Latest theories about the education of autistic children will be the subject of a major investigation by local and central government next year. The move has been prompted by the increasing numbers of parents with autistic children who are insisting that the expensive Higashi school in America is the only option for their children, and putting pressure on cash-strapped local councils to pay for it. The Higashi school charges Pounds 57,000 a year per pupil.
Local authorities feel they need more substantial and objective research to refer to when parents argue that the Higashi is the only suitable school, and more information about what the school and other methods achieve in the long term.
The Local Government Association expects a research project to start in April and run for a year. Negotiations are under way with the Department for Education and Employment about the size of the Government's contribution, and the National Foundation for Education Research is currently working out the methodology and will come up with a costed proposal shortly.
A preliminary investigation, to end in March, will begin in the next few weeks.
The researchers will talk to parents, pupils, schools, psychologists and experts on autism. All approaches to the education of these children will be considered, including the Higashi school's "daily life therapy". Autism is a developmental disorder that severely affects communication, social relationships and imagination. Many of the children have serious learning and behavioural problems.
The Higashi method involves rigorous physical exercise and routine. It has had remarkable success in improving behaviour and independence, though critics argue that it does not address the intellectual problems of autism and question whether the benefits are sustainable once the pupil leaves the school.
The decision to investigate follows a big meeting about autism at the LGA in September which was attended by officers from 61 local authorities. In particular, they discussed recent cases involving Solihull and Ealing councils. In July, Solihull was told by a High Court judge that it must continue to pay for a four-year-old autistic boy (James Finn) to attend the Higashi school, though the same judge ruled against two other sets of parents (Julie Richardson from Solihull and Angela White from Ealing) asking for funding for the school.
The minutes of the LGA meeting reveal that the councils discussed "absence of objective research into Higashi methods" which made it "difficult to defend professional judgments".
They also suggested that Education Secretary David Blunkett's "personal interest in autism and the Higashi school in particular added to the pressure" and that all press coverage painted the councils in an adverse light.
The situation has arisen partly because of the shortage of specialist places for autistic children in this country.
The National Autistic Society runs five schools and 12 units, but as a charity its funds are limited. Most autistic children attend special units within other special schools, or schools for a variety of learning disabilities. Parents find that provision varies dramatically across the country, and are likely to suspect that the investigation will merely provide justification for cost-cutting.
The LGA meeting also agreed that SLD (severe learning difficulties) special schools were no longer good enough for autistic children, and that efforts were needed to improve the curriculum and develop better links with social services and health. "Generally there was a feeling that special needs lobbies and law firms were making the running," according to minutes of the meeting.
Higashi, which means "hope" in Japanese, was devised in Tokyo in 1969 by Dr Kiyo Kitahara. The Boston school was opened in 1987.
Parents want a Higashi school in Britain, but a recent invitation extended to the Higashi school by the National Autistic Society to co-operate with them in opening a Higashi-style school in Scotland was turned down. The NAS published a report last year on the Higashi school. It found much good practice, but questioned whether improvements in behaviour "could be sustained or generalised, particularly if the central underpinning structures were removed".
There are approximately 115,000 severely autistic people in the UK.