Many parents of children on the autism spectrum have difficulties finding the right school. They can also be faced with making the decision about whether a mainstream or special school is best for their child. 

The reasons for these difficulties can be:

  • your local authority (LA) may not provide the type of educational provision you would like for your child
  • you may disagree with your LA about which is the best school for your child
  • your child may not have, or need, an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan. Children usually need an EHC plan to access a placement at a special school, so those without plans may find that their choices are limited. 

Your (LA) only has a duty to provide an 'adequate' education for your child - it does not have to provide the best education. However, they are obliged to offer you information about schools that are available and to explain their decision about where they have decided to place your child.

The following is a guide to the different types of school available and how you can decide which is the most appropriate. Everyone autistic person is different and each family's circumstances will be different, so this is not intended to be a definitive guide to making the right decision. However, we hope it will answer some questions you may have.

This information England; for help in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales please contact our Education Rights Service

What schools are available locally?

If your child is of pre-school age and undergoing an education, health and care needs assessment, your LA should provide you with a list of suitable schools that are close to you. They may provide you with a complete list of mainstream and specialist provision with guidance on which are the right places to look at, or they may give you a select list of schools that they feel are right for your child. You can ask for a more comprehensive list if you feel you don't have enough information.

Our Autism Services Directory also holds details of schools that cater for autistic pupils.

If you are considering sending your child to an independent school, you may be able to find information about those that admit autistic children in The Good Schools Guide.  Other disability charities such as I-CAN and AFASIC can provide information on schools for children with speech and language impairments. 

Some schools may have autism accreditation, which is a quality assurance programme that they have chosen to be a part of. However, a school which suits one autistic child may not suit another, so don't discount schools which aren't accredited

What types of schools are there?

The following types of schools are available (although not all these will necessarily be available in your local area).

Mainstream schools: some autistic children are educated in mainstream primary and secondary schools. If your child has an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan, they may have extra support in school for a set number of hours a week. It is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010 for schools to discriminate against children or young people with a disability with regard to admissions, education and associated services, and exclusions.

A base or unit within a mainstream school: some mainstream primary and secondary schools have classes for autistic pupils within them. The pupils access the mainstream school when appropriate and are educated in the base or unit for the rest of the time. 

Special schools: these are schools specifically for children with special educational needs. The pupils they cater for vary: some are just for autistic pupils while others are for pupils with moderate or severe learning difficulties, pupils with physical difficulties, or a mixture of difficulties.

Residential schools: these schools can be for children with varying needs or specific needs. Pupils stay overnight and have a 24-hour curriculum, this means that support available 24 hours a day. Some have a 52-week placement, others go home at weekends or during the holidays. A multi-agency plan should be put into place that establishes joint or three way funding, but it remains the responsibility of the LA to be legally responsible for ensuring education. Parents and the LA should agree any arrangements for a pupil's contact with their family and for any special help, such as transport.

Non-maintained schools: these schools can be mainstream, special or residential, but none of them will be maintained by the LA. They can charge fees on a non-profit-making basis. Most non-maintained special schools are run by major charities or charitable trusts.

Independent schools: these schools can be mainstream, special or residential, but none will be maintained by the LA.  Some independent special schools are approved by the Secretary of State for Education to cater for children and young people with EHC plans.  These approved independent schools are known as ‘section 41’ schools.  Parents can choose to place their child at their own expense or to make representation to their LA for a placement at an independent school which is not a ‘section 41’ school.

Visiting schools

You don't need to visit every school you hear about, but it's a good idea to visit as many different types of school as possible. This will give you a better idea of what is available and which features you think are important. You may find that a type of school you wouldn't have considered may, in fact, be right for your child as the environment and ethos of the school may be suitable. 

You may not think that some schools are suitable for your child, but find that they still have elements that appeal to you. For example, a speech and language therapy unit in a mainstream school might not suit your child, but the fact that the children there spend a lot of time in mainstream classes could be something that they would benefit from. As a result, you might choose to look at the arrangements that are made for inclusion of pupils with disabilities in mainstream classes at the other schools you visit.

Decide which features are crucial to you

Although children's and families' needs will vary, there are a few features that are likely to be important for all families affected by autism.
  • Parents should feel they are able to feed back any concerns they have to the school and vice versa, so it is important that the staff seem approachable
  • Schools should be able to respond to the varying needs of children who are on the autism spectrum. They should be aware that the approaches which work for one child may not work for another and that flexibility is crucial
  • Children with special educational needs are statistically more likely to be involved in bullying than those without. They may be the perpetrators or victims of bullying; either way, it is crucial that all schools have a clear policy on bullying
  • Careful and consistent planning is vital for children on the autism spectrum, as mixed messages can cause them acute anxiety. Communication between staff, which can ensure a consistent approach to teaching and supporting pupils, is as important as the school communicating effectively with parents. Ask about arrangements for staff meetings and how often teachers and learning support staff are able to meet to discuss children's progress.

There are many more features of a school that will be equally important, but perhaps specific to your child. You could ask family and friends to help draw up a list of such features. This may prove very helpful, as people outside of your immediate family may see your child's needs very differently to you.

Tips on visiting schools

Decide exactly what you need to know in advance and take a list of questions to make sure you ask everything you want to. Here are some suggested tips when visiting a school.

  • Where possible try to speak to the class teachers and classroom assistants as well as the person who is showing you round (usually the head teacher).
  • It can be helpful to observe the children in the playground as well as during lessons. This way you can find out how involved the staff are in the children's play, what activities are available and whether there are any potential bullying spots (places in the playground which are isolated and hard for teachers to observe).
  • Try and see some paperwork. The school will probably tell you about how they plan each child's education and what kind of assessments they do, but looking at some  paperwork will help you to see how relevant it is to your child and how seriously it is taken. 
  • If you can, take your child with you to visit at least one school. Pre-schoolers won't have been to a school before and it may be the first opportunity you get to see how they will cope.. We realise that for some parents, taking their young child with them will add to any stress involved and make evaluating the school difficult. However, most schools will, want to meet your child before offering them a place.
  • It might be helpful to take a partner, or a friend or relative who knows your child, with you when you visit schools. 
  • If you get the chance to talk to other parents of children at the school at the end of the day, then make use of it; ask questions about their experience of talking with teachers and other staff and having their concerns addressed. Be aware that some parents will have had negative experiences but these won't necessarily be relevant to you. 
  • Some families live in remote areas where few schools are accessible to them. Alternatively, if parents live apart they may want to choose a school that is accessible to both of them. These are valid considerations as lengthy journeys will have a major impact on your child's education.
  • Some families want their child to attend a school that will have awareness of their cultural needs. All schools special and mainstream are required by law to have regard to a child's cultural background. They must not discriminate against them on the basis of this.

Make a shortlist

Try and narrow your choice down to just two or three schools. They don't all have to be perfect, so long as you can see your child being happy and you feel that you can communicate effectively with the school. Very few parents feel totally happy about their child's school and most placements are the result of a compromise between the school and the family. This is true for children without special educational needs as well.

It is better to focus on two or three schools rather than just one in case you are unable to get your child a place at your preferred school. It is also better to be open-minded about the future: if the school doesn't suit your child you have the option of moving them at a later date. Although change can be difficult for autistic children, this does not necessarily mean that it should always be avoided; learning to handle change is a part of growing up.

Parental preference

In exercising or performing all their respective powers and duties under the Education Acts, the Secretary of State, local education authorities and the funding authorities shall have regard to the general principle that pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents, so far as that is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure.

Section 9, Education Act 1996

When deciding which school to send their child to, parents have the right to request a particular school or college of the following type to be named in the plan:

  • Maintained nursery school
  • Maintained school, academy or free school (mainstream or special)
  • Non-maintained special school
  • Further education or sixth form college
  • Independent school or independent specialist colleges, where they have been approved for this purpose by the Secretary of State and published on a list available to parents and young people.  These are known as "section 41" schools.
  • If you make a request for a placement of the type described above, your LA must comply with your preference and name the school or college in your child’s EHC plan unless it would:  

  • Be unsuitable for your child’s age, ability, aptitude or SEN; or
  • Be incompatible with the efficient education of others, or the efficient use of resources.

    If you make representation for a place at an independent school or Independent Specialist Provider (ISP) that is not on the Secretary of State’s approved list, your LA must still consider your request. The LA is not under the same conditional duty to name it as described above, but they must have regard to the general principle as set out in Section 9 of the Education Act 1996 set out above.  You will need to prove that there is a strong case for your child attending that particular school, or type of school. 

    The LA should also make sure that the independent school would admit your child before naming it in the plan, as an independent school not on the Secretary of State’s approved list does not have a duty to admit your child.

    Choosing a school for a child with an EHC plan

    Some autistic children have an education, health and care (EHC) plan before they start school, others will go through the education, health and care (EHC) needs assessment process once they're in school and some do not have, or need, an EHC plan at all. For a placement in a special school, pupils usually need a plan. If your child does not have an EHC plan, you may find that your options are schools in your catchment area or an independent school, which will need to be funded by you or your LA.

    EHC plans are issued by LAs when the needs of a pupil are above those which a mainstream school could support in terms of funding for specialist support. They are legally binding documents which outline a child's needs and how their LA local authority is going to meet them.

    Children go through an EHC needs assessment to determine whether or not they need a plan. A plan should be based on need, not diagnosis, and the assessment process usually takes 20 weeks. Schools, nurseries, parents or professionals involved with a child can request an EHC needs assessment from the LA if they think a child may need an EHC plan.

    Once a child receives a final EHC plan, section one of the document will name a school for them to attend. However, section one of a draft plan will be blank. Before the LA names a school in the plan they need to check that the school is willing to accept your child. 

    If the LA refuses to name the school of your choice, you are entitled to know why and to ask for a review of the decision. If you are having problems in any of these areas we would recommend seeking specialist advice from your local Information, Advice and Support Service. However, please be aware of the time limits involved in preparing and finalising plans, you may not have long to seek advice and follow up with your LA. 

    The Equality Act 2010

    The Equality Act 2010 replaces all existing equality legislation such as the Race Relations Act, Disability Discrimination Act and Sex Discrimination Act.  The Equality Act applies to all maintained and independent schools and maintained and non-maintained special schools. The Act makes it unlawful for schools to discriminate against, harass or victimise a pupil or potential pupil in relation to:

    • admissions
    • exclusions
    • the way it provides education for pupils the way it provides pupils access to any benefit, facility or service.


    The Act defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. It has made it unlawful for all schools to discriminate against a pupil with a disability with regard to admissions. A school cannot refuse or deliberately omit an application for admission from a prospective pupil due to their disability, unless it would be detrimental to the education of the pupil or the other pupils in the school.

    The Government and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have produced a number of codes of practice explaining legal rights and requirements under the Equality Act 2010. These codes are practical guidance rather than definitive statements of the law. However, courts and tribunals must take them into account. Further information about the codes of practice can be found on the Equality and Human Rights Commission's website.
    Schools Admissions Code has been produced, which refers to duties and responsibilities in the Equality Act 2010.

    Read more about disability discrimination in Great Britain

    Moving from primary to secondary school

    Pupils moving from primary to secondary school, who have a EHC plan, do not follow the usual admissions route. Their LA must amend their statement to name their new school by 15 February in the year of transfer. This is detailed in the Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Code of Practice section 9.179.

    It is suggested in the code of practice that an EHC plan must be reviewed and amended in sufficient time before the child moves between key phases of education, to allow for planning for and, where necessary, commissioning of support and provision at the new school.  It would be beneficial for you and your child to have visited the secondary schools you are considering before the Year five annual review, so that you can make your wishes known.


    Useful contacts

    Our Education Rights Service offers advice to parents on how to get the most appropriate education for their child, and support for parents who are appealing to Tribunal.

    AFASIC offers advice and information on schools to parents of children and young people who have a speech and language impairment.

    IPSEA (Independent Panel for Special Education Advice) - helpline staffed by professionals that offers advice on all areas of special needs education.

    The Equality Advisory Support Service

    Information, advice and support services network - independent advice services for parents of children with special educational needs, funded by central government; the network offers support around all aspects of finding an appropriate school placement and education support for your child.

    I-CAN  publishes a list of their own and accredited school provision for children with speech and language impairments.

    Last reviewed: 15 March 2016