Children on the autistic spectrum

Education for children on the autistic spectrum by Alison Dukes

The term autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) covers a range of diagnosed difficulties including autism and Asperger syndrome which all have in common difficulties in social and emotional understanding, difficulties in all aspects of communication, and difficulties concerning flexibility in thinking and behaviour. Known as “the triad of impairments” these are often accompanied by additional problems or learning difficulties.

The special educational needs of those with ASD will vary depending upon each individual child’s strengths and difficulties. However, most have difficulties in processing social and emotional information and may require focussed help to access new information or develop the social skills and the understanding which other children learn intuitively.

Over the years there has been a huge growth in numbers of children receiving a diagnosis within the ASD spectrum. So what part does the law play in securing appropriate education for these children.

There is a general legal duty on the local education authority (the LEA) to make educational provision which meets the child’s special educational needs. There is, however, no duty to provide a child with the best possible education. Parents may feel themselves caught in a dilemma. On the one hand they may feel that their child’s school, teachers and assistants are doing their best, but on the other hand, they may have mounting concerns that the gap between their child and his or her peers is widening and that their child’s needs are not being adequately met due to lack of resources or appropriate specialism within their child’s school. In the writer’s experience the transition between primary and secondary school is often a particularly anxious time for parents of children with ASD.

All schools must maintain a register of pupils with special educational needs. This will describe those pupils as at “School Action” or at “School Action Plus” (SAP) in accordance with guidance in the published Code of Practice. At SAP it is expected that professionals outside the school, for example the LEA’s educational psychology team, will have some involvement with the child.

A parent (or a school) can request the LEA to carry out a Statutory Assessment of a child’s special educational needs. The LEA is required to do so where it considers that a child’s special educational needs may call for resources outside those expected to be available within the usual resources of mainstream schools. Carrying out a Statutory Assessment may or may not result in the LEA issuing a Statement of Special Educational Needs. If the LEA issues a Statement, this should be specific in its description of both the child’s special educational needs and the educational provision appropriate to meet them. The statement will also name the appropriate school placement for the child. An LEA is then legally obliged to ensure that the provision specified in the Statement is provided for the child.

A refusal to carry out a statutory assessment, or following the assessment, a refusal to issue a Statement, or the contents of a Statement, including the type of or particular school named by the LEA, can all legally be appealed by a parent. There are however strict time limits. The Appeal is heard by The Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SEND). This was set up by the Education Act 1993, is independent and sits with a legally qualified Tribunal Judge and two panel members.

Alison Dukes is an experienced Solicitor and member of AMD’s Family and Education Team. Alison can be contacted for advice on this article or other education matters on 0117 9621460 or by e-mail

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This article is provided for general information purposes only and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at the date of uploading. This article should not be relied upon as legal advice pertaining to any specific factual situation. Legal decisions should be made only after proper consultation with a legal professional of your choosing.

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