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

The reasons for these difficulties can be: 

  • the education authority (EA) may not provide the type of educational provision you would like for your child
  • there may be a shortage of certain types of places available in your locality
  • you may disagree with the EA about which is the best school for your child
  • your child may not have, or need, a statement of special educational needs (SEN)
Children usually need a statement of SEN to access a placement at a special school, those without may find that their choices are limited. 

Here, we give a guide to what types of school are available and how to make an informed decision. This includes deciding which features you are looking for in a school, visiting schools and making a shortlist.  

What types of school are there?

Not all of the following types of school will necessarily be available in your local area. Your EA regional office will be able to tell you what is available in your area or you can visit their website.

Our Autism Services Directory may also have details of schools that cater for autistic children. 

Mainstream schools

Some autistic children and young people are educated in mainstream primary and secondary schools. If your child has a statement of special educational needs, they may have extra support in school for a set number of hours a week.

A base or unit within a mainstream school

Some mainstream primary and secondary schools have a support area for autistic pupils. This enables them to socialise and have lessons in a more supportive environment when needed but also gives them the opportunity to access the mainstream school. 

Special schools

These are schools specifically for children with SEN.  The pupils they cater for vary, some have a high proportion of autistic pupils while others are for pupils with moderate or severe learning difficulties, physical difficulties, or a combination of both.

Independent schools

Independent schools can be mainstream, special or residential, but none of them will be maintained by the EA. Parents place their child at mainstream independent schools at their own expense or they can make a representation to the authority for a placement at an independent special school.


You may not necessarily be limited to these schools in your area. However, there may be other restrictions such as the legal duty to ensure that all children are educated in a mainstream setting. There are exceptions to this, for example: 

  • a parent may feel that a special school is more appropriate
  • a mainstream school may not meet the child’s needs
  • the education of the other children at the school would be affected
  • the placement would be too expensive. 
Our Education Rights Service can advise you on which schools you may be able to ask for.

Pre-school children

If your child is of pre-school age and undergoing statutory assessment, the EA should provide you with a list of suitable schools. 

They may provide you with a complete list of mainstream and specialist provision with guidance on which are the right places to look, 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.

Visiting schools and involving your child

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 the 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.

Here are some suggested tips when visiting a school.

  • Decide exactly what you need to know in advance and take a list of questions to make sure you ask everything you want to.  
  • Try to speak to the class teachers and classroom assistants as well as the person who is showing you round (usually the principal).
  • Observe 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).
  • Ask to 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 to see how they cope in a school environment. We realise that for some parents, taking their 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.
  • Talk to other parents, 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.
It is important that your child is encouraged to express their views, whether they are able to communicate this to you directly or through using visual supports, facial expressions or body posture.

Your child may also need support from you, the school and professionals to help them prepare for starting or changing school

Decide which features are crucial to you

Before visiting schools, think about what is most important to you and your child. 

The school environment and surroundings 

Think about the environment, including the physical building. How will your child react to the layout, lighting, noise and smells?  How big are the class sizes and groupings, what support is provided within classes and during unstructured times like lunch and break time

Transport to and from school

What would the transport arrangements be for you child? Would they be eligible for free transport or would you have to provide this? Would your child manage or need help with the journey?

Staff experience and empathy

It’s important to consider what knowledge and understanding of autism the school staff have. Whilst visiting the school you could ask:
  • What resources and strategies would be used to meet your child’s needs?
  • Will your child have access to other professionals, such as therapists?
  • How will they meet any health and care needs?
  • How staff would support any routines, special interests, anxiety, sensory or dietary needs? 
  • Is there good communication between staff and parents?

Learning opportunities

Consider whether your child will have access to the curriculum (full, reduced or modified). Will they have opportunities to learn life skills, achieve qualifications or study subjects of interest?

It is also important to find out what extracurricular activities, trips and events are available. 

Peer groups

It’s important for autistic children to be able to mix with both other children with autism and those without.  Ask schools what social opportunities are given to peer groups and how they can support your child to develop their social skills.  Do they use programmes such as circle of friends?

If you have concerns about bullying or teasing then ask to see school’s policy and talk to them about their prevention strategies.  

Other considerations

There may be other factors to be considered in the decision making process. Families living in remote areas may have few schools accessible to them.  Parents that live apart may want to choose a school that is accessible to both of them. These are valid considerations as lengthy journeys will have an impact on a child's education.

Some families want their child to attend a school that will have awareness of their cultural needs.  It’s important to remember that all schools, both special and mainstream, are required by law to have regard to a child's cultural background and prospective pupils should not be discriminated against because of this. 

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. This may be helpful, as people outside of your immediate family may see your child's needs differently.  

You may also want to speak to other parents with children at the schools you are considering. Inspection reports and any accreditation awards may also help you make a decision.


Making a shortlist

Narrow your choice down to just two or three schools which you feel are acceptable. They don't have to be perfect. Most placements are the result of a compromise between the school and family so choose schools that you feel will be able to meet your child’s needs and that you can communicate effectively with. 

It is better to focus on two or three schools rather than just one and be open-minded about the future. If you find that the school doesn't suit your child, you have the option of moving them at a later date. Although change is difficult for autistic children, it doesn’t mean that it should or can be avoided.
Read more about transition for autistic children and young people. 

Children and young people with a statement of special educational needs

Some autistic children will have a statement of SEN before they start school.  Others will go through the statutory assessment process once they start or change school and their needs have been identified. Some children do not have, or need, a statement at all. 

For a placement in a special school, pupils usually need a statement. 

Statements are issued by the EA when the needs of a pupil are above those which a mainstream school can support in terms of funding. They are legally binding documents which outline a child's needs and how the EA is going to meet them.

Moving from primary to secondary school 

Pupils with a statement of SEN don’t follow the usual admissions route when starting secondary school. 

The SEN code of practice says that careful consideration should be given to a child’s needs at the annual review meeting during the last year in their current school. 

This should give clear recommendations on the type of provision which will best suit them after they leave primary school. Therefore, it would be beneficial for you and your child to have visited possible secondary schools before the annual review.  

The code of practice also states that, if necessary, annual reviews can be brought forward to allow sufficient time for appropriate schools to be considered.  Arrangements for a child’s placement should be finalised by the beginning of the child’s last term before transfer.  

There is no deadline to amend a statement when a child is moving from nursery to primary school.

Parental preference

Article 44 of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 sets out the general principle that, “so far as is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure, pupils shall be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents”. 

When deciding which school to send their child to, parents may:
  • express a preference for a maintained mainstream or special school
  • make a representation for an independent or non-maintained mainstream or special school.
The difference between expressing a preference for a maintained school and making a representation for an independent or non-maintained school is who has to make a case for choosing, or refusing the choice of school. 

If you express a preference for a maintained school, the onus is on the EA to prove a case if the request is refused. The EA will need to demonstrate that there is a valid reason for not sending your child to this type of school.

If you make a representation for an independent or non-maintained school the onus is on you to prove the case if the request is refused. You will need to demonstrate that there is a strong case for your child attending that particular school, or type of school.  This is because the EA can but does not have to make arrangements for a child to attend a non-maintained/independent school in Northern Ireland or an institution outside Northern Ireland.  

However, for the EA to do this it must be satisfied that the interests of the child require it and it can be demonstrated that such arrangements are compatible with the efficient use of resources.

The Special Educational Needs and Disability (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 (SENDO)

According to SENDO, a school can’t 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 school. 

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. 


Read more about disability discrimination in Northern Ireland

Further help from our charity

All schools should expect to teach autistic children and have the understanding, resources, training and specialist support to meet their needs.

If you would like more information in relation to choosing a school or have concerns that your child’s needs are not being met then please contact our Education Rights Service.

Useful reading

Code of practice on the identification and assessment of special educational needs - Department of Education (1998).
Supplement to the code of practice -  Department of Education (2005).
Special Educational Needs: A guide for Parents - Department of Education (1997).

Other contacts

Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDIST) 
Tel. 0300 200 7812

Last reviewed 23 September 2016.