is essential. Staff can monitor and observe autistic children and young people and then identify and share the support needs of those who can’t express their own feelings.
Ask school what supervision your child or young person has during unstructured times. It’s useful for all support staff to have some autism awareness training, particularly those offering playground support.
A safe and quiet place
It’s useful for autistic children and young people to have an agreed safe and quiet place for them to go when they feel anxiety building or are overloaded by sensory sensory stimuli. This could be within the school inclusion unit, library or calmer area of the school and may not be the same for all autistic pupils.
To avoid stigma being attached to this place, it’s helpful to choose an area that has many established uses.
Talk to school to see if they can designate an area for your child or young person and whether this could also be used at the beginning and end of the school day. It’s important that they also have the opportunity to interact socially, use this resource carefully by monitoring the need for and benefit of it by discussing it with your child or young person regularly.
Social skills and self-esteem
Social Skills and self-esteem lessons can help to boost confidence. These can help autistic children and young people to increase their understanding of social situations, interpret non-verbal signals and practice skills such as turn-taking, listening and negotiating. Classes should be tailored for the pupils who are attending. Ask school if they use any social education program and whether your child or young person could be included.
Social stories™ and comic strip conversationsMany autistic children and young people lack social understanding. Social Stories are short descriptions of a particular situation, event or activity, which include specific information about what to expect in that situation and why. Comic strip conversations use symbols, color and stick figure drawings to represent the different elements of a conversation. Seeing the more abstract aspects of social communication visually can help to make the feelings of other more concrete and easier to understand. If your child or young person is struggling with a particular social situation or event in school, ask support staff if they could write a story or comic strip conversation to help.
Circle of Friends
Your child or young person’s school may be able to use the circle of friends approach, this is often used to develop social and communication skills and may help them to cope better during unstructured times.
Visual supports can be used as prompts for your child or young person. For example, they may have a card that reminds them to go to the safe and quiet place if they become anxious. Stress scales can also help autistic children and young people who find it difficult to understand and communicate their emotions. Traffic light systems, a visual thermometer or a scale of 1 – 5 that present emotions as colors or numbers can be useful to them during unstructured times. You could work with your child or young person at home to produce a visual prompt, or a stress scale.
Schools should have a zero tolerance no bullying policy that is consistently enforced. Any incident of bullying must be investigated and pupils should be encouraged to report any kind of intimidating behavior. Your child should feel comfortable talking about bullying they are experiencing and be confident that action will be taken. Some autistic children and young people may not recognize bullying, so it’s important that teaching and support staff observe behavior in and out of the classroom.
Classroom and learning support assistants are often able to notice an incident or hear remarks made by other pupils and should document these to share with relevant staff and parents. One form of bullying is social exclusion. It can help autistic children and young people to have a ‘buddy’ during unstructured times. This could be a peer who spends lunchtime with your child or young person, either regularly or when there is a particular need.
School could identify a specific bench or area in the playground as a ‘buddy’ stop. This can help playground assistants to identify children and young people who need help to interact with others. It is important that your child or young person has identified adults that they can talk to about concerns. Having more than one person will avoid them becoming stressed due to the absence of an identified adult. An autistic child or young person may find social interaction too demanding. If attempts have been made to support them to develop friendships and it’s clear their choice is to spend time alone, they should be allowed to do so.
Awareness and understanding
You could speak to your child or young person’s teacher about creating opportunities for all pupils to develop an understanding of medical conditions, special educational needs and disabilities. This could be a school assembly where information on many additional needs can be presented, without highlighting a particular condition or pupil. Many autistic children and young people will have difficulties during unstructured times, but empathy and understanding from others will help.
It is important to remember that children and young people on the autism spectrum are different from each other and strategies that work with one may not be suitable for others.
Children and young people with pathological demand avoidance will need different education support strategies. Work with the school to help them develop a flexible approach to your child or young person’s needs during unstructured times. Remember that any interventions or approaches should be reviewed on a regular basis.