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Should parents and LEAs consider independent schooling for children with ASD?

Young people with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum need learning opportunities in environments that recognise the challenges they face on a daily basis and provide them with strategies to manage their anxieties; with so many students having a comorbid diagnosis, there is a need to constantly evaluate the learning experiences they receive. The additional expertise which occupational therapists and speech and language therapists can provide is essential in ensuring an approach to learning that fully meets the diverse needs of individuals with an autism spectrum diagnosis.

Employability and the skills for independent living are a priority for individuals on the spectrum. Current research shows that only 15 per cent1 of young people with an autism spectrum diagnosis are in sustained, full-time employment. This statistic needs to be changed. Joint working with parents is paramount in achieving the best outcomes for young people on the spectrum. Without open communication and discussion with parents it is not possible to gain their support, respect and trust – all of which are vital in supporting children to move forward in their learning. The only way to ensure that these needs are met is through considering alternative options to integrating young people on the autism spectrum in mainstream schools.

Innovation in practice

Autism is thought to affect around 700,000 people in the UK – that’s 2.5 million family members who deal with autism in one way or another.2 This means that a remarkable number of students in the UK need extra support from the early years and all the way through until school leaving age.

Independent provision has come a long way since the years of institutionalisation. Many independent schools have developed new and innovative approaches to helping students diagnosed with autism and Asperger’s related conditions. Through a structured environment and an approach that develops their independence and confidence, students can be equipped with the skills needed for employment and dealing with the complexities of day to day life.

Children on the autism spectrum require a different approach to learning; this primarily involves a structured routine and some one-on-one time with teachers. In a mainstream school, integrated children with SEN support often only receive an hour or so a day of SEN schooling; for the rest of the day they spend their time with the other students and teachers who are often unaware of the imperative to, or are simply unable to, change their behaviour or teaching style according to the child’s individual needs. Just as every human being is different, the way autism manifests itself in individuals is highly unique. The well known saying in autism circles – “when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism” – effectively highlights the very individual and unique presentation of each person on the spectrum. These differences can include being unable to interpret body language or facial expression, taking a literal understanding of verbal language, and displaying signs of anxiety, paranoia, and in extreme cases, aggression.

Meeting needs

Over the years, local authorities and schools have worked together to enable those on the autistic spectrum to receive the assistance and help that they need. At present, the majority of children with autism go to mainstream schools. Some students do well; however, there are some that do not. This creates a burden not only on the schools, but also on parents and society as a whole. LEAs are in charge of assessing children and deciding where they fit in with regards to special educational needs. Once assessed, a child is given a certain amount of funding and is placed either in a maintained school or in an independent school.

The primary choice is for children to be assigned to a mainstream school, where a few also receive the help of a learning support assistant (LSA). The child attends classes with the other students and will receive an hour or two of face-to-face time with designated SEN teachers. Additionally, for each new school year, children must start from scratch. This becomes problematic for those on the autism spectrum as they have to readjust all over again, which takes time. While a lot of children develop a relationship with their LSA where they feel comfortable and relaxed – a difficult task for many children on the autism spectrum – it is incredibly difficult if not impossible for the child with autism to begin to feel comfortable with a new teacher each year. What’s more, if children are being moved to classes where teaching staff are not fully understanding of the types of interventions that can help pupils with autism, this can exacerbate the problems faced. Pupils can become uncomfortable in class, often leading to loud and angry outbursts or withdrawal and, increasingly, exclusions. In the UK, one in five children with autism have been excluded from school, many more than once3.

Pressures on funding

Creative solutions must be found that not only address specific autism requirements but also look at providing a measurable return on investment; LEAs should consider funding independent provision which has the capacity and capability to educate young people with ASD and help them develop life-long skills to improve their employability. Though independent specialist schools have been overlooked by LEAs in the past due to the need for extra funding, what these schools achieve in educating and preparing students for the future offers a greater return in the long run. The success of specialist schools means that fewer young people with autism become unemployed adults, reducing stress on parents and the support needed from the state. In the short term, they may not appear to be financially viable; however, in the long term, the use of independent centres is a financially viable option for LEAs, not least because they better provide children with SEN with the life skills to become independent.

Furthermore, the number of parents seeking support for their child overwhelms many LEAs, with some turning away children because there are just too many who need their support. As distressing as this is for families, it is also a drain on school and LEA budgets. In the 2009/2010 school year, LEAs spent £313 million on special educational needs, whilst the schools SEN budget accounted for £1,456 million4. With this much money being invested in finding additional support for those with special educational needs, and clear issues in existing provisions, an alternative solution needs to be created. Funding is delegated to schools and there is an expectation that the school meets the needs of its pupils. The local authority may contribute more where schools appear to have done all they can reasonably do to support children with SEN. However, there is a need for clear understandings of what the schools and local authorities are expected to achieve.

Looking to the long-term

Despite the significant sums spent by LEAs and schools on supporting children with autism in mainstream education, success levels in transition from school to employment are extremely low.  According to Ambitious About Autism, 68 per cent of adults with autism do not have a full time job5. The National Autistic Society also found that 28 per cent of adults with autism surveyed in 2012 still lived at home with their parents6. The truth is that these adults have a huge amount to contribute, if they are given the opportunity. As schools are unable to provide children with autism with the necessary skills to transition into the world of work, they grow up needing constant support from their parents and many need to claim benefits. Schools and local authorities share the responsibility of finding funds to support children on the autism spectrum. Often, this leads to confusion on the part of parents, who are not clear about where the funds are coming from. Furthermore, when a particular case has been denied funding, parents often seek legal aid to help win the battle over financial and practical support for their children. This adds to the pressures on both LEAs and schools. An inclusive policy, therefore, is not always best for pupils with autism. A solution is needed that reduces the burden on both schools and LEAs and improves the educational experience of these children.

Utilising independent specialist schools is essential in ensuring that young people with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum receive the care and education that they need. LEAs will benefit from considering independent schools as an alternative to mainstream schools because of their ability to prepare students for future employment and greater independence. This really is a partnership approach, not only providing a genuine focused benefit to children and families but also providing a rewarding career for SEN specialists and an additional resource base for LEAs.

Further information

Sarah Sherwood is Director of Special Educational Needs at LVS Hassocks and LVS Oxford (opening September 2014):
www.lvs-oxford.org.uk

Footnotes

1: Rosenblatt, M., I Exist: The message from adults with autism in England, London: NAS (2008).

2: Baird, G. et al., Prevalence of disorders of the autism spectrum in a population cohort of children in South Thames: the Special Needs and Autism Project (SNAP), The Lancet (2006), 368 (9531), pp210-215.

3: Reid, B., Great Expectations. London: NAS (2011).

4: Bolton, P., Local Education Authority Spending, House of Commons Library (2010).

5: Finished at School: Where next for young people with autism? Ambitious About Autism (2011).

6: Bancroft, K., Batten, A., Lambert, S. and Madders, T., The way we are: autism in 2012, National Autistic Society (2012).

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