A court has delivered a landmark verdict in a school exclusion case, which could help future generations of autistic children get the education they deserve. 

The ruling makes clear for the first time that all schools must make sure they have made appropriate adjustments for autistic children, or those with other disabilities, before they can resort to exclusion. 

The National Autistic Society intervened in this case, brought by the family of an autistic child, to challenge a loophole in the Equality Act that meant schools didn’t have to make reasonable adjustments for disabled children when they have a ’tendency to physical abuse’ - even when that behaviour is down to a lack of appropriate support. We believed this loophole was letting autistic students down, leading to unfair exclusions and holding them back from getting the education that they need. 

In a ruling of the Upper Tribunal, the judge found that this “violates the [European Convention on Human Rights] right of children with a recognised condition that is more likely to result in a ‘tendency to physical abuse’ not to be discriminated against.” This means that children cannot be excluded for behaviour that is linked to their autism, if no steps had been taken to put the right support in place. Not only is this a great outcome for the individual child in this case, but for thousands of other autistic children and their families.

We believe that children should only ever be excluded as a last resort. We have been campaigning on this issue for years and are delighted that the courts agree with this position and that the law, as it stood, meant that autistic children were at risk of being excluded without reasonable adjustments being made.

This judgment is a powerful recognition of the rights of autistic children and many other disabled children. We believe the Government should respect the court’s decision and clarify this change in the law to schools across the country as soon as possible.

Jane Harris, Director of External Affairs at the National Autistic Society, said: “This is a landmark verdict which could transform the prospects of future generations of children on the autism spectrum, by helping them get the education they deserve. The Government should recognise this decision and act immediately to make sure that autistic children are no longer unfairly excluded from school.

"We intervened in this case to try to close a legal loophole, which saw far too many children excluded from school. Before this judgment, schools were able to exclude pupils who have a ‘tendency to physical abuse’, even if the school had made no adjustments to meet their needs.

“There are around 120,000 school aged children on the autism spectrum in England.  Being autistic means someone sees, hears and feels the world in a different, often more intense way than other people, which can make school an overwhelming place. Without the right support, things like having a quiet place to retreat to when it gets too much or adapting communication strategies to their needs, autistic children can become highly anxious. In some cases, children can become so overwhelmed that they can’t control their behaviour, which others can misinterpret as them being naughty or disruptive, when in fact they're extremely distressed.

“Exclusions should only happen as a last resort, when schools have tried every other practical solution. But the loophole meant that there was not enough incentive for schools to make necessary reasonable adjustments. And some schools resort far too quickly to exclusions. This contributes to children on the autism spectrum being three times more likely to be excluded than children without special educational needs. 
"Exclusions can have a devastating and life-long impact on an autistic child, holding back their learning and emotional development, as well as their long-term prospects. We hope the Government will respect the court’s well-considered judgement, make any further changes to the law if needed and give hope to thousands of autistic children and their families.”

More information

The National Autistic Society was represented by Clifford Chance LLP and Nick Armstrong from Matrix Chambers. We thank them for their support in the case. You can find out more about why we got involved in this case in this blog from our Education Policy Officer, Catriona Moore. 

If you’re looking for help getting the right education for your child, we have lots of information and tips on our website.

We also run an Education Rights Service, which offers impartial and confidential support to families on school education rights and entitlements.