Primary school options for autistic children
All children in Australia over the age of 6 years have to go to school, and your autistic child might have a range of primary school options.
School options include:
- mainstream government schools, also called public or state schools
- mainstream private schools, which include Catholic schools and independent schools
- specialist units in mainstream government or private schools
- specialist government or private schools
- dual enrolment.
Mainstream government and private schools
Many autistic children go to mainstream primary schools. Your child might get additional support at a mainstream school, like specialist teachers, aides, training or resources, if your child meets the eligibility criteria.
Specialist units in mainstream government or private schools
Some mainstream primary schools have classes specifically for autistic students. This means your child could have some lessons in a mainstream class and get more specialist teaching and support in a specialist class.
Specialist government or private schools
Specialist schools are for children with additional educational needs. Some cater for children with a range of needs like intellectual disability, which can include autistic children. Others are specifically for autistic students. A few specialist schools offer boarding facilities. To go to a specialist school, your child will need to meet the school’s enrolment criteria.
All children have the legal right to home-schooling. Families choose to home-school children for different reasons, including distance from suitable schools, religious or cultural values, or their children’s particular academic or behaviour needs. If you choose this option you’ll need to follow certain requirements from your state or territory education department. You’ll also need to find ways for your child to learn and practise communication and social skills with other children.
In some states, children can split their week between different types of schools. For example, they might spend some of the week at a government specialist school and some of the week at a mainstream school or home-schooling. This is known as dual enrolment.
It’s a good idea to start thinking about school options at least two years before your autistic child is due to start school. This gives you and your child plenty of time to enrol and get ready for starting school.
Finding out about primary schools for autistic children
You can find out about local schools by talking to your child’s preschool teacher, professionals at your child’s early childhood intervention service, friends, an advocacy service, or your state or territory education department or Catholic or independent school association.
You can speak to the education department or search online for options outside your local area.
Once you’ve made a list of schools you’re interested in, school open days, tours and private visits will give you a feel for schools. It can help to take a friend or support person with you, so you can both gather information and discuss it afterwards.
You’ll get some sense of whether the school might be right for your child from the:
- welcome you and your child get
- principal’s approach to supporting children with disability and other additional needs
- principal’s responses to your questions
- school’s approach to education, diversity and inclusion
- experiences of other families.
It’s a good idea to ask for copies of school policy documents, including emergency procedures, management of medical conditions, bullying, attendance and student engagement. Check whether policies cover the needs of children with additional needs and ensure children’s inclusion in all aspects of school life.
If possible, try to look into some classrooms and be around the playground at lunch or break time. This will give you an idea of how children behave towards each other and how teachers guide children’s behaviour and interactions.
Our school selection checklist has some things to consider and questions to ask to help you find the right school. And our parent decision-making guide for children with additional needs can help you gather information and make good choices about a school for your child.
Questions to help you decide on primary schools for autistic children
Here are some questions that can help you work out whether schools are likely to meet your child’s needs. These questions can also help you get a sense of whether you and your child will feel accepted and supported at the school.
- How does the school develop individual learning plans for children with additional needs? Can we see some examples?
- How is children’s progress evaluated? How do school programs adapt to children’s changing needs?
- Are school staff trained to support the learning and development of autistic children, or are they willing to have training?
- How does the school encourage and support social interaction generally? How does it encourage typically developing children and children with additional needs to interact?
- How will my child be included in school camps, excursions and extracurricular activities like music or sports?
- Does the school organise structured activities for children at lunch and other breaks?
- Where can children go if they need quiet time?
Wellbeing and development
- What evidence-based practices does the school use to support autistic children’s learning, behaviour, communication, social interactions and so on?
- Will my child have the opportunity to demonstrate their strengths? How?
- Will my child have a targeted resilience program to support their emotional health and wellbeing?
- Does the school have access to specialist services like psychology, speech therapy and occupational therapy?
When you’ve decided on a school for your autistic child
When you think you’ve decided on a school for your autistic child, it’s best to contact the school as soon as possible to talk about enrolment. A year in advance gives most government or public schools time for planning and applying for funding. Private schools might have longer lead times or waiting lists.
Once you’ve enrolled, the school will work in partnership with you and your child’s other health professionals to develop your child’s transition plan, individual learning plan and other support plans for when your child starts school. The school might also need to make some adjustments so your child can participate fully in school. You’ll need to provide medical and developmental reports to help with this.
As the time for starting school gets closer, you can help things go smoothly for your child by building familiarity with the school, practising school routines and getting organised.