Many parents of children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) 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. 

Autistic children and young people are individuals with different needs, personalities and family backgrounds. Here, we talk about the different types of schools available and how you can decide which may be the most appropriate. 

This information is not intended to be a definitive guide to making the right decision. However, we hope it will answer some of your questions. 

For help in trying to get your child a place in a particular school please see Placing Requests (Scotland) or contact our Education Rights Service on 0808 800 4102.

Types of school

The following are types of school available generally, although not all of these types of school may be available in your local area.

For information on schools and units available to your child please contact your local authority or visit their website. Our Autism Services Directory also contains details of schools that cater for autistic children and young people

Mainstream schools

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

A base, unit or language and communication resource (LCR) within a mainstream school

A number of mainstream primary and secondary schools have an inclusive unit or base.   Autistic pupils are educated within them when appropriate, but can also access mainstream school when they are able, either with or without support.

Special schools

These are schools specifically for children who need additional support. The pupils they cater for have varying needs. Some are just for autistic pupils, others can be for pupils with moderate or severe learning difficulties and/or physical difficulties, or the school can be open to those with a combined diagnosis.  

Residential schools

At residential schools, pupils stay overnight and have a 24-hour curriculum, meaning that there is 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 the legal responsibility for ensuring a pupil’s education remains with the local authority. Parents and local authorities should agree any arrangements for a pupil's contact with their family and for any special help, such as transport.

Independent or grant-aided schools

These schools can be mainstream, special or residential, but none of them will be managed by the local authority. Parents can choose to send their child to a mainstream independent school at their own expense. They can also make a placing request to their local authority for a placement at a special independent school.

You may not necessarily be limited to schools in your area. However, there may be other restrictions. For example, there is a legal duty to ensure that all children are educated in a mainstream setting. There are some exceptions to this, they are: 

  • A mainstream school may not meet your child’s needs.
  • The education of the other children at the school would be affected.
  • It would be too expensive. 
Parents are sometimes faced with making a decision about whether their child would be better placed at a mainstream or special school.

Our Education Rights Service can advise you on which schools you may be able to ask for. 

Involving your child and visiting schools

Your child should be encouraged to express their views where possible. They may be able to communicate this to you directly or through the use of the written word or pictures. Parents know their children better than anyone so, if necessary, you may need to judge their facial expressions or body posture. 
Your support will be needed, together with that of their old and new school to help prepare them for the transition to a new environment.
It’s a good idea for you and your child 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 be right for your child as you like the environment and the ethos of the school. 

You may think that some schools are unsuitable for your child, but 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 you may like the fact that the children spend a lot of time in mainstream classes and then choose to look at the arrangements that are made for inclusion of pupils with disabilities in mainstream classes at the other schools.
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
  • speak to the class teachers and classroom assistants as well as the person who is showing you around (usually the head teacher)
  • try to observe the children in the playground as well as during lessons.  Children with autism find unstructured times like lunch and break particularly difficult so it would be useful to know what activities are available and how involved the playground staff are in the children's play
  • the school will probably tell you about how they plan each child's education and what kind of assessments they do, but try to look at example paperwork so that you can see how relevant it is to your child
  • take your child with you to visit at least one school to see how they cope in a particular school environment. This may add to any stress involved and make evaluating the school difficult, but most schools will want to meet your child before offering them a place
  • take a partner, friend or relative who knows your child with you when you visit schools
  • try to talk to parents of other children at the school about their experience of talking with teachers and other staff about any concerns they have had. Be aware that some parents will have had negative experiences, but these won't necessarily be relevant to you or your child. 
If you may live in remote areas and have few schools available to your child locally, you may want to consider the distance they will have to travel. Alternatively, your child may spend time at the home of each parent and you may want to choose a school that is easily accessible from both. These are valid considerations as lengthy journeys will have an impact on your child's education.

Some families want their child to attend a school that will have awareness of their cultural needs. All special and mainstream schools are required by law to have regard to a child's cultural background and must not discriminate against them on the basis of this.

Make a shortlist

Narrow your choice down to just two or three schools which you feel are acceptable. They don't all have to be perfect, as long as you can see your child being happy and settled there.
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. It’s important to feel that you would be able to communicate effectively with school should problems arise. 
Be open-minded about the future, it’s 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. If your child finds that a school doesn't suit them then you always have the option of moving them. 
Although change is difficult for autistic children, this does not necessarily mean that it can always be avoided. Early planning for your child or young person’s transition can help them to feel less anxious about the process.  

Further help from our charity

Whatever setting you choose, educational provision needs to be appropriately resourced. All schools can expect to teach autistic children and should have the understanding, resources, training and specialist support needed. 
If you would like more information on you and your child’s rights 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.
Last reviewed: 23 February 2016.