You really need that diagnosis in order to get things done, says Graeme Lawrie.
Last year, the National Autistic Society revealed NHS figures showing more than 100,000 people were waiting for an autism assessment in England—an alarming increase of 40% from the previous year. Although the process of diagnosing our neurodiverse children can be gruelling, with some arguing that it labels them and excuses bad behaviour, giving children a proper diagnosis is game-changing. In education, a proper diagnosis opens doors for neurodiverse children in which they can receive suitable support.
Getting the right diagnosis can have a significant impact on children, providing them with the right tools to flourish both in education and in their personal lives. Not only does it mean that specific services can be accurately chosen to support a child, but it also enables access to specialist schools, additional support from teaching assistants and practical adjustments that can improve day-to-day life, like using a specific taxi service to get to and from school. State teachers and SEND specialists work extremely hard to provide the right support for students; however, in many instances, it is crucial that children have the extra support they need.
With the right diagnosis, there are processes in place in education that benefit not only children, but teachers and parents too. An EHCP (Education, Health and Care Plan) is a legal document describing the special educational needs of a child. It is recognised by all schools and local authorities and means there is an obligation that the right support is provided.
For those who argue that a diagnosis is simply labelling children, I strongly disagree—a diagnosis is an important means to get things done. The earlier a diagnosis, the sooner we can help neurodiverse children before the critical primary years of education are missed. Unfortunately, processes such as the EHCP can be hard to get through the state highlighting another area we need to improve on.
Mainstream schools versus specialist schools
If you meet one child with autism, you have only met one child with autism—every neurodiverse child is different and the spectrum of different needs must be considered. Mainstream schools are filled with supportive, caring teachers but often these schools lack the funding and resources to fully support neurodiverse students in the way they need. In 2022, Ofsted found there were 7,000 primary-age pupils in alternative provision in England—they had been referred by teachers in mainstream schools due to a lack of the resources and funding.
Without the right provisions to support children with complex needs in place, neurodiverse children are forced to fit in with the school rather than the school tailoring their approach to suit their specific needs. The pressure on teachers is already at an all time high with huge classes and lack of time—taking the time to comprehensively understand and spot the signs of an undiagnosed child falls outside of their scope and experience even with all of the hard work they do to support these children where they can.
Getting a diagnosis means a child can access the specialist schools that exist to tailor their education offering to support children as individuals, moving away from the traditional route of getting education qualifications. Unfortunately, children with neurodiverse needs can often be considered disruptive but what they need is a different approach to learning.
We must consider the happiness of children in a mainstream environment as well as the impact neurodiverse children might have on other students’ education in the classroom. For me personally, it was a transformative decision moving my son, who was diagnosed with autism, to a specialist school.
The outcome of a diagnosis
A diagnosis can transform your child’s educational experience. Better understanding of a neurodiverse child’s needs means we can cater to them with fewer problems. For example, we may take a different approach to disciplining an autistic child who picks up on certain tones and body language more than other children.
It is vital that we do everything possible to prepare neurodiverse children for a neurotypical world. Importantly, teachers, parents, and peers have to meet in the middle to understand that sometimes there are no physical indicators that a child needs extra support.
A diagnosis also raises awareness among all of the stakeholders who support or are learning with a neurodiverse child. It means everyone has a better understanding as to why a child may be behaving in a different way. Ultimately, receiving a diagnosis is life-changing in how we can provide effective support for those who need it.
Graeme Lawrie MBE is Partnerships Director at ACS International Schools and Bett Advisory Board Member