Councils should set up a service for autistic children, researchers have concluded after an investigation revealed that existing support may only be reaching one in three children who have the disorder.
The report by the School of Education at Birmingham University, which was awarded a Pounds 35,000 contract by the previous government, says pinpointing the extent of autism and therefore determining need is being partially frustrated by the absence of national data.
Councils should consider an outreach service or unit specifically to support children with autism or the related Asperger syndrome, the research suggests. Smaller councils could enter into joint arrangements. The aim would be "to centralise a steady build-up of information on autism, along with expertise on teaching children with autism effectively". The report states: "Without a specific resource on autism in the form of outreach staff or a unit, the task of accessing information and training becomes much more difficult."
The research team, headed by Rita Jordan, lecturer in autism at the School of Education, contacted the 12 former regional councils in 1995-96 and identified 780 autistic children. One informed estimate is that there are 22 sufferers in every 10,000 under-19s, which produces a figure of 2,721 children for Scotland. If the full range of "autistic spectrum disorders" is as high as another estimate of 58 per 10,000, more than 7,000 children could be affected.
Autistic spectrum disorders, popularised in Dustin Hoffman's film The Rainman, are defined as difficulties in all aspects of communication, difficulties in interacting with children and adults, and difficulties in flexible thinking and behaviour. The researchers say they insisted on all three features being present before accepting a child as autistic.
Scotland has three specialist schools for autistic children, Struan House in Alloa, Middlefield in Glasgow and Lendrick Muir, near Kinross. There are a further seven units. A total of 156 children attended such provision. The units are largely for primary pupils and the report questions whether any thought has been given to their education when they reach secondary age.
The researchers identified 117 special schools and units or mainstream schools that did not specialise in autism but estimated they had 430 children with the disorder.
The report enters a note of caution that the placement in mainstream classes of children with Asperger syndrome, described as "high functioning autism", must be regularly reviewed. The authors acknowledge the benefits for autistic children of mixing with pupils who have good social and communication skills but point to potential difficulties for the children, their families and the staff.
One of the biggest problems in providing adequate support for autism in mainstream schools was the training of staff. The most common approach was to use auxiliaries, sometimes supported by outreach work from a specialist school or unit, which further emphasises the importance of expanding the expertise.
The Scottish Society for Autistic Children has been concerned that training efforts amount to little more than crisis management and it is now working to develop relationships with partner schools which are offered a programme of targeted training and support.
The researchers sought the views of 116 parents and discovered tensions between home and school. While 48 per cent of parents rated the school's understanding of autism as fairly good or good, 41 per cent said it was only adequate or less so. Some 84 per cent of parents were concerned about their child's future placement. The report states: "Links between schools and adult life need to be strengthened and there needs to be better long-term planning, involving all appropriate agencies, at all the stages of transition between primary and secondary schools, and between schools and adult facilities. "
Educational Provision for Children with Autism in Scotland is available from the Scottish Office research and intelligence unit (Interchange series), Victoria Quay, Edinburgh EH6 6QQ. The full report (price Pounds 12) is obtainable from Rita Jordan and Glenys Jones, School of Education, Birmingham University, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT.