How to get the right autism school...
Updated: Sep 30, 2018
So our son is in a specialist autism school sponsored by the National Autistic Society, how did we do it? how long did it take? Did we have to go to court? Read below to discover our journey in finding the right autism school for our son. A school that could handle his high academic ability along with his social difficulties and provide the therapies he needed.
When we moved back, we had a school in mind that seemed a perfect fit for our son. It appeared to tick all the boxes - a mainstream, with a specialist autism unit. We live on the border of 3 counties and it was not in our county. The school was over subscribed and they would not let us even come to visit. We didn't let this put us off and continued to pursue, we got all our friends to pray. We already had a statement of needs detailing the care he required. I believed with a statement that we would be able to get into our chosen school. We tried to get our local authority to help us view the school but it was a blanket no from the neighbouring authority.
Then the local authority told us we would have to go to our local mainstream catchment school. I was devastated, there was no way I could re-live what I had just been through again. I knew I would have to re-live it as this is how they gain evidence that the setting does not work. We already had a lot of evidence but at this point the case worker wasn't interested. I remember bursting into tears and trying to explain to our case officer that this would not work but for them cost is the priority - not the child. He could see he was smart and therefore there should be no issue going to a mainstream school as he did not have a learning disability (again underestimating his autism and not understanding that autism is a spectrum disorder). I was disappointed that the ideal school we had researched and looked at, was a dead end. We continued to pray.
Once I picked myself back up again, I then arranged appointments with the headteachers at our local catchment mainstream schools with my sons records. We had the evidence to show them directly how he copes in a mainstream setting (his incident report file) where he knew everyone and understood the schooling day. We had 2 catchment junior schools and there was another junior school with a specialist speech unit, so we visited them for good measure too. We had to prove what we already knew and had evidence for, to the local authority. I had to play there game.
Thankfully, with my husband working from home he could also attend these appointments and parents nearby, meant we had babysitters on hand. Each school we visited, refused to offer our son a place - it was a huge relief. Although academically he was a catch, socially and behaviourally they could not support or meet the needs on his statement. His previous school also told the local authority that our son needed to be placed in a specialist environment. Finally, the local authority agreed to a specialist place, but obviously time was passing by and he was not at any school.
Meetings with schools, them feeding back and then waiting for the authorities to have 'their meetings' to discuss our case all takes time, not forgetting all the chasing I did in the background to make sure our case was heard. I was thankful I had the evidence from his previous school - incident files etc to show the headteachers first hand, along with reports from the professionals who had been working alongside him and his statement of needs. The statement process is now different and it is called an EHCP (Education Health Care Plan). My son has now been moved to this. Having the Statement was key as it was underlined all his needs and what needed to be provided. Having your EHCP completely water tight, up to date with all needs etc is key to finding the correct school placement. It is worth spending the time and even money, on getting this document right as it is a legal document that a school must (should) adhere to.
It was difficult to try and start our new life as this needed to be sorted out. However I had a lot of friends praying that the right school for him would come up. I couldn't plug into church or the local community as I had hoped to make new friends - everything like that had to go on hold.
I researched specialist schools online and found one I thought was right. I called and arranged a visit the school and liked how they dealt with everything. I asked on a local support forum and had a mixed response. There were a few things I was a bit unsure of, looking back, but it felt like this school could be the one. It was the first specialist school I had seen that said it could handle the behaviours as well as his academic ability. The authorities sent over our paperwork and the school refused him a place.
I couldn't understand it and emotionally I was so upset - I was sure this would be the right one. Then there were several meetings between the school and the local authority to try and get this place. It was so hard and felt like endless waiting/chasing. Our prayer circle kept saying that the right school would come but it was hard to believe. Eventually the local authority agreed with the school. I remember being really upset and wondering now what school could he go to?
The Missed Education
The local authority tried to ask us to register our son at the local mainstream school, even though he would not attend, so that his records would show he was enrolled. Apparently this would benefit us, as he would then be able to access home support for his learning. We refused this, as this would just clear the blot of him having a school place from their records.
The local authority sent a home tutor around but she was not the right fit for our son. In the end we received some worksheets. This was the local authority's answer to his missed education.
We were tired of the waiting and no answers. We wrote to our MP detailing all that had occurred and asking him why can't we get a school place for our son?
Having him at home was difficult. Our eldest needed routine so we home schooled. I hadn't done a lot of research into this as at this point it was just a stop gap. It was hard. I had a toddler at home and our eldest wanted my constant attention, all the time. He became angry when I didn't do 'school' properly enough. I had to plan in lessons whenever I could get a spare moment for him to then refuse point blank to do them because of some benign reason. It was a time of fighting, research, proving and testing how far my patience could stretch.
We had another social services assessment for help - this time they came out but because we had a new car and a nice house, married, and had disability living allowance (DLA) for our son we were deemed as 'managing' - we just needed this magical 'school place' and all would be well. To them we needed to be spending his DLA on the charity support groups and play schemes. We had DLA but unfortunately a lot of the disability support is geared towards children with learning disability, which my son gets frustrated by. Also his anxieties are so high, I was unable to get him to leave the house to even try. I did try and explain that currently it was being spent on his schooling and not to finance our house or car but she had judged us and made her decision. Social Services can help families, at that point in time, by 1-1 carer support to stay with the child at home allowing the rest of the family a break or take said child out to an activity to allow rest bite. As a family we needed rest bite. Day to day was a lot easier now that he wasn't at school but he still had horrific meltdowns.
Our second son, was really struggling at his new school. This school was no where near as supportive as the last mainstream school. They insisted that our son only attend part time - without any legal documented paperwork - as he'd soon be moving onto junior school in the next term. I had one child there attending full time, him attending part time and my eldest losing the plot going to his brothers schools several times a day, whilst he didn't have a school place. It was not fair and had I not already been fighting a tough battle I would have fought this battle too. I still feel cross at myself for letting this go, it is illegal exclusion, but at the time I could only do so much (and they knew this). To find out about our second sons diagnosis, please read here
The Turning point...
Our MP received our letter and was not happy. He spoke directly to the director and they got a good kick up the backside. The local authority then allowed us to look at independent specialist autism schools, as they had nothing else to offer him that was suitable to his needs.
I happen to be looking at the National Autistic Society website and saw that they were opening a school up nearby. I never in a million years thought about my son attending one of their schools - I just thought you had to be extremely lucky to get into one of those schools - the NAS are the top autism charity in our country and their schools have the latest resources etc for autism.
Anyway, I put the school forward to the local authority and they forwarded our details to them. The headteacher called us and we had a meeting at our home, with our sons case file and he was offered a place. It felt right. The school sounded like just the place our son needed to be in. At this point they had a no exclusion policy which really appealed to me. The school hadn't even been built at this point but we felt confident that this would be the right place. It also made us feel that the waiting, the back and forth was for this reason - the right school for our son hadn't even been built - it was only in the planning stage but God knew.
The headteacher completely empathised with how much faith we were putting in the NAS and her school - Thames Valley, but we were also putting our faith in God. We accepted the offer and we went along and watched the first pods of his school being put together. We went to the 'lets meet' sessions and it was great to meet other parents in the same position although sad that some of these children had been out of school for even longer than our son.
We managed to get the right school for our son without having to go to court. We were extremely blessed that through all the waiting, it got to the point where we had our choice of independent specialist schools, the right school was being built and therefore was not yet over subscribed. The difficulties we had at mainstream were worth it, as it was all documented and counted as the evidence we needed. Following up all phone calls by email was worth it as there was no back pedalling. We requested a SARs report from the local authority. This was so we could see all the data that was held about our son from the local authority's point of view. This was interesting reading. The fighting for our son, the endless phone calls had paid off and our son had a school place. There was disappointment along the way but God had a better plan.
Our son is about to start his GCSE years at this school. It hasn't always been easy and he has had some hard lessons to learn along the way but those are his stories to tell and not mine. We will soon be looking at colleges and the next chapter of life which fills me with all sorts of emotions but I know I can trust God with my sons future and that He's got this.
So in brief, my tips to getting the right autism school
1. God! Pray about the right school and trust Him to answer it and in His timing.
2. Have your EHCP ready and up to date. Don't just take the Local authorities first draft, get it properly looked at and checked.
3. Back up all conversations by email - do not give them the opportunity to backslide. SARs requests are great especially if you feel something is not right/underhand.
4. Join forums and groups from other parents who have already fought the battle - their advice is free. Unfortunately tactics and game playing are part of this journey and they can offer encouragement to keep going, when you feel you can't.
Proverbs 3:5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean in your own understanding.
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