When a child receives a diagnosis of autism it is a life-changing moment. Many families seeking answers will have already faced a long and arduous journey just to get a diagnosis – with waiting times for assessments often taking years. They rightly think that with an official diagnosis finally in hand the hard part is over, but sadly for many parents, they are mistaken. Instead it is the start of a new battle with an education system that continues to let down children with autism.
We can see this in the large numbers of pupils with autism excluded from schools, the fact that fewer than 1 in 4 young people with autism go onto college or university, and ultimately the fact that only 16% of people with autism are in full-time paid employment.
This is a generation of young people with so much potential and promise to give back to society – but instead they are slipping through the cracks of an education system that can’t support their needs. It’s a tragedy.
For real change to happen we need to get it right for children with autism, right from the start. Key to this is ensuring that an autism diagnosis automatically triggers an assessment of children’s educational needs. While not perfect, Education Health and Care (EHC) plans can be a crucial way to ensure children have the right support in place at school, such as extra help in the classroom or a dedicated key worker. At the moment it’s left up to parents to take information about their child’s autism diagnosis to the local authority and school and press their case for an assessment – immediately putting them on the backfoot and braced for yet more waiting.
If information about children’s autism diagnosis was passed automatically between local health and education services, the result would be so much smoother, with children’s needs assessed much more promptly. After all it is supposed to be an integrated plan across all the services involved.
Parents shouldn’t face a battle to get their child into a school environment that gives them the support they need to thrive and achieve. But our research shows us that for many, this is the grim reality. Over 1,000 parents are forced to take legal action every year to get the right educational support for their child – and overwhelmingly they win. Parents are fighting for an EHC assessment to take place in the first place, or challenging the level of support or type of school that has been decided for their child.
These are parents that had put their faith in the belief that the education system is there for all pupils, only to be told there are no places for children ‘like theirs’. It’s the beginning of an uphill struggle against what can often seem an intractable – and uncaring - system.
We need this to change if young people with autism are to thrive. It shouldn’t be difficult for these young people to access the right educational support for them – be that in mainstream or specialist provision.
Over the last 21 years, Ambitious about Autism has set up and run pioneering schools and colleges for children and young people with autism across the spectrum. The evidence shows that our model works and every day we see children learn, thrive and achieve. We need this to be a reality for all children with autism – whatever their school environment or learning needs. As the number of young people with autism in schools continues to grow – currently over 100,000 – we need to get better at supporting their needs, or we risk jeopardising the future of a generation.
Ambitious about Autism’s ‘We Do Need an Education’ campaign is calling for better access to education for children and young people with autism. Find out more here: https://www.ambitiousaboutautism.org.uk/we-do-need-an-education-sign-the-pledge or follow the hashtag #weneedaneducation