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Choosing primary schools for children with autism spectrum disorder

3-6 years

Choosing a primary school can be tricky when your child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Whether you decide on a mainstream or special school, your child has the right to the same educational opportunities as all other children.

Primary school options for children with autism spectrum disorder

All children in Australia over the age of six have to go to school, and your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) might have a range of primary school options.

Mainstream schools
Many children with ASD go to mainstream primary schools – that is, regular public and private schools for typically developing children. Your child might get additional support at a mainstream school, like specialist teachers, aides, training or resources, if she meets the criteria used by your state or territory education department.

The Education Standards in the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 set out the education rights of students with disabilities and say how schools must help students with disabilities.

Specialist units within mainstream schools
Some mainstream primary schools have classes specifically for students with ASD. This means your child could have some lessons in a mainstream class and get more specialist teaching and support in a specialist class.  

Special schools
Special schools are for children with special educational needs. Some cater for children with a range of needs like intellectual or physical disability. Others are specifically for students with ASD. In some states, children can split their week between special schools and mainstream schools. A few special schools offer boarding facilities. To go to a special school, your child will need to meet the school’s criteria.

Private or independent schools
These can be mainstream or special schools. They’re independent of state education authorities, but they still have to follow relevant laws on education rights, disability and discrimination.

Home-schooling
All children have the legal right to home-schooling. Families choose to home-school their child for different reasons, including distance from a suitable school, religious or cultural values, or the particular academic or behaviour needs of their child. If you choose this option you’ll need to follow certain requirements from your state or territory education department.

Children with ASD who are home-schooled need the chance to learn and practise their communication and social skills with children of a similar age through other types of activities.

Some types of school might not be available near you. Your early intervention provider will know what’s available in your area.

Things to consider when choosing a primary school

The first thing to think about is what you want for your child and what’s best for his needs.

The next step is finding out how and where you can access the schooling you think will be best. It’s a good idea to start looking for a school early, to give you and your child plenty of time to get ready for starting school.

Being able to talk with school staff about your child’s needs is important. When you’re looking at different schools, easy communication can be a good sign of whether a school will be right for your child. You need to be confident that you can talk to staff any time you have a concern and that they’ll be happy to listen.

When you’re choosing a school, you can also think about whether the school has access to specialist teaching and services like psychology, speech therapy and occupational therapy.

Other things to consider include whether the school will give your child the chance to socialise with children who don’t have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and to take part in extracurricular activities like music or sports.

Visiting primary schools you’re interested in
You’ll probably visit the school or schools you’re interested in well before you enrol your child. These tips can help you assess a school’s suitability when you visit:

  • Try to speak to class teachers and teacher aides, as well as the principal. This will help you see how open the staff are to two-way communication.
  • If possible, talk to parents of children with ASD or other additional needs at the school. You could ask them about their experiences of talking with teachers and other staff and how well the school has handled any concerns they’ve had. Your local ASD parent support group could help you meet other parents from the school.
  • Ask about how children’s progress is evaluated. This will give you an idea of how well the school adapts to the changing needs of children with ASD as they grow and develop.
  • Ask how the school responds to children’s varying needs. Not all children with ASD need the same style of teaching.
  • Ask to see some examples of how the school does its education plans for children with additional needs. This can help you see how relevant it would be for your child. Also ask how often the plans are evaluated and updated. 
  • Try to look at the playground at lunch or break time. This will give you an idea of the way other students behave. Ask whether there are structured activities for children at lunch and other breaks.

What the school will need from you

If you’re thinking of enrolling your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at the local government school, you need to contact the school well before the enrolment date. Non-government schools might have waiting lists or need you to enrol well in advance.

The school will need diagnostic and developmental assessments of your child to build an individual education plan. The school will also want to know about any additional funding or specialist resources that have been allocated to your child. The school might need to prepare an application for additional funding.

Much of this information will come from your early intervention provider or kindergarten teacher, but it’s always best to check.

You can also contribute to your child’s individual plan.

Starting school can be an anxious time for children and parents. The anxiety can be worse for families of children with ASD. Our article on starting school for children with ASD has tips on how to handle the move and when to start planning. 

State and territory education links

Australian Capital Territory

New South Wales

Northern Territory

Queensland

South Australia

Tasmania

Victoria

Western Australia

Video

Choosing primary schools for children with autism spectrum disorder

9:57

In this short video, parents talk about choosing a school for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They discuss the process of finding the right match for their child, and choosing between autism-specific schools or mainstream schools.

Other factors to take into account include where siblings go to school, home-schooling and social opportunities.

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Last updated or reviewed
02-06-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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