Autism in Schools

This case study forms part of the What Good Looks Like report on people with a learning disability and autistic people. This co-produced report was commissioned from the Building the Right Support (BTRS) Advisory Group, as part of the wider action plan developed by the Building the Right Support Delivery Board. It has been supported by Partners in Care and Health.

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The Autism in Schools (AiS) project's primary focus is autistic young people, however it is acknowledged that the work would meet the needs of a range of neurodiverse young people and those with additional needs. The project also aims to support parents and carers. This has been achieved by supporting parent carer forums to develop mini forums strengthening networks for parents, providing support and improving communication between parents and schools.

The AiS project initially commenced in North Cumbria and the North East in 2018, following on from the success of the project in the region, it was rolled out nationally across all seven regions of England.

The project is co-produced and based on what was learned from understanding the needs of autistic young people and listening to the voice of autistic young people and their families. The model describes three key elements to help implement practical ways schools could improve the experience for young people with autism.

  • building relationships and networks of support for school staff, health and social care professionals, parent/carers and autistic children and young people
  • developing learning opportunities for schools and parent carer forums
  • understand and promote the voice of Autistic children and young people.

The challenge

Autistic children and young people make up 75 per cent of admissions into mental health hospitals. Many children and young people had been excluded or out of school prior to admission. Parents reported missed opportunities, schools being unable to effectively support autistic children and young people and systems not being joined up, compounded by a lack of support networks for parents and families.

The solution

The main barriers that were overcome were as follows:

  • the capacity of parent carer forums to support the delivery of mini forums in schools
  • the ability of some schools to participate mainly due to changes in circumstance.

Key elements of the project include working with mainstream and special schools to improve knowledge and understanding of how to support autistic students and their families. This includes promoting a person-centred approach to working with autistic students in mainstream school so that teaching staff understand the challenges faced by individual students and are able to put reasonable adjustments in place where needed.

The work aims to enable autistic young people and their families to understand their own strengths and challenges; increasing confidence and self-awareness through the 'understanding myself' course and improving the working relationships between families and schools, through the creation of school-based support groups that offer peer-to-peer support and reduce isolation.

The AiS project ensures the development of integration between systems by delivering a comprehensive package which aims to improve networks and relationships across the system. By supporting education staff to increase their knowledge base, the modular training programme draws on experts within health and the voluntary care sector delivering specific autism training with a health and wellbeing and an education focus.

Similarly, the project also ensures the voice of children and young people and families are heard. AiS projects have connected with many services and groups beyond schools, parent carers, children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) and mental health support teams. By working together, we will be able to support the development of services for children and young people.


The impact

  • Reducing exclusions: "One of the headteachers of a school in the project phoned me after school one day and said, 'I need to talk things through with you. I’m about to permanently exclude a child,'… As we were talking, the headteacher said, 'Yes, we didn’t do that right, did we? No. We could have done that better. Ah yes, I see what effect that action must have had, yes. Okay.' They ended up not excluding at all and planning the reintegration meeting so that the young person could talk about how they felt about what had happened to them and they could plan a way forward.” (Trainer)
  • Wellbeing at home: "By improving the child's experience in those six hours … What I’ve actually seen now is that in three cases I had families where some of the children and their siblings were accessing respite and now they don't need that, don't want that because the actual family life is now settled, that the child is going home calm." (SENDCO)
  • Empowering parent carer voice: "This particular mum suffers hugely with anxiety… doesn’t like leaving the house, doesn’t access any kind of further support because she is so consumed with it. She attended yesterday with another parent… All the time she was shaking but she actually verbalised what she wanted to say… She went, 'I’ve got a wall. It’s about taking a brick off at a time.' … it was so heart-warming and I got a little bit emotional that she felt so confident to be able to take herself out of her comfort zone and actually attend this for her child. She said, 'I’m here. What else is out there for my son? What can I do to make sure that he gets everything that he needs?' She did say to me, she went, 'I felt quite empowered because you listened to me.'” (PCF Lead)
  • School staff empowered to support young people: "I think for us, having that staff development has been amazing… actually teachers coming back and saying, 'That I found really useful,' or, 'I’ve actually implemented that now into my classroom and now I have more awareness of this child and how to support.' … the special needs schools are oversubscribed so as mainstream schools, we are seeing a lot more children with social communication needs and being trained and equipped into supporting those children, it just makes the teachers feel empowered." (SENDCO)
  • The beginnings of culture change: There was a lot of commentary in our school about, well maybe it's a parenting problem because we're not seeing this at school. Not that people were deliberately judgmental, but I think there was a certain need for just changing our stance a little bit and showing a bit of professional humility. By creating a culture within the school now of trusting families and being willing to make adaptations just because of maybe, we've now seen that we can impact a child's whole life." (SENDCO)

What makes it good?

The things that worked well and made a difference were as follows:

  • building relationships and networks of support for school staff, health and social care professionals, parent/carers and autistic children and young people
  • developing learning opportunities for schools and parent carer forums
  • understanding and promoting the voice of autistic children and young people
  • co-production: Working together with the parent carer forums to develop the project  listening and responding at every stage with families, young people educators and experts.
  • joining things up: Peer support, networks collaborating across education health and care.
  • early intervention: Getting it right before challenges become embedded and lead to crisis.
  • autism positive: Using constructive language and approaches to neurodiversity that worked.