Parents of children on the Autism Spectrum

Types of schooling

Parents talked about how they had decided where to send their child/ren to school. They considered a range of different schools including mainstream primary and secondary schools, special schools, specialist units, private and residential schools. A few had chosen to educate their children at home. For many parents it had been difficult to find a school that could give their child/ren the right support at different stages of his/her development. Some of the children were very intelligent, for example, but had difficulties with social skills and sensory sensitivities which made large secondary schools unsuitable for them; others at the more severe end of spectrum started in special schools at primary school age and continued in this system through their school years.


Choosing a suitable school is an important decision for most parents. Those we interviewed had visited different schools, imagining their children in the different settings. Even if a child has a statement of special needs they may not get a place at the school of their choice, parents can only give a preference. Some parents felt that no appropriate schools were available and they worried about their children’s education.

Special schooling
Overall, parents whose children were in special schools talked positively about their children’s experiences of education, even though a few parents had felt upset when they realised that their children would not be able to cope in mainstream education. The children were in a mix of schools for moderate learning difficulties or severe learning disabilities.

Parents valued special schools because of small classes, secure environments, and teachers who understood their children and were trained to teach children the skills they needed, such as learning to sit still. Some parents thought that their children would have been disruptive in a mainstream school with larger class sizes or aggressive with other children. One mother, for example, had changed her mind about sending her child to a mainstream nursery after a teaching assistant asked her what autism was. Another mother was pleased when her son transferred from a mainstream primary school to a special school because he was at the same level as the other children and no longer felt different.

Some children were in special schools linked to mainstream schools, so that children could move between various sites, which both they and their parents liked. Their children interacted with children in both settings while still having the security and support of the special school. Other children were in specialist autism units attached to mainstream sites and their parents felt this educational setting suited them.

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Mainstream schooling
Many children were in mainstream schools and parents’ views of these were mixed. Some were pleased that their children were learning from the other children and they felt that teachers expected more from their children. Some schools were flexible and allowed the children time to settle in, for example by allowing them to attend for half days. Many of the children coped well in mainstream primary schools where they had one teacher and did not have to cope with much change during the school day.

Some of the children found the transition to secondary school very difficult (or parents described their worries about their children’s forthcoming transition). This is discussed further in ‘Difficulties with education’ but concerns were about the size of the secondary school, the difficult environment for the children because of class changes and different teachers and, in some cases, the lack of adjustment made by the school to help the children. As some parents said, inclusion should be about individual needs rather than fitting the children into an existing system.

Some parents sent their children to private schools because of the smaller class size. In some cases this worked well and the children settled down well. Others found that the emphasis on academic achievements and exam results meant that their children were not given the appropriate support and they moved them into state schooling.

Residential schooling
A few of the children had experiences of residential specialist schools for children on the spectrum funded by their local authority and these were largely positive. Parents chose residential schools because they felt that this setting best suited their children, particularly managing their challenging behaviour.

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Home schooling
A few parents had decided to educate their children at home (see also ‘Therapies). This was either because they wanted to use a particular therapy, such as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), which involves one to one teaching with volunteer teachers, or because their children were bullied badly at school. One father whose son has hyperlexia and autism removed his son from school because the staff did not understand how to teach him and his health deteriorated.

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Some children had been excluded from school at the time of the interview, or their parents had removed them from a school they did not think was appropriate and were trying to find a more appropriate setting for them.

As many people we interviewed told us, the autism spectrum includes a range of different abilities and the range of different types of schooling reflects this. There was little support or advice to help parents choose the most appropriate school for their children and, in some cases, parents had to move their children from school to school or remove them from the education system altogether. Other aspects of education are discussed further in ‘Difficulties with education andFurther education.

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Last reviewed July 2017.

Last updated November 2010.


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