Choosing between a mainstream and a specialist 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 co-ordinator (SENCO) 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 education 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.
Your child or young person will usually need a statement of special educational needs or an education, health and care plan to access a placement at a special school.
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 to 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 socialising with children who have similar needs. Will they be able to also be able to mix with neurotypical 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.