Secondary school options for autistic children
There are various secondary school options in Australia. They include:
- mainstream government schools, also called public or state schools
- mainstream private schools, which include Catholic schools and independent schools
- specialist government or private schools
- distance education
- dual enrolment.
Mainstream government and private schools
Many autistic children go to mainstream secondary schools, either government or private. Mainstream secondary schools support autistic children in various ways. For example, in some mainstream government secondary schools, children attend special classes as well as some mainstream classes. Or the schools might provide aides or extra teachers to support autistic students in mainstream classes.
Specialist government or private schools
Specialist secondary schools cater specifically for children and teenagers with additional needs. These schools have rules about who can go to them. Some schools are for children with intellectual disability, which can include some autistic children. Others are specialist schools for autistic children.
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 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.
Distance education programs are designed for children who can’t go to school or take part in regular classes. This might be because they live remotely or find school difficult. Teachers often do distance education classes online, but they can also send printed material to your child. There are rules that say who can enrol in a distance education program.
In some states, children can split their week between different types of schools. For example, they might spend some of the week at a mainstream school and some of the week home-schooling. This is known as dual enrolment.
All children have the right to a place in their designated government secondary school. The Disability Standards for Education in the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 set out the rights of students with disability. The Standards say how education providers, like schools, must support these students.
Choosing secondary schools for autistic children: when and how to start
It’s a good idea to start thinking about secondary schools when your child is in Year 5.
You can get started by finding out about schools that might suit your child. Look at school websites for information, talk to other parents and your child’s primary school teacher, and ask your child what they think.
Many schools hold open days, information evenings and tours in April or May each year. Going along to school information evenings or open days will give you and your child a general feel for schools and an idea of their facilities. These are also good opportunities to meet the principal, year coordinator and special education coordinator and see how they welcome your child and respond to your questions.
You can also make private appointments at any time to visit schools and talk to key staff about support programs and policies. If possible, it’s good to make your appointment for lunch or break time. You might be able to see how children behave towards each other and how teachers guide children’s behaviour and interactions.
By the end of Year 5, you could aim to have a short list of schools. And when your child is in Year 6, visit the schools on your short list and listen to your child’s feedback.
Note that different schools have different application and enrolment timelines, so it’s important to check when paperwork is due.
It’s good to involve your child in making decisions about big issues like secondary schools. Involving your child will help you choose an option that both you and your child are comfortable with.
Things to consider when choosing secondary schools for autistic children
When you’re choosing a secondary school for your child, many of the things you need to think about are the same for all children. They include:
- school facilities
- your child’s strengths and interests
- your child’s preferences
- your family’s broader needs.
In addition, it’s a good idea to find out about the resources and programs that schools can offer to support your child’s specific needs in relation to learning, social relationships, independence, wellbeing and so on.
Finding out about secondary school support for autistic children
Here are questions that can you help you get a feel for how schools might include and support your child.
- How does the school communicate with parents?
- How do teaching staff share information with each other about how autistic students handle different situations and tasks?
- How does the school engage parents and students in decision-making and planning?
Curricular and extracurricular activities
- Are autistic students fully included in all curricular and co-curricular programs (school clubs, student council and so on), wherever possible? Are there alternatives or adjustments made for autistic students?
- Does the school give autistic children the chance to do work experience?
- What does the school offer during free times at school? For example, are there any clubs and extracurricular activities like walking groups, book clubs, gardening or music programs?
Inclusion practices, policies, expectations and attitudes
- How many autistic students and students with additional needs does the school have? What types of additional needs do children at the school have?
- What policies does the school have to support autistic students?
- What does the school expect from autistic students? For example, what is the school attendance policy for students with additional needs?
- Is there a positive and accepting attitude towards diversity in the school community? What is the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion policy?
- What’s the school’s bullying policy, and how is it enforced?
- What’s the school’s policy for allowing external professionals like therapists and clinicians to advise staff and/or participate in programs?
- What policies and strategies does the school have to support students with complex communication needs?
Resources and practical support for students
- What resources and facilities are available for autistic students? For example, are there independent study rooms or sensory rooms with fluorescent lights turned off?
- What types of support services and wellbeing, pastoral care or peer mentoring programs does the school have?
- Does the school have a staff member experienced in working with autistic students who can be your child’s main contact?
- Will teachers help autistic students self-manage, so students can get the most out of classroom and other activities? For example, if a student uses a timer to focus on specific activities, would teachers support this?
- How does the school monitor students leaving the school grounds at the end of the day? For example, do teachers supervise students at the school gates or students getting on school or public buses?
- What support is available to help autistic children move between different classrooms?
- What resources are available to help students with making friends?
Sensory processing issues and needs
Is the school willing to cater for the sensory needs of autistic children by:
- allowing regular movement breaks when needed?
- adjusting the lighting, heating or cooling in classrooms, or cutting down background noise from air conditioners, ceiling fans or other noisy sources?
- seating students in classroom areas that are most likely to reduce the students’ social anxiety?
- limiting physical contact if children don’t like being touched?
- putting colourful artwork and other bright objects in places where they’re less likely to distract or overwhelm autistic students?
- encouraging students to use coping strategies like listening to music on headphones, bringing comfort items into the classroom, or doodling?
- adjusting classroom and furniture layout to reduce distractions and help with organisation?
For some autistic children, the transition to secondary school might be easier if they’re going to the same school as their friends. This can increase children’s wellbeing, confidence and sense of belonging to the secondary school community. Other autistic children might like the idea of a fresh start away from children from their primary school.