Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological developmental condition which enables people to interpret and interact with the world differently compared to their neurotypical peers.
It is characterised by a broad range of conditions, including difficulties with social interactions, communication and sensory processing. This can make education particularly challenging, especially because of the complex social and sensory situations, which can cause a lot of confusion, stress and anxiety for young people with autism.
If you're fostering a child with autism, this guide will provide you with some useful ways to help your autistic child in school.
How does autism affect learning in school?
Children with ASD are disadvantaged by the school environment. This can make it extremely difficult for children with autism to engage in learning and cope with social interactions with their classmates.
Mainstream school vs special school
If the local authority is deciding between a mainstream or specialist school for the young person in your care, then understanding the SEN (special educational needs) facilities that each provides is key.
Whether your young person goes to a mainstream school or a provision that provides specialist education for autism spectrum disorders, there are still a number of ways you can help support them in their education.
Most importantly, your role in understanding and caring for your child and their unique abilities, needs and triggers will be key in enabling you to foster the best in them and advocate for them.
This is a regular school placement. Most mainstream schools can cater for moderate and mild learning difficulties and disabilities, such as dyslexia and dyspraxia. As autism is such a spectrum and each child will have their own unique challenges and abilities, understanding how they’d be able to manage the mainstream requirements and experiences will help you ensure they get the most out of their education.
Specialist schools provide specialised provisions that are tailored to a child's individual educational needs or disabilities, which would not be suited to or catered for in a mainstream setting.
There are a number of different types of specialist schools, which provide different SEN facilities. Ultimately, specialist schools for autism will understand and cater for the needs that cannot be met in a mainstream school environment.
6 Tips on how to help a child with autism in school
1. Understand Education, Health and Care Plans
An Education, Health and Care Plan (also known as an ‘EHCP’ or ‘EHC Plan’) is the legal document that sets out the plan for children and young people aged up to 25. This document is the agreement between the local authority, school, parent/carer and child on what additional support is needed and how this will be delivered.
Understanding the EHCP will allow you to know your foster child’s rights and what they are legally entitled to in the school environment. This could be anything from 1-2-1 support to details around what they should be working towards and the outcomes they’d like to achieve.
As a foster parent, you can be involved in reviewing this document each year and may suggest what you think they need to support their learning and development.
2. Understanding the role of a SENCO
A SENCO (special educational needs coordinator) is the person within the mainstream school that is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the school's SEN provision. This includes assessing, planning, monitoring, supporting children with autism and managing SEN policies.
Regular communication with your child’s school SENCO will enable you to understand more about your foster child’s education and experience at school. It’s also a great opportunity to discuss things that are working or not working, both in class and at home. Sharing this kind of information can help them find ways that work for your child in a school setting too.
Things will often work differently in specialist schools - as every child has an EHCP - but it is still important for you to communicate with the person who’s in charge of catering to your child’s needs.
A SENCO's main responsibilities are:
- Communicating with parents/carers and professionals
- Helping the teacher to assess children’s strengths and weaknesses
- Ensuring the child with SEN has their needs identified and met
- Managing learning support assistants or teaching assistants
- Providing and co-ordinating training for staff
- Updating and writing the school’s SEN policy
- Keeping records of all pupils with SEN and ensuring they are up-to-date
3. Routine is key
Ensuring your child has a school routine - and helping them understand what their routine looks like - will help to improve their school experience overall, including making it a little easier to get them there in the first place.
Talk to them about the school routines and what their morning routine will look like before going to school. Use signs and visuals to support their understanding of routines, key people and timetables. Be prepared to use these resources often to familiarise and re-assure them.
There are lots of great resources available including these
4. Managing anxiety about school
School can be a scary and demanding place for some autistic children. This can cause high levels of anxiety about going to school.
If your foster child refuses to go to school this may be down to anxiety. Triggers of anxiety vary but the underlying cause could be:
- Not understanding social cues
- Finding the school environment too noisy, busy or overwhelming
- Lack of understanding of the routine or structure
- Not being given processing time during changes or transitions, or when responding to questions or class work
- Communication is unclear and not able to interpret the meaning
It's also important to let your child know that you understand that they’re trying to communicate something to you, so they always feel heard.
Talk to the school's SENCO about your child's anxiety and work with them to find ways to understand it and help your child feel comfortable and safe in their environment. This should help get them back into school with SEN support.
5. Helping with changes and transitions
Changes to routine and transitions, such as changing schools or moving up a year, can impact your autistic child deeply, especially those in foster care who have already experienced such loss and instability.
Processing time is incredibly important during these times as it gives your child the chance to digest what is being asked of them. They also need a lot of reassurance and clear communication with the help of visual aids to help them understand what’s going to happen. ‘Now’ and ‘Next’ can be great resources when explaining a transition process.
The National Autistic Society have some great resources for both you and the school to help manage and understand changes and transitions.
Find out more here:
6. Managing autistic fatigue and burnout
Trying to fit into a world that’s not made for you can be exhausting. That’s why people with autism will often find a day at school or work much more tiring than their neurotypical peers. The pressures of social situations and sensory overload in the school environment can cause autistic fatigue. This can quickly lead to ‘autistic burnout’ if it’s not managed appropriately.
Signs of autistic fatigue and burnout:
- Increased behaviour issues such as meltdowns and/or sensory sensitivity
- Physical exhaustion, pain and headaches
- Shutting down, including the loss of speech
Being able to recognise early signs of fatigue will help your foster child as you can advocate for them at school and provide them with time to recuperate. If your child is at this point, talk to their school about recognising the sources of overload, reducing expectations and workload, and focus on increasing relaxation periods, using a sensory diet, stimming opportunities and time off where possible.
For more information about autism, education and fostering, head over to our
As the leading provider of therapeutic fostering, we've placed children at the centre of our thinking for over 35 years. During this time, we've developed a fostering service that surrounds our young people and their foster families with an integrated network of professional support.
Our 'Fostering Child With Complex Needs' series is packed full of advice and support from a whole range of professionals that foster parents can tap into. This includes social workers, fostering advisors, teachers and therapists, who all work with our foster parents and the children they look after, helping them understand and manage even the most challenging situations.
Marnie Clayton-Slater is a qualified therapist at ISP Fostering and a registered member of the BACP. She has over 20 years' experience working in residential, fostering and adoption, as well as being a foster parent herself. Marnie's passionate about working with care experienced young people and their foster parents, as well as supporting people with autism.
Could you give a child with AUTISM a home?
If you’d like more information about fostering a child with autism or the work we do at ISP, please get in touch with our friendly team today. We'll gladly answer any of your questions.
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