Struan House School in Alloa, owned and run by the Scottish Society for Autistic Children, has become a centre of expertise for a condition which, although incurable, is attracting increased attention as more emphasis is placed on improving pupils' communicative competence.
The school, which caters for the full 5-18 age range, will use a new cottage to provide opportunities for independent living. The four residents are aged 14 to 16 and two members of staff are with them at all times. They plan their own menus, shop and do the cleaning.
The intensive staffing regime explains the fees of Pounds 24,000 a year at Struan House which was established almost 20 years ago. It claims to be the only one in Scotland which is fully accredited under the quality programme run by the National Autistic Society.
Donald Liddell, chief executive in Scotland, said awareness of autism had improved noticeably in the past five years. Attitudes had been helped by the film The Rain Man, which starred Dustin Hoffman.
But Janet Stirling, the school's deputy head, says one disadvantage from the increased publicity was that "there are still people who believe that all autistic people have incredible memories or numerical skills like the Dustin Hoffman character. The truth is that they have a wide range of ability. "
The HMI report issued in June on the education of pupils with language and communication disorders estimated that there could be up to 16,000 young people aged under 20 facing such difficulties in Scotland, with severe forms of autism accounting for almost 500 children from pre-school to secondary school age. The society says there are 8,000 sufferers in Scotland, 15 in every 10,000 of the population.
Mr Liddell believes detection is possible as young as 18 months. "So far as we know, autism is incurable. There is constant research going on but no clear view as to the cause of autism, whether it is genetically transmitted or whether it is the result of brain damage. There is a whole variety of theories. A very high proportion of children with autism also suffer from some other form of illness and a great many have limited speech and communication skills. "
While Struan House aims to teach independence and life skills, many of the pupils will never lead fully independent lives. One recent exception is now at university and has passed his driving test.
The Scottish Office is currently awaiting the findings of a Pounds 35, 000 research project on educational provision for autistic children commissioned last year from Birmingham University. Led by Rita Jordan, lecturer in autism at Birmingham's School of Education, the remit was to provide information on existing provision and outline the most appropriate ways in which schools could meet the needs of autistic youngsters.
Local authorities have also been paying increasing attention to pupils' communication problems and are setting up specialist centres of their own. Glasgow is one of the latest to consider establishing a unit attached to a secondary school, if only to avoid the Pounds 42,000 cost of sending four pupils this session to attend a specialist centre in Cumbernauld High, North Lanarkshire.