The numbers are stark. Students with autism have only a one in four chance of continuing their education after school, according to research carried out for the parent-run group Ambitious about Autism. But now colleges are joining the charity's campaign to transform opportunities for autistic people in the FE sector.
According to Ambitious about Autism, school education for autistic students has improved hugely since the 1996 Education Act introduced new rights for parents and children. But the charity is calling for the right to specialist support to be extended to the age of 25, as promised in the special educational needs (SEN) green paper.
As a measure of how far colleges have to go, about 70 per cent of children with autism study in mainstream schools, but the figure falls to around 20 per cent in FE. "We are facing a desperate gap," the charity said in its report, Finished at School: where next for young people with autism?
Families and young people describe facing a "black hole" after school. "They tell us it's like falling off a cliff," said Mark Atkinson, the charity's director of communications, policy and research.
The result is that 85 per cent of adults with autism are unemployed and social services face bills of pound;27.5 billion to support them.
Ambitious about Autism's campaign has won backing from 65 MPs, as well as academics and SEN teachers. The latest organisations to offer their support are the Association of Colleges (AoC), the 157 Group of FE colleges and the Association of School and College Leaders.
"Many colleges are actively engaged in supporting young people with autism and other disabilities to continue their learning in the community, to help them to live independently and enter appropriate employment," said Fiona McMillan, president of the AoC. "But there are currently barriers that make this very difficult."
One per cent of children in the UK are affected by autism, a neurological condition that causes problems with communication, understanding of social situations and imagination.
Among the difficulties in creating provision for young people with the condition is a funding system that is based on qualifications, Mr Atkinson said. It means that, too often, they are put on unchallenging foundation learning courses. Instead, the charity proposes that the shift to funding by outcomes could be used to reward progress towards independent living and employment.
Colleges should also be able to replicate the mixed provision available in schools, where students often attend specialist provision for part of the week and engage in mainstream learning for the remainder. At the moment, funding rules prevent students with autism from dividing their time between a specialist college and a general FE college or creating supported learning opportunities through apprenticeships or university study. Ofsted has reported that some areas offer "very limited" opportunities for people with autism beyond the age of 19.
Ambitious about Autism is also calling for an autism specialist to be placed in every college, after many FE teachers said their training had left them unprepared. Almost half said that the training had merely been "awareness raising", rather than offering them strategies to help students with autism.
Despite these problems, some colleges offer excellent support. Bullied at school, one student left at the age of 15 to attend Barnet and Southgate College, where he was able to take specialist courses to prepare him for vocational provision in cookery. Now he works in the college restaurant, acts as a student representative and dreams of being the next Jamie Oliver. The charity points to him as "an inspirational example of how an autistic student can achieve and thrive within an FE environment".