The National Autistic Society is calling on the government to ensure that all school staff are trained and educated about autism, after research by the charity revealed that just one in seven (14%) secondary school teachers have received autism training.

This is a shocking statistic considering that nearly three quarters (73%) of the 180,000 autistic pupils in England are educated in mainstream schools.

A lack of training for teachers are other staff is causing discontent among autistic pupils, with just a quarter (26%) happy at school, and 74% of parents or carers of autistic children saying their child’s school is failing to meet their needs, according to their new Education Report 2023.

Without the right support, autistic pupils twice as likely to be excluded from school

The charity’s School Report 2021 found that seven in 10 autistic children and young people said school would be better if more teachers understood autism, and 54% of autistic students said having teachers who don’t understand them is the worst thing about school.

Indeed, autistic children are twice as likely to be excluded from school when teachers do not receive appropriate training. NAS is also concerned about the practice of ‘informal exclusions’ – where children are sent home and asked not to come in.

While this practice is illegal, the 2021 parent survey found that one in five parents had experienced their child being informally excluded in the last two years.

This finding shows that schools are not adjusting standard practices to meet the needs of autistic pupils. For example, sensory overload can lead to stress, anxiety and sometimes even physical pain. This can result in withdrawal, distressed behaviour or meltdowns. If teachers do not have autism knowledge, this could cause pupils to be suspended or excluded.

Many schools failing to make reasonable adjustments for autistic pupils

To create an inclusive school environment, changes must be made to make the environment less distressing for autistic students. For example, allowing autistic pupils to use fidget toys, implementing a relaxed uniform policy so that uniform does not cause physical irritation, and allowing students to leave the classroom early if they want to avoid busy and noisy corridors.

Autism training is therefore essential so that autistic pupils’ needs are understood, sensory overload is prevented and they are supported with exams and through key transition periods.

While schools have a duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments, NAS says many schools are not fulfilling this responsibility.

Max, a National Autistic Society Young Ambassador, explains how receiving the right support transformed his experience of school and learning.

“I had a really rocky start to my education. From being kicked out of preschool to falling into a cycle at primary school of rocking up at 9am, have a meltdown, being restrained and put in seclusion, and kicked off site with an exclusion for three days by 11am. Then coming back three days later to do it again.

“My diagnosis opened so many doors for me. I got support and went to a Pupil Referral Unit, where the staff were amazing and understood me, and I started to learn during the year I was there. Moving to my Specialist School for another year, I learned so much more, and not just academically. I learned a number of techniques in this supportive environment, which meant I could then go to a mainstream secondary school and attend university to study education, knowing the reasonable adjustments I needed to learn and be comfortable in my environment,” he said.

“Systemic reform” needed

The charity says there are some “immediate actions” teachers, schools and local authorities can take to address key issues, but it is clear that broader, systemic reform is needed.

To make this happen, NAS is calling on the government to:

  • Urgently commission a school places taskforce, to make sure all autistic children are placed in a school which supports their needs.
  • Create more provision like Cullum Centres – specialised units within mainstream schools which bridge the gap between mainstream education and alternative provision.
  • Collaborate with the Autism Education Trust to deliver mandatory autism training to all school staff.
  • Co-produce strategies at local and national level with autistic people and their families.

Tim Nicholls, Head of Influencing and Research at the National Autistic Society, said: “Every child should be able to get the education they need but as this report reveals, many autistic students are being failed and denied the most basic support, or adjustments at school.

“Seven in 10 autistic students are in mainstream schools, but only four in 10 teachers have received more than half a day’s training in autism. Autistic children deserve the right help at school, and teachers should be supported to provide this.”

Mr Nicholls says that all types of school now needs to implement autism-specific support and train their teaching staff so they are equipped with the knowledge and tools they need to support their autistic pupils.

“The Government has a long way to go – every teacher needs to understand autism, and every autistic child needs to get the right support at school. We won’t accept a world where autistic children miss out on an education, and families are left exhausted and on the brink of crisis,” he said.