Headshot photo of Tim Nicholls (Head of Policy and Public Affairs) on a grey background

The annual Schools and Academies Show falls in the middle of World Autism Awareness Week. In this blog, Tim Nicholls, our Head of Policy and Public Affairs, says this is an opportunity for education professionals to hear about what being at school is like for children and young people on the autism spectrum.


I will be representing the National Autistic Society at the show this week. I will be talking about how schools could work better for autistic children, so they are no longer held back from achieving their potential. I will make the point that autism is a hidden disability – you can’t always see that someone is autistic. It affects children in a variety of ways, and there are many things that teachers and education-planners can do to support autistic children who are struggling at school.

I will also highlight the education services our charity provides – our network of schools that offer specialist support to children with complex needs, the training and outreach we offer to mainstream and special schools, the online teaching resources for education professionals, and our Education Rights Service that offers specialist advice to parents and helps them to navigate the often-confusing SEND system.

Autism and schools

Around 1 in 100 school children are on the autism spectrum. In England, more than 70% of these children are educated in mainstream schools. Every school will have autistic children at some point, and every teacher will teach an autistic child.

It’s vital that autistic children’s needs are understood by all those who teach them.

Autism is the most common type of special educational need among children and young people who have an education, health and care (EHC) plan. Figures from the Department for Education show that 27% of pupils who have an EHC plan have autism as their main type of need.

But we know that too many children on the autism spectrum are being let down by the education system in England.

Parliamentary inquiry

Surveys carried out by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism (APPGA) during an inquiry into autism and the education system in 2017 found that:

  • Fewer than half of the children who responded say they are happy at school.
  • Fewer than half of teachers say they are confident about supporting a child on the autism spectrum.
  • 40% of parents say that their child’s school place does not fully meet their needs, and 50% of children wait more than a year for support to be put in place for them at school.
  • 60% of young people and 70% of parents say the main thing that would make school better for them is having a teacher who understands autism.

The APPGA heard from a council leader that the experience of trying to get support at school for an autistic child is “an inherently hard process that circumstances conspire to make harder”.

A teacher who contributed to the inquiry also said, “Autistic pupils are probably the SEN group I need the most guidance with and have received the least guidance on.” And one parent spoke for many when they said, “We are stuck in a system that wants the child to fail before help is offered.” And Sam Tanner, a young autistic man who went to Parliament to talk to the APPGA about the experience of being at school, memorably described it as being “like a fish in a tank of piranhas”.

All of these statistics and insights show just how important it is that the Government acts to make sure no autistic child is held back from achieving their potential.

New national strategy

Our ‘Held Back’ education campaign highlighted this evidence. Alongside our supporters (over 20,000 people signed our open letter), we called for a national autism and education strategy to improve the education and support that autistic children receive.

The Government has agreed to extend the national autism strategy this year to include children and young people for the first time. This is as a vital opportunity to make sure autistic children in England get the support they need. We want that strategy, among other things, to focus on two important recommendations from our report: understanding autism and planning support.

Understanding autism

Schools and local authorities still do not understand well enough what it means to be autistic, and what support a child might need to enable them to thrive and make progress at school. A child’s anxiety – caused by their autism – is too often misunderstood as ‘bad behaviour’, and children on the autism spectrum are three times more likely than children with no special educational needs to be excluded from school.

We believe that every teacher needs training in autism, both before they qualify and throughout their career. A good understanding of autism needs to be embedded across every school, beginning at the top with the headteacher and governors.

Planning support

Far too many children have to fail before they get a school place that properly meets their needs.

Two groups of autistic children who are currently not well served by the education system are secondary school pupils who are academically able but who struggle to cope in a mainstream secondary school environment, and children who have a learning disability and whose behaviour is perceived as challenging.

For children to succeed, the right schools, services and support must be available in their area. Schools, local councils and other organisations should work together to plan ahead for what children will need. There should be a wide range of provision, because children have a wide range of needs.

What next?

Right now, the APPGA and our charity are carrying out another inquiry, to find out more about what should go into the Government’s next autism strategy. We need you to help us by filling out our survey so that we can make the right recommendations. The survey closes at the end of this week!

Take our survey