Finding a school place should be your first priority for your child following an autism diagnosis. Given the diverse support needs of the autistic community, autistic children may attend special schools or autism classes within mainstream schools.
In this section, we’ll outline definitions for both special school and autism class. We will also discuss procedures for securing a place and the supports and services your child can expect under current legislation.
Throughout this page there are links to helpful videos from AsIAm’s YouTube site.
Finding the right school place for your child, whether it’s a mainstream place, autism class or special school, can take some time so the most important thing to do is to start your research early. Remember, you do not have to stick with your local schools, there are over 3,000 primary schools and over 700 secondary schools in the country, there are plenty to choose from. Start by researching your local schools and then if you do not find anything that suits your child’s needs then you can look at other schools outside of your area.
Begin your research by looking at the schools website. Look into the schools policies and procedures, if they are not available on the website then send them an email to see if they can be sent to you. Reading these procedures can be useful for generating a list of questions that you might want to ask the school based on your child’s needs. Another great place to start your research is by searching for inspection reports on the school on the Department of Education’s website. Sometimes a school might have a detailed SEN (Special Education Needs) report or you can look at an overall school inspection. Inspection reports are really useful sources of objective information about the school’s ability to provide supports to students with additional needs. They will enable you to see how the school discusses how they meet the needs of students with additional support needs and help you begin to generate questions around your own son or daughter’s needs.
If you believe that mainstream schooling is not appropriate for your child, you can contact your local SENO for advice.
They will be able to give you information on local special schools and autism classes. They will also be able to give you advice on your child’s entitlements and what would constitute an appropriate school place for your child, once they have access to supporting documents about your child from one or more professionals.
You are entitled to send your child to any school in the country provided there is enough space for them. Unfortunately, the amount of applications a school receives often exceeds their capacity. If this is the case, the schools give priority to applications based on their admissions or enrollment policy. For example, sometimes students could be given priority if their siblings have attended the same school, or their parents are past pupils. You will need to fill in the schools application forms and then you will wait until the school offers are released. It might be a good idea to apply to a number of schools that you feel would meet your child’s needs in order to ensure that your child won’t miss out on the opportunity to find a school that suits them.
There are a number of different types of school and it is important that you consider the options available to you to ensure you get the best match for your child. Consider whether single sex or co-ed schooling might be best for your child. If your child has attended a single sex primary school, consider again what type of school will be best for them when beginning in secondary school. Moving from a single sex school to a co-ed or mixed school can become a cause of anxiety for young people. However, on the other hand, sometimes attending a mixed school can be useful for helping to improve socialization and social skills in particular by mixing with different types of people. While your child might feel most comfortable in a single sex school, because that is what they have known to date, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is what is best for them and what is going to help them build the skills they need for independent living. Get your child involved in the decision making process as much as possible, if you are looking for a secondary school for your child, ask them what it is they are hoping for in their secondary school experience. Get your child involved in the decision at a level that is appropriate for them. Also consider whether denominational or multi-denominational education is the route you want your child to take.
The best choice you can make for your child is one that is the most informed. You should be informed about what the school can provide for your child, your child should be informed about the school environment and the school should be informed about the needs of your child and how they can best support him or her.
School culture is an important factor to take into consideration when finding a school place for your child: regardless of Autism diagnosis, any child needs a school where they can feel welcome and supported. You should look for a school that has a great sense of inclusion. Sometimes it can be difficult to grasp a school’s culture but there are a number of ways you might notice the culture of inclusivity in a school.
Sometimes it is as simple as an instinct or gut feeling, you must trust how you feel, you know your child better than anyone else! Another indicator of a school’s culture is the language that they use. Examine the language that a school uses in their policy documents and also when they are speaking with you about your child’s needs. Additionally, observe how your child is being discussed, speaking about people in a person-centered approach creates an inclusive culture. A school should place your child at the center of all decisions, decisions don’t happen for your child, they happen with your child. Is your child invited to attend meetings you arrange with the school? At a secondary school level, are the staff members speaking directly to your child, asking them what they want?
Your child is the best person to explain their own needs. School culture and inclusivity is also tangible in the accessibility, how easy is it for your child to access supports or resources? It is important that a school is willing to form a relationship with you as a parent and your child, being transparent about their abilities to support your child, and are actively engaging with the challenges they and your child are presented with.
A special school provides specific intervention and teaching approaches for students with particular types of disabilities and additional needs. These include mild to moderate GLDs, visual and/or hearing impairments, physical disabilities and EBDs. Autistic students, if their needs are particularly complex, may attend a special school.
In special schools, class sizes are kept small so that staff can attend effectively to their students’ needs. As well as teaching staff, other specialist staff may also be present in a special school (such as OTs, SLTs, nurses, etc.) where appropriate.
The learning and development activities delivered in a special school are directly informed by the needs of the students.
A classroom within a mainstream school can be set aside specifically to teach children who have a diagnosis of autism. This is known as an autism class.
Remember when finding a school place for your child that the number of children in an autism class is usually quite small, so that the teaching and support staff can attend effectively to their students’ needs.
Autism classes can be set up in both primary and secondary schools, where the need is apparent. The needs of the children attending an autism class will vary greatly from one child to the next. One child may need to spend the majority of their day in the autism class, learning from a curriculum that has been specially tailored to meet their needs. Another child, on the other hand, may need to be in the autism class for a short period during each day, and can participate in the mainstream curriculum once they have access to this support.
It is important to note that all children availing of a school place in an autism class are entitled to dual enrollment, regardless of their needs. This means they will have access to a seat in the autism class and a seat in the mainstream class every day.
From both primary and secondary school students it can be helpful to visit the school you hope your child will attend in advance of them starting. It will allow your child to become familiar with the learning environment and provide you with an opportunity to ask any questions you may have and to get to know the team that will be supporting your child. Finding an appropriate school place before your child has received an autism diagnosis can be complicated but there are options. Before beginning at primary school, your child may not yet have received a formal diagnosis but you should contact the school regardless and they are very likely to be more than happy to meet with you.
At a secondary level, schools will usually host an open day where 6th class students, and occasionally 5th class students, will be invited on a tour of the school. Many of the subject teachers will be there to briefly describe their subjects to the potential students and answer any questions that the students or their parents might have.
For someone who is autistic, they might find the open day experience quite overwhelming. The school is likely to be happy to welcome you and your child to visit the school on a quiet day or perhaps after hours to tour the school and ask any questions you might have. It can be very useful to visit the principal or the special needs coordinator of the school so that both you and your child can start to build a relationship with the school.
Visiting the school in advance of starting can be beneficial for your child to get used to the physical environment of the school. Visiting the school will allow your child to see what the different classrooms are like, what the bathrooms are like, what the yard is like and even things like lighting, sounds and smells. As a parent, let the school know what might bother your child in terms of the school environment. Be unapologetic about explaining that elements of the environment will cause anxiety for your child, whether it be the paint colours in the corridors or the flickering lights.
A child with AEN is eligible for the School Transport Scheme which is funded by the DES. They may avail of this Scheme once they are attending their nearest recognized special school or autism class in a mainstream school.
Applications for school transport can be made to the school principal, who will contact the local SENO on your behalf. Once the SENO has reviewed the application, they will forward the application to the School Transport Section of the DES.
A SENO works for the NCSE, undertaking the role of processing applications for additional supports (such as allocating SNA supports / appropriate school places) for pupils with SEN. They are a key point of contact with in finding a special school place or autism class place.
Each SENO is allocated to a fixed number of primary and post-primary schools within a geographical area. They will decide on behalf of the NCSE what supports are best suited to a particular child’s needs and entitlements.