Why so many autistic children are failed by the school system

I was 13 when I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

I was hardly in school and, with an attendance of 54%, I was falling behind in my classes. Growing up I never hated learning. In fact, I loved it: I handed all of my homework in on time, was complicit in lessons and achieved good grades. But by the time I got to high school, actually attending classes seemed to be an impossible task.

The halls were crowded, people were difficult to navigate and exams were overwhelming (at one point, I got so overwhelmed that I kept writing the same sentence over and over in a German exam). I would get home from school unable to speak. I was so burnt out that I would lock myself in my room, draw the blinds and lie with my eyes closed trying not to scream.

I learnt that home was safe and school was not and I was willing to give up my aspirations in order to avoid it. But I soon found out that I wasn’t alone.

A 2020 study by UCL’s Division of Psychiatry found that 43% of autistic children were persistently absent from school. Refusal to attend was the main reason for days missed. Repeated absence meant autistic students’ risk of dropping out increased by as much as 28%.

The study also found that attending a mainstream school instead of a specialist school increases the risk of school truancy by almost 100%. Currently, according to the Department for Education, 71% of autistic children in England attend mainstream schools. So, with such a large proportion of autistic students, why is this still an issue? Why are we still ignored?

It’s clear that many mainstream schools feel unequipped to deal with autistic children. Ambitious about Autism, a charity for children and young people, found that 60% of teachers feel that they haven’t received enough training on educating those with autism. This means that oftentimes the children’s needs go unmet and they could fall in classes behind as a result.

Currently, there are no regulations to ensure that teachers are qualified enough to teach autistic students – teachers have to undergo a masters degree in special educational needs to truly learn how to help them. Ambitious about Autism also found that a shocking 4 in 10 students with autism wrongfully face temporary exclusion, and this lack of education may be why.

This needs to change – especially since autistic children are also more at risk of being bullied or struggling with friendship. The Autism Education Trust discovered that 40% of children with autism are bullied – and more than half of their parents said that this leaves them refusing to attend school. It’s difficult for other children to understand those with autism: there are often no classes teaching students about it and disability history is excluded from the curriculum.

Through bullying many autistic children learn to mask their symptoms. Masking severely affects mental health and creates burnout. Oftentimes after a day in school I barely got through the front door before a meltdown started. I wanted to avoid school because I saw home as a place where I didn’t need to mask.

I was lucky to eventually receive the correct support. I achieved my GCSEs and went to college, where this support continues. However, many autistic students still continue to struggle.

When students with autism are at a greater risk of dropping out and rates of permanent exclusion are still on the rise, we have to recognise the devastating impact this has on autistic futures and begin to consider how we can make a change.

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