Autism: How to make schools better for autistic pupils

One mother describes how low expectations of pupils with additional needs marred her son’s experiences of school


Autism: How to make schools better for autistic pupils

School for my son, Sandy* was always a challenge – but this wasn’t because of his autism, as you might expect. Instead, it was down to the low expectations that the education system has of him. This is not unique to where we live, it’s an endemic problem across the UK (we have experience of the English system, too) where academic progress for children with additional support needs is discouraged.

My son has quite an unusual presentation of autism. He’s very bright and interested in learning and school, but has difficulty dressing, cooking and can’t go out on his own. He has sensory issues and struggles socially.

So he just about coped in mainstream primary school. But when it came to secondary school, it was too hard for him to manage, and we started to look at special schools. But all the special schools we saw did not offer academic opportunities, which is where Sandy’s interest lies. We were given the impression that following an academic programme and taking exams was a route that was closed off to our son. We were told that wasn’t important – instead, the most important thing was that he could manage himself. He was offered training in practical skills to help him cook and garden, things that really do not interest him. 

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We were faced with a choice: stay at school and accept low expectations or step in to do it ourselves. So, back in 2013, when Sandy was 12, I decided the only option to us was to home-educate. This, of course, had big knock-on effects for us as a family. I had to dramatically reduce my working hours. I am a translator and worked full time in an office, but cut that down to two days a week from home – so I miss out on the social aspect of working life. And, sadly, Sandy is more socially isolated because he does not benefit from the daily dose of mixing with peers that school provides.

However, despite these drawbacks, we do feel that home-educating Sandy was the right decision as academically he has thrived. Last year, he sat his IGCSEs – he could not do Scotland’s National 5 qualification as it was too coursework-based – and got two As, in English and maths, B in chemistry and physics, and a C in History. He is now working towards A levels (again, Scotland’s Highers, are too coursework based). He loves linguistics and would like to study that in the future.

Ironically, when young people get to college or university, there is a lot more support for those with additional support needs than there is at school. All the lectures are recorded, for example, and can be watched at home.

An academic route is not going to be appropriate for all children with autism or additional support needs, but I do believe that there needs to be more than one route forward for these young people. It is very difficult for those who are academically inclined to get to where they want to be, and it shouldn’t be that way.

The system needs greater flexibility and choice to meet the needs of individual young people – so that they are not restricted to just one path that is not right for all of them.

*Name has been changed.

The author is a mother from the west of Scotland whose 16-year-old son has autism. She is one of 100 parents attending an event organised in Glasgow tomorrow by Contact – a charity for families with disabled children – to explore how to improve the transition into life after school.

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